On a Saturday night in 1980, as the nation watched The Late Late Show, Gay Byrne introduced the final segment of the night, saying: “Now ladies and gentlemen our final guest is Joni. I am not going to tell you Joni’s surname, but Joni is a lesbian and she wants to talk to us about the situation she finds herself in being a lesbian.”
I was sitting on the floor by the fire in my pyjamas, my parents on their chairs either side of me, my brothers lined up on the sofa, and I wondered if they could hear my heart hammering.
I knew I was different, I knew I liked other boys, and I’d heard of lesbians, girls who liked other girls, but up until that moment the only homosexual I had ever seen on TV was a high-camp figure of fun on a sitcom called Are You Being Served?, who made me feel sick about myself.
A man came up to me in a bar, and he said, ‘I always wanted to meet you and say thanks, because you saved my life
“You don’t have any reservations about talking to us?” Gay asked the young woman sitting opposite him. She smiled, looked him in the eye, and said, “No.”
1980 was a bleak time if you were gay in Ireland. Seven years before David Norris brought and won European Court of Human Rights case against the Irish government for the criminalisation of homosexuality, and 13 years before decriminalisation legislation was passed in 1993, there was nevertheless a sturdy band of activists pushing the agenda forward. Joni’s decision to share her life with the millions of Irish viewers who religiously watched The Late Late Show, was born of this movement.
“I came out in London in 1975,” she tells me, as she pours me a coffee at the kitchen table in the Co. Leitrim house she shares with her wife, Mary. “I was living with my brothers, who’d moved over there because there was no work in Dublin. I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me that space to be myself, for not judging me. I read about the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM) in Gay News in London, and when I came back home, I went straight there.”
So began an engagement with the fledgling gay rights and women’s movements in Ireland, which included seven years working as telephone counselor on the Lesbian Line.
“I heard a lot of stories,” she says. “They were very tough times. The people who had it hardest were where their families were very religious, or they were very nationalist. My family wasn’t that religious. When evening mass was introduced my mother would get a headache at five o’clock, and she’d be alright by the time Glenroe came on.”
Religious or not, Joni’s family, who’d lived for two generations on Macken Street in Dublin’s south inner city, were in turmoil when, approached by a TV show called The Live Mike to star in a mini-documentary segment about her life, Joni said yes. She’d already appeared with other members of the IGRM on radio shows with Marian Finucane, Pat Kenny and Mark Cagney, so she thought she was ready for the next step.
“From David Norris’ law reform campaign, going to those meetings, hearing the different points of view, going to the feminist meetings, I had things worked out,” she says. “I felt I was keyed up and able to answer things and say, ‘We’re normal, we’re part of the spectrum of sexuality, we’re not sick, we’re not perverted, and we should be changing the law’.
“I went to my family and told them it was happening, and they were in an awful state. They thought they were going to be burnt out, that the priest was going to come to the house, that the neighbours were gong to ostracise them. We’d made plans to be there to support each other when it went out on television, in case anything happened.”
However, the powers at RTÉ decided a segment about a lesbian had too much adult content for The Live Mike, which was broadcast pre-watershed, and to Joni’s disappointment, it was dropped. And then The Late Late came calling.
This time, Joni didn’t give much advance warning to her family. “I told my sister a couple of hours beforehand to tell my parents I was going to be on, but she thought that like the other thing, it would never be shown, so she didn’t say anything. So, they watched as they always did, not knowing I was going to be coming on... I’m not going to tell you Joni’s surname, but Joni is a lesbian.”
RTÉ rang to see if I’d lost my job, they wanted me to come on the Six O’Clock News. They sounded disappointed when I told them I hadn’t.
Forty years on, when Joni remembers this moment, she’s a ball of energy. Walking into the studio lights, she knew her life would never be the same again, but she had no idea whether that would be a good or a bad thing.
“There was no escape,” she says. “It was like being in the electric chair. I’ve looked at it since, and it looks like I’ve been doing this every day of the week, I seem so calm. But I was terrified.”
For all her terror, from the outset Joni had a clear agenda. “I wanted to talk about the work we were doing, about the Lesbian Line, the Hirschfield Center, David Norris’ campaign. I wanted to tell gay people looking at it that things were happening.”
Things didn’t go Joni’s way, though.
“To start off, I felt like he [Gay Byrne] was friendly and supportive, and I expected him to be liberal and accepting. From my talks with the researcher, I felt he was giving me a platform, and that he was pro-gay rights. I was steeling myself, reminding myself that I was doing this for other people, and I held his eye. A voice inside me said, keep going, keep answering the questions, don’t fluff it.
“Up until about half way through, it felt like it I was getting to say my piece, but then it began to feel like an interrogation. I wanted him to wrap up on my personal story and get on to the movement, what I was there to really talk about. Looking back on the video now, there’s a point when I look angry with him, and I’m thinking, ‘fuck this, he’s not keeping with the contract, this is not what I’m here for. I’m not here to be used and exposed as the lesbian.’ I felt that he was going in underneath, trying to get me to break down, and it was excruciating.”
As the interview was winding down, Joni took her best shot. “When you say you’re proud of it, are you really, Joni?” Byrne asked.
“I’m very glad that I am [lesbian] because now it’s 1980; now there is a gay rights movement which has been alive since 1969; there is a women’s movement which is supportive; there is a radical movement looking for change especially in this country, so it’s easier now,” Joni replied, and then Byrne wrapped the interview up, telling her she was “very courageous to have come to us”.
However, for all her courage going on the show, it was the aftermath of her appearance that tested the depths of Joni’s metal.
“After the interview, as I was getting ready to go home, thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’ Was there going to be people protesting, was I going to be beaten up on the street?
The next week was just terrifying. I was afraid to go out. Getting recognised on the street, people giving you dagger looks, spitting on the path. I had a flat on Camden Street and one of the women who sold vegetables on the street said she ‘wouldn’t serve the like of that’. The next woman along – I’ll never forget her face – said: ‘You’re alright, love, don’t mind her.’
At her workplace that Monday, the Managing Director called her to his office. Looks were exchanged between the staff and Joni knew everyone thought she was for the chop.
“Up I went to his office, thinking I’m going to get the unions on my side, I’m going to take a case,” she remembers. “He sat me down and said, ‘Well done, Joni, I admire your courage. If you get trouble from anyone here, or any of our clients, you come straight to me’.
“RTÉ did rang to see if I’d lost my job, they wanted me to come on the Six O’Clock News. They sounded disappointed that I hadn’t, and I asked them if it was news that I’d kept my job. Of course it wasn’t.”
One of the neighours on Macken Street said to her mother: ‘I saw your Joni, on the Late Late. Well able to speak up for herself. God love ya, Bridie, if it was one of mine, I’d be mortified.’
My mother called to my flat to tell me that all this talking in public would have to stop, and if it didn’t then she was going to start an anti-gay organisation.
Joni’s mother went on the warpath. “My mother called to my flat to tell me that all this talking in public would have to stop, and if it didn’t then she was going to start an anti-gay organisation.”
Ironically, she turned up at Joni’s place just after a Gay Pride demonstration, and there was a small party going on. “A friend came in, a well-known actor that my mother admired. There was lots of good-natured slagging and camp humour. David [Norris] chatted to my mother and was his usual charming witty self, and she couldn’t help herself. I saw her smiling and laughing. I heard no more talk of anti-gay activities after that.”
Joni’s experiences before and after The Late Late Show make up the backbone of her play, Anna Livia Lesbia, which tours Ireland this month. She balanced her job as a drama therapist in Omagh with a residency at Manorhamilton’s The Glens, to write it.
“There was somebody on the radio after the marriage equality referendum who said it was the best campaign for the LGBT community since the fight for gay rights began in 1993. So, I said I have to write this,” Joni laughs. “I’m not trying to tell the whole story or everyone’s story, but I’m trying to tell the stories of lesbians who came out in the ’70s and ’80s, and the few of us who did so publically, with parts of my own story through it. There are ten actors. It’s documentary style, and it starts with an older character looking back, which is me looking back on my story, and then there are other stories woven in. It goes up to The Late Late and finishes in 1991.”
It’s 40 years since Joni’s appearance on The Late Late Show, yet people still recognise her from it.
“I might be sitting in a restaurant and somebody will say, ‘Excuse me, are you Joni? I saw you on The Late Late and it helped me.’
“A man came up to me in a bar, and he said, ‘I always wanted to meet you and say thanks, because you saved my life’. It changed his life, and his family, and he thought he wouldn’t have been alive but for it. I was hoping it would have an impact, I was hoping it would change people’s awareness and attitudes, but I wasn’t expecting that.
“I kind of feel like it was a pebble in a pond and that it had loads of ripples that I didn’t even know about. I’m proud of it.”
Anna Livia Lesbia tours Ireland in June and July, beginning in Dublin on June 28, 8pm at Liberty Hall (tickets from
theglenscentre.com), then travelling to Sligo’s Hawkswell Theatre (July 1, 8pm); The Linnenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar (July 3, 8pm); Longford’s Backstage Theatre (July 5, 8pm); Galway’s Townhall Theatre (July 7, 8pm), splodar.ie