What was the spark for LGBTQ+ activism in the early days of the movement?
In the ‘70s, there was a group set up called the Irish Gay Rights Movement. And I think a primary part of it for us as young people, as we were then, was coming out and meeting other gay people. Cork where I was living, and Dublin, had very few gay places - pubs, for example - that you could go to, so a lot of it was about creating those kind of social spaces.
And then we got politically involved because Ireland in general was very oppressive in the 1970’s and 1980’s under the control of the Catholic Church.
What we were trying to do was to create a space where our human rights and equality would be respected and where you could live a rounded life.
And of course, we were criminalised.
In such conservative times, how were you able to get the word out and bring people together?
One of the things connecting us was realising that you needed places to be, and so we had this idea of setting up the Key Co-Op, which was known as a cafe and a bookshop. An amazing place -a Women’s Resource Centre, a food shop. So it was a very safe and nurturing place. And then also very importantly [it provided work], because of the very high level of unemployment in general at the time. But if you were to be active as a lesbian or gay, then you had to be open in your workplace. And that was a tricky thing at the time. So providing jobs where people could be open was very important.
The setting up of a place where people could be themselves, was this the catalyst that sparked GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network)?
Yes. GLEN was set up in 1988 directly as a response to the European Court of Human Rights decision that the anti-gay laws contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. So there was a recognition that there was a need for a campaign about making sure that the law that was brought in was an equality-based one.
So this was a massive movement for equality for everybody in Ireland.
Yes, in terms of the equality legislation, we were looking to include our other groups: what we call the “nine grounds” the equality legislation protects (gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, sexual orientation, race, religion, and membership of the Travelling community).
We didn’t see how you could seek equality in a society that was systemically unequal. Progress to one group benefited everybody. It’s very interesting how a challenge can be seen as an opportunity. So it was an opportunity to build a culture about equality and human rights in Ireland. And that was quite successful, because of the equality legislation.
From this, you got to travel across Europe, you did workshops in different places, to keep up the momentum of equality legislation in Ireland.
There’s the International Lesbian Gay Association (ILGA), they would have an annual conferences, and we would go to them. Other groups had quite a lot more resources than us, we didn’t have much support from the government. We were pushing international pressure on Ireland to comply with the European Court of Human Rights and to bring in the equality of legislation. We were quite weak at the time. Like GLEN had no office, it had no page people, it was operated on vapour. So we really needed that kind of support, even moral support, if you’re involved in a campaign, you need to keep your confidence up.
You got to visit Austria, and more specifically the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in 1989. Can you talk about the story behind that?
When we were at the ILGA conference in Vienna in 1989, which was our first conference, I remember being totally shocked that not far from Vienna is Mauthausen. We went out there and we did a kind of ceremony there to remember all of the people who had been imprisoned and/or died. It was very moving.
I noticed that you were all wearing or had the symbolism of the pink triangle which the Nazis used to identify LGBTQ+ people.
Yes, in those times if you were captured by the Nazis, every group had separate identifying symbols, you know, there were different ones for a political activists, Jewish people, and so on.
And so wearing this symbol was taking back ownership of it.
It was a very powerful symbol. Loads of people would have the pink triangle patch that you’d have on your coat. And of course, during the HIV AIDS crisis, ACT UP use the pink triangle, very strongly.
Moving a little bit forward in time, to Paris in 1992, specifically, there was a clash with the Parisian police, can you talk a little about that, and how that came to a climax?
In 1992, the ILGA conference was interesting, because a lot of it is debate and discussion and seminars, and workshops, but there always was a part that was a political demonstration. It’s a very interesting idea for political activists at a conference to do a physical action as part of it, just so that you don’t forget what this thing is all about.
So in Mexico at the time, I think was Mexico City, gay men were being assassinated at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So we went off to protest outside the Mexican embassy and we were peaceful, totally peaceful, and on the opposite path from the embassy, so we weren’t blocking it. And the next thing the French police just attacked us out of the blue—I mean, laid into us. The next day, the Irish delegates met over at the Irish Embassy to complain. It wasn’t a serious physical attack. I mean, it was, it was just scary. Nobody was injured too severely.
Speaking of embassies and Irish governments, I saw the photographs of you meeting President Mary Robinson and also former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Why was it so important to meet them?
Well, we met President Robinson in the official residence in 1992. Mary Robinson was hugely popular at the time, and captured the imagination of the people on a whole range of similar issues; Travellers and immigrants, people who were excluded. So her welcoming lesbians and gay men into Aras an Uachtaráin was hugely symbolic. It was saying to the Irish people, “I’m welcoming lesbians and gays”. It received huge positive publicity.
Was meeting Bertie Ahern symbolically also important?
Yes, I suppose it was slightly different in that Mary Robinson was a symbolic thing. Whereas he was the head of the Government. He gave a very wonderful speech, and officials told us afterwards that his speech was so positive, and generous and all that kind of stuff, that it opened doors in government departments and encouraged government ministers to be accepting. And it was very unusual, because prior to this, Ahern wasn’t considered a social liberal. He came to the GLEN offices which, again, has an added symbolism - that coming to a gay place, rather than us going to a government building.
When you see marches around the world supporting LGBTQ+ rights, how do you feel about that? Do you feel like you were a part of that history?
Definitely, yeah. I mean, the marches are a very interesting kind of phenomenon, they’re taking over public space. I think back to the Fairview March in 1983. When judgment came for the men who had killed Declan Flynn it resulted in a huge outpouring of anger. There was a sense that our allies didn’t matter and no one was defending our right to exist, and our right to be in a public place. The march was a brilliant political statement, because it wasn’t a march around the city centre, it went out of the city, through the neighbourhoods where the people who murdered Flynn lived.
It was quite a brave thing to do at the time. That was the time when we fought back and said: “No, no further. We are demanding a right to be in a good place to stay.” It was a pivotal, pivotal, moment.
What’s the importance of Pride Month to you?
I suppose it’s the kind of basic time to celebrate being LGBTQ+. These are our times to celebrate—it has become more of a carnival and a celebration. In earlier years, it was more of a protest. So this is an incredibly powerful thing for one day of the year, for the March or the Parade, for all of us together, to see our strength in numbers.
There’s loads of us, you know, and I think it’s also very important for young people or people who are coming out. For me, for example, the first lesbian gay Pride Parade in Dublin - we were small in numbers, there was only a couple of hundred of us. But (in the photographs) everybody looks delighted, everybody’s smiling. It’s sunny. It’s such a nice day. So that’s my biggest memory - that sense of fun, exuberance, the sense of being with people who are like you.