One of a kind - that’s the phrase you could use to describe LINC. For almost 20 years the Cork jewel has been the only community development organisation working exclusively with lesbian and bisexual women in the Republic of Ireland. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of women have been supported and assisted during that time, and thousands more have found friends, family, a safe space, a lifeline and a home.
Ask many queer women, and they will describe passionately how much it has meant to them. That passion and love for LINC (and the community it serves) is reflected back just as strongly by the women who founded it and the women there today who ensure there is always a welcome for a sister in need.
Siobhan O’Dowd, one of its founders, explained its origins: “There was a very definite sense of the need in 1998 for a space and place for LB women in Cork. There was a piece published in the Community Workers Co-Op magazine wondering why, given that there were so many community workers in the LGBT community, how come they weren’t using those skills within the community?”
From a small group of about 10, conversations began and so did meetings. As the numbers grew, those involved branched out into different pieces of work, then in 1999 a funding group was formed, which Siobhan was a part of. They applied for Millennium Funding and received enough to rent a premises, and the LINC (Lesbians In Cork) magazine started to be produced as well as the website. LINC immediately began to attract those it was intended for, providing open evenings, social evenings, the type of space that had never existed in the Republic before.
Siobhan explained it was the Equality For Women Measure funding a while later which really helped create LINC. They didn’t just have to rely on volunteers and fundraising, they could start to make concrete plans. “Mary McAleese came down to formally open the LINC space in 2003,” Siobhan described. “It’s something when you have the head of state turning up, it was really good.”
That visit from the President proved to be a momentous event not just for LINC, but for Kate Moynihan, who wouldn’t have known at the time where it would lead her. “Somebody rang me one day and said, ‘Would you come in and help paint?’ Because Mary McAleese was coming down to open the place. I’ve always been an activist, but I wasn’t involved in setting up LINC, it was my first contact. Then over the years, I started volunteering. Through courses that LINC ran, I ended up going back to college, to UCC to do a degree in social work. And so I changed completely the direction of where I was working... when the Project Co-ordinator post came up for LINC, I resigned from everything and just went for the job.”
For anyone with the barest knowledge of LINC and their dedication to the community the answer would be obvious, but I asked Kate to tell me what the organisation’s aims are. “To improve the lives, health and wellbeing of all women who identify as lesbian and bisexual, that’s our aim,” she replied. “And within that, that women live a life where they’re out and proud of who they are. They have found a place that supports them that’s fun, there’s a welcome. They find friendship, they find a family. They find life.”
An issue I raised with both Siobhan and Kate was the double hurdle of rural isolation for LGBT+ people and if it was something that LINC had any experience of. “If you think you’re the only person out there...If you live in an area where you know nobody else, you’re not even sure if you’re LGBT+ and you’re really trying trying to discover yourself, not having the resources near you is very difficult. So if you’re in the process of coming out, we could be your closest resource to actually come and talk to somebody face to face. We would have women contact us from all over the country, in particular round the Munster area.”
Siobhan also described how “at the open evenings and the social evenings you’d find yourself sitting beside people who had driven a long way to get there.”
And when people do reach LINC, what can they expect? Kate explained, “A lot of it is people dropping in looking for information. We advocate for them on different issues, such as housing or health. We support two parent groups, one is for parents of LGBT kids of all ages. and a TransParentsCI group, which is one of the TENI groups for parents of trans kids. We provide the space and the parents run it themselves. We support trans women, while we’re a lesbian and bisexual women’s organisation - that includes all women, so it’s who identifies as women.
“We have a health program involved in stress management, health and wellbeing. We do a lot of awareness training, and going out to schools and colleges and community organisations and businesses.”
There’s also the social side too, but it would almost take another article to list off all the groups and supports made available through the premises at 11a White Street.
While big anniversary celebrations are planned for September 13 and 14, LINC is looking to the future and planning to expand its outreach even more. Kate details, “There’s lots of areas that need to be looked at, reaching older people is a big one, we have more LGBT+ migrants, we’re looking at trying to do outreach in Kerry a day a month so we can make ourselves more available.”
We finish here, by first wishing them a happy anniversary, and having those involved tell just what LINC means to them.
Siobhan: “The Matrix disco used to happen once a month, they were absolutely great craic – you had all these women crammed into a tiny room. We invited well-known speakers in to us too – Ailbhe Smyth, the poet Cherry Smyth – repairing afterwards to the back room in Loafers. One night a collection of Mary Dorcey’s poetry was passed around with diff erent women reading a poem each.”
Lilian: “Marching at Dublin Parade with LINC was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life because it was the fi rst time l held a rainbow flag without fear. I come from Brazil, which as a country still has one of the highest rates of murder of LGBT+ people in the world. Being supported by LINC is very important to me. When l fi rst went there l was looking for information but what l found was a safe place that makes you feel welcome as soon as you step inside the door.”
Evelyn: “The first time I heard about LINC was from my friend Ber. I came out to her at the age of 45 and she was so excited for me that she did all the research! I thought maybe as a formerly ‘straight’ woman (married to a man for 20 years, mother of three teenagers) ‘they’ would check my credentials and turn me around. I have learned ‘they’ is us. I was welcomed with the kind of support, acceptance and encouragement I have never known. I learned to accept myself and to have courage, and fun! I feel lucky to be part of this wonderful community.”
Sarah: “As a single mum with two children I really wanted to meet other lesbian/bisexual women with children and a colleague of mine at work said they were facilitating a parenting course in LINC. I walked nervously through the door and was met with a very warm welcome and never looked back. Soon the women in the parenting group were to become my tribe. They supported and helped me through some of the toughest times in coming out, especially telling my parents. It was a relief to have a tribe of women who listened and cared for me during those times.”
Esther: “It wasn’t until 2018 that I first came into LINC. I heard about the summer BBQ they were having and after ten minutes of walking up and down the street, I took the plunge and opened the door. I haven’t looked back since. It isn’t just a building to come and relax in. It is my second home, fi lled with my family and friends. It’s a safe haven for any LB woman and my only regret is not coming in sooner. I hope to be a part of this amazing community centre for many years to come.”
Kate: “For me, it’s about it’s about the woman that comes in the door, who doesn’t know anyone, never told anybody. Through just coming in and meeting people and getting involved, pride develops, along with a recognition of who she is. And then she’s taking part in Pride, she’s leading Pride! It is just a joy.”
Jo Anne: “LINC to me has been a place where I can belong. A place where, whatever kind of a day I am having, I know there will be someone there with a cup of tea. I have used LINC when I’ve needed support and I’ve used LINC as a social space to just hang out and be. To me the beauty of LINC is just going to a place where you know you share commonalities with the people around you and there is a sense of safety in that community being. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”
Ciara: “I have countless memories of LINC, from dark, wintery nights writing plays to the sounds of laughter fi ling the small spaces between the crowds of women at the summer barbecues. One incredible, standout experience came in February of 2017. My younger sister died. I showed up to LINC to a group I had attended religiously until she became unwell. The mess of grief in my head and in my heart knew this was a place where I could just be. My friends sat either side of me, another passed me a cup of coff ee and in compassion and understanding I was completely held, understanding completely the diff erence between sympathy and empathy. LINC has been described as a tribe and that’s exactly what we are.”