The inimitable Will St Leger is a familiar fixture on Dublin’s queer scenes. Whether recognisable for his provocative street art, his live music performances or his voice on the radio, he is synonymous with LGBT+ life in the capital. He is equally recognisable for his tireless activism and his struggle to achieve equality for his queer family, whether through sexual healthcare access, equal marriage or a greener planet.
And now the man who has done so much for his community will be celebrated as they celebrate, leading the Parade, or, as this is Will after all, the march, on June 29, as we reclaim O’Connell Street and pass the GPO from which the rainbow flag will fly.
In the run up to what will no doubt be a monumental day, Will spoke about the early beginnings of his activism.
“From the time I was 16 I was involved in environmental activism. I’d always admired Greenpeace from when I was a kid. They always seemed to be on the frontline - the actual, physical, putting yourself on the line. There’s a lot of bravery in that. Being an activist has challenged a lot of fears I have about being an active citizen. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it, there’s always butterflies in your stomach because you are essentially a person going against a corporation or a government. You’re speaking to power in a non-violent way.”
In 2009, Will, along with members of Equals – the LGBT+ direct action group he co-founded - staged an action at the entrance to the Dáil over the inequality of the Civil Partnerships Bill. While members chained themselves to the railing, Will climbed onto one of the gate’s pillars, remaining there for over two hours until being arrested by the police.
What drives him, I ask, when sometimes it can seem like a battle with no end. “It might sound naive but I do genuinely think we can create a society and a world where each person benefits the most they can. I want the best outcome for everybody.”
In recent years, Will has become a member of ACT UP Dublin - the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. He explained his impetus to get involved, “In 2016, I saw the numbers jump right up in terms of reported HIV diagnoses. That was shocking to me. I looked up activists on Twitter - this guy called Adam Shanley (now the MSM Programme Manager of HIV Ireland) I asked him, ‘Is there any way I can help? Is there anything I can do as an artist?’
“Primarily the motivation had been more of a personal one because whilst I had known people with HIV, I realised I didn’t know shit about it. A lot of it was challenging my own bias. I never felt I stigmatised people but I certainly had fears and anxiety around HIV. I don’t have it now, because knowing that people living with HIV on effective treatment can not pass it on, and also taking responsibility for my own sexual health through taking PrEP everyday and getting tested regularly, my fear has disappeared completely.”
Will continued, “I saw a tweet where somebody mentioned Robbie Lawlor of ACT UP Dublin. Throughout the ‘90s I had heard of ACT UP. For me as a visual artist I was always impressed by their ability to create clear concise messages. They are great advertisers. And also, they shut shit down. I went to the second meeting and it was Andrew Leavitt and Tom Strong and Robbie - four of us. I said at that meeting I will throw everything I have into this.”
At a previous interview with Bruce Richman (Executive Director of Prevention Access Campaign’s U=U) when he came from New York to attend the Gay Health Forum in Dublin Castle, he told me that Irish activists were one of the first groups to get behind the U=U message.
U=U, or Undetectable Equals Untransmittable, means that a person with HIV who has an undetectable viral load can not pass the virus onto a partner.
Many still do not comprehend how life changing that fact is. Will is passionate about that lack of information. “It baffles me that those decades where people have died, decades of fear and discrimination, and we had come come to 2016/2017 with the fact that U=U was a thing, and all of these groups, organisations, corporations who have influence weren’t grabbing onto it and saying ‘This is the most incredible thing we’ve heard’.
“U=U is about life. I have a friend who’s having a second child this year, he’s HIV Positive and undetectable - and there’s a zero risk of him passing it on to his child. It’s a hugely significant scientific breakthrough.”
In the days before we go to press, the Irish Government announced a €450k boost to HIV prevention strategies with the Fast-Track Cities initiative. Aiming to support community HIV awareness and testing in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, as well as a national stigma reduction campaign, to be delivered by the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme with HIV organisation partners in each city. Minister for Health, Simon Harris, stated the funding would also go to support the promotion of a PrEP programme, something that ACT UP have been advocating for years.
It’s not all that simple though, as Will informed, “If we do not fix the public sexual health system in this country, the PrEP program is not going to have the impact it’s supposed to have. The person on low income, the people in Direct Provision, they rely on a system where they can get free access to sexual healthcare. We have ten counties in this country with no sexual health clinics at all. Some people have to travel an hour to get there, and even if you get in, there can be waiting lists of up to eight weeks.”
As someone who focuses so much on the wellbeing of others, how did Will feel when he was asked to be Grand Marshal? “I had to do a double take. The idea of Grand Marshal never ever crossed my mind. So I was shocked, but being the type of person that I am, I thought ‘how am I going to use this to further the issues that I care about?’ So I flipped it straight away so it was not about me.”
For this year’s Dublin Pride celebrations, they honour the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. The theme of the event - Rainbow Revolution - a direct inspiration. I ask does that significant anniversary have an effect on how Will looks at this year’s celebration?
“I think we should have everyday Stonewall,” he replies. “Look at what it represented in terms of a tipping point. An uprising, a riot, whatever you want to call it, it was a change in how LGBT+ people thought about agency, about fighting back. I’m not going to tell people how it should or shouldn’t be, but if you want to take the spirit of Stonewall and apply that to yourself - when you hear somebody use pejorative words to LGBT+ people - call that out and say we don’t accept that language in our community. Don’t shame people you see in the clinic for looking after their sexual health. What’s backing you up is a community who won’t accept being trivialised and having violence used against us and being treated the way we were in the past. Everyday Stonewall is also using knowledge as power. Undetectable equals Untransmittable.”
And with that, we finish our chat with Will proving, if ever more proof was needed, that the Pride committee made the right choice.