10 Oct 2012
For those of you in the Wicklow/Arklow area, A Liberating Party:Emerging LGBT Pride In Ireland is an exhibition currently running at The Gallery in Arklow's Bridgewater Shopping Centre and continuing till Oct 18th.
Charting the emergence of LGBT Pride in Ireland since the early 1970s, historian and GCN founding editor, Tonie Walsh, has curated an evocative exhibition of materials drawn from the collections of the Irish Queer Archive/ Cartlann Aerach na hÉireann at the National Library of Ireland. Also included in the exhibition is Everybody's Diary, a ledger of ongoing Pride testimonials launched in 2003 and that has toured the country inviting contributions.
The critically acclaimed exhibition was originally commissioned by Thisispopbaby for the
Queer Notions festival of 2009. It has since toured to Tallaght Library, Cavan County Library, Wexford Arts Centre, and Kilkenny.
Admission is free and open to the general public 10.00-12.00h and 14.00-1600h daily.
The exhibition was brought to Arklow by the newly formed local LGBT group, Arklow LGBT Drop-In Group, which was set up by Dave Thomas and Patrick Bracken who were the first gay couple in Arklow to get a Civil Partnership. That's Dave and Thomas in the pic below on the right, along with Arklow's Mayor Dempsey and exhibition curator Tonie Walsh at the exhibition opening.
(pic: Garrett Byrne)
And while we're at it, you might enjoy Tonie's essay, Homosexuals Are Revolting, from the introduction to the exhibition catalogue.
HOMOSEXUALS ARE REVOLTING
Often considered a cultural and political backwater, Ireland nevertheless experienced the ripple effects of Stonewall '69 and the women's liberation movement from the get-go.
Provoked and encouraged by events States-side and indeed the burgeoning civil rights movement on its own doorstep, Queen's University Belfast played host to the foundation of Ireland's first gay civil rights group, Belfast Gay Liberation Society (GLS), which was quickly followed by the establishment of a similar group, Sexual Liberation Movement (SLM), at Trinity College, Dublin. These two pioneering groups would later spearhead the first all-Ireland get together of lesbians and gay men, and facilitate the emergence of a pan-sexual civil rights organization on the island of Ireland.
On Saturday 27th June 1974, eight members of GLS and SLM organized the first public gay rights demo at the Department of Justice and the British Embassy in Dublin. There the brave little group, that included both Jeff Dudgeon and David Norris (who would go on in later years to respectively and successfully sue the UK and Irish governments over nasty Victorian legislation), proclaimed "Homosexuals Are Revolting" and "Lesbian Love". Pride has manifested itself in many self-deprecating, wonderful, angry, joyous, emotional and even traumatic moments since that first outing.
Co-incidentally, at the same time across the Irish Sea, the Gay Liberation Front was busy organizing London's own gay rights march/parade.
In subsequent years Dublin Pride was generally marked by a press statement from the Irish Gay Rights Movement, usually drawing attention to the unjustness of the afore-mentioned anti-gay criminal legislation. The human and economic resources necessary to organize a significant Pride day - let alone week of events - only became available with the emergence of the Hirschfeld Centre, Dublin's LGBT resource in Temple Bar, when the National Lesbian & Gay Federation (then known as NGF) organized the first large-scale demo in Dublin's city centre on Saturday 28th June 1980, four days after Trinity College English lecturer, David Norris, launched his constitutional action in the High Court.
Do twenty people constitute ‘large scale'? It sure felt like that to those of us out on the streets: compelled by the innocence and anger of youth and the certainty of our ‘cause' as we wandered around the city centre with hundreds of pink carnations, asking people to wear them as a sympathetic buttonhole and then palmed them with leaflets explaining the history of the Stonewall Riots and the assertion that "Gay Rights: It's Time, Gay Rights Are YOUR Rights!".
Records of the Dublin Pride organising committee of 1980 (and indeed later years), kept at the Irish Queer Archive/National Library of Ireland, are a testament to the righteous anger, defiant pride and ever-increasing visibility of our LGBT brothers and sisters.
And remarkably (given the grim economic times) they are also an exercise in determined, anticommercial diversity and inclusiveness: cinema screenings, pub crawls, a picnic at Merrion Square, ecumenical service, bus outing to Glendalough, art show, all-night disco (with unwaged rates)...all on a budget of a few hundred punts.
At the dawn of the 1980s it wasn't a great time to be publicly gay in Dublin or Belfast, let alone anywhere else in Ireland. Lesbians were invisible to all intents, except in custody cases where, with rare exception, they were denied custody and access to their children. Gay couples could not marry, adopt children, qualify for social housing, get tax relief or social welfare benefits. Openly gay people risked being denied promotion at work, or at worst fired from their jobs. Many bars refused to serve lesbians and gay men (or individuals who looked "gay") and some hotels felt obliged to call the Gardaí/RUC whenever two men booked a hotel room together.
The same laws that sent Oscar Wilde to prison, and which were responsible for countless numbers emigrating from Ireland in search of more socially liberal environments, cast a long shadow over Irish society. Guys were routinely jeered at on the streets, or beat up and murdered just for being gay, and in the absence of equality legislation there wasn't much one could do about it. There were no positive role models for LGBT people in the education system; even popular culture was slow in addressing the evidence of our lives [The Evening Herald deigned to use the word "gay" as infrequently as possible and even by the end of the decade was still using the label in inverted commas].
As for transsexuals....the term and concept had barely registered, even amongst gay people.
The horrific murder of young Declan Flynn in Fairview Park and subsequent release of his assailants on suspended manslaughter sentences (after having impressed the judge with their homophobic vigilante credentials) angered people sufficiently to mass an enormous public demonstration against anti-gay and anti-women violence. Between six and eight hundred people (depending on one's sources) marched on a freezing cold, bitter 19th March 1983 from Liberty Hall to Dublin's Fairview Park. It was a transformative moment that would feed directly a few months later into Ireland's first, proper Pride march; setting in motion a tradition of marches and parades that we have become so familiar with today.
That first Gay Pride Protest March - as it was tellingly known - brought together over two hundred people from Belfast, Cork and Dublin on a fabulously sunny Saturday afternoon (Although the Gardaí were miffed about our demands to trot down newly pedestrianised Grafton Street, the reaction from people was generally good). At the finish on O'Connell Street, Ireland's first public lesbian, Joni Crone, was one of three speakers to address an electrified audience, also rededicating the G.P.O. as the "Gay Person's Organisation".
Throughout the following decade and the lead up to 1993, before law change and the subsequent introduction of minority protection, those early Pride events felt more like marches and protests than the parades and parties they have now become. One's sense of pride was truly shaped by protest.
With sublime timing, it fell to Justice Minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to introduce the Sexual Offences Bill (establishing a common age of consent for all Irish citizens and also redefining prostitution as a gender neutral concept) during Lesbian & Gay Pride Week 1993. As ecstatic revellers converged on Dublin's Central Bank Plaza, the common refrain heard was "What Did We Want? Equality! When Did We Get It? Yesterday!".
The long shadow of criminality that pervaded and infected so much of society, even if it didn't quite put so many of us in prison, was finally extinguished when President Mary Robinson (she who had fought so tenaciously since 1977 to abolish all discriminatory archaic legislation) signed into law the Sexual Offences Act on 7th July 1993.
Changing the criminal law may have had little immediate effect on the lives of gay men but it clearly signalled a change in how mainstream society addressed our existence. It also fuelled a desire among Irish people to overcome what some perceived as inexcusable ignorance of sexual/cultural diversity.
Moreover we began to engage more meaningfully with other marginalised minorities, notably our transgendered brothers and sisters.
Nowhere was this more evident that in the explosion of social services; more clubs and bars, better club nights, cafés and restaurants touting for our business and not merely tolerating us, positive role models in every aspect of popular culture, fashion outlets that would never have dared advertise in a "queer" mag finally, if sometimes reluctantly, jumping on board...and so on.
Is it co-incidence that this flourishing of cultural diversity and social inclusion evolved just at the time that beast known as The Celtic Tiger began to roar and tens of thousands of new Irish, especially those wonderfully urbane and sophisticated central Europeans and Latin Americans, arrived on our little damp rock in the Atlantic, bringing with them a whole new baggage of fabulousness (and possibly better skin, to boot)?
Whatever, the end of the century seemed to signal a new reality among Irish people of the needs, desires and lingering fears of its hitherto marginalised sexual minorities. Moreover, successive political adminstrations found the temerity and courage to introduce a range of anti-discrimination measures, especially around access to services and protection in employment, and most notably the Civil Partnership and Cohabitants Act (that finally became law in 2010).
However exciting the changes and advancement wrought in Irish society, two major issues await society's approval and acceptance: marriage equality and the full legal recognition of transsexuals. All the signs point to a not-too-distant future where we will accommodate both. When that happens we will proudly take our rightful place at the centre of social democracy in Europe. More importantly, we will have finally and emphatically proven a basic tenent of Irish society: namely our infinite capacity for fair play and justice.
As we await that coming moment, look around and marvel at the distance we've travelled in such a relatively short time. The wonderfully exciting development of Pride festivals and other events across the island of Ireland- not unlike that which we're experiencing here, right now, at Arklow -is surely proof positive of Ireland's coming of age in the modern era.