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A World to Discover

Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora, in partnership with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, is a must-see exhibition at EPIC in Dublin which will run until December. Featuring stories of Irish LGBTQ+ folk who have made great waves both at home and abroad, it gives visitors the chance to uncover tales of strength, love and activism that they have likely never heard before. From the lesbian woman who helped set up the very first queer advocacy group in Cambodia to Irish men at Stonewall, these stories are profoundly surprising.

EPIC’S DFA Historian in Residence, Maurice J Casey, is the curator of this exciting exhibition. He explains the reasons behind putting it together and talks about some of the stories featured:

“We have had a series of events, lectures and hidden histories of the Irish abroad. This exhibition really started because, even in my undergraduate project in 2015, I recognised that emigration was such a massive part of LGBTQ+ history in Ireland. Not just that people had to leave, or places like London or New York were more open, but that return was also important.

“There’s this story of mobility that I’ve noticed in my research for this exhibition. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was important for activists to come home with those models of community. Or even coming home with things like magazines and literature. It’s about the two-way traffic. It’s important from the outset to acknowledge that I’m not a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, so I approached this as a researcher of progressive history in politics. What I was driven to do throughout was to make sure that it has been a collaborative process and that the community has been involved in every step of the research. It developed from my own work but all of my work is sort of indebted to queer theory and queer history. When I began to look at the Irish diaspora through this LGBTQ+ frame, there were just all of these remarkable stories, many not widely known within Ireland.

“I guess if people think of Irish LGBTQ+ diaspora, what will probably come to mind would be Roger Casement or Oscar Wilde. They don’t feature in the exhibition, in part because I wanted to focus on lesser-known stories. Another thing that I wanted to do with the exhibition, particularly because we are titling it ‘Out in the World’, was to only source stories where the person was speaking about who they were in their own voice. For example, the source material in the exhibition; none of it goes back to things like prison records, diaries that someone never wanted released or someone’s privacy being transgressed. Everyone speaks in their own voice in the source material.

“There are 12 stories and they are featured under six themes: Exclusion, Community, Love, Defiance, Solidarity and Return. The idea with the themes is that they are suggestive of significant parts of this emigrant experience. Approaching the history thematically allowed me to avoid any kind of linear story. I don’t tell a story about everything being really bad before and now it’s all great. Similarly, by breaking it up thematically, you’re kind of able to recognise similarities in this experience. We feature stories from the 19th Century to the present day.

“The exhibition opens with a couple that I was really fascinated to learn about. In my initial research, I learned that there was a constitutional challenge in Canada in the 1990’s because LGBTQ+ people could not get visa status for the partners in the same way heterosexual couples could get their spouses permanent residency rights. I looked into this and saw that this constitutional challenge was led by a Canadian woman on behalf of her Irish partner. I traced this woman who is a really well-known activist in Vancouver, but sadly I learned that her partner Brigid had passed away in 2016, but she shared with me their amazing story. They met in the ‘60s as nuns in a Franciscan order in New York, and they fell in love. Whilst still in the religious community, they had the opportunity to move to Chile where they challenged the military dictatorship there and returned to Canada in the late ‘80s so they could live openly as a couple.

“The stories all speak to different aspects. One thing that I want to show is that there’s not this one LGBTQ+ emigrant experience. It’s not some isolated corner of Irish emigrant history, it’s in every part of Irish emigrant history. Brigid’s story really speaks to religious emigration, for example.

“One person who I was really surprised by was a man who is featured under our Solidarity theme called Chester Alan Arthur III. He was the grandson of a not very well-known late 19th Century US president, who was himself the son of an immigrant from Antrim.

“Chester Alan Arthur III travelled to Ireland in the 1920’s and became devoted to the Republican cause, and he became part of a network that was essentially a queer Republican network in Ireland at that point. He was openly bisexual, and was very influenced by a religious movement called theosophy which had its own framework for an acceptance of different gender and sexual identities. He was connected to many leading Republicans. It’s a period with which you don’t normally associate this kind of history. But also, he would later marry an openly lesbian woman and she was herself Irish-American. Even in these histories that we consider very high-level Irish political histories, when you adopt this framing, you find these LGBTQ+ histories within them.

When I began to look at the Irish diaspora through this LGBTQ+ frame, there were just all of these remarkable stories, many not widely known...

“There are so many untold histories when it comes to HIV/AIDS with the Irish diaspora. There are so many families who I have spoken to as part of this research who have those stories.

“A core part of the exhibition is the story-sharing part of it. We will have a story-sharing wall for visitors to come and write their own stories prompted by the exhibition, or submit them online. We already got one story in and it’s really remarkable. I heard from a man based in Chicago called Marty Fahey, and he told me his great aunt was part of a queer Bohemia in inter-war Hollywood. She would even be featured in a 1980’s book called Hollywood Lesbians. Her parents were from Mayo, so that’s a great example of how and where these stories are turning up.

“I would like visitors to take away that this exhibition has really only scratched the surface, and hope it would reframe how they think of the Irish diaspora, because the Irish diaspora can be stereotyped. We feature a story about the history of the Irish lesbian and gay organisation in New York City, who fought for years for Irish LGBTQ+ people to be included in the St Patrick’s Day Parade. They faced huge hostility from people within the diaspora, but they were Irish American too. I’d like people to leave with a more open idea of just how diverse the diaspora is and with a recognition that this is just the start of a conversation, that each of these themes reflects one aspect of an absolutely vast experience. Once we adopt this framing, we will find these stories in every aspect of Irish emigration history.”

Featured in the exhibition is Collette O’Regan who, having spent time teaching in Nigeria before moving back to Dundalk, made her way to Cambodia where she would have a profound impact on the country’s LGBTQ+ community.

“I went to work with a livelihoods NGO in the northeast of Cambodia,” Colette explains, “and at that time there was about 95 VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteers across different provinces and a few of us would meet up in Phnom Penh once a month. With one of the new intakes of volunteers were three LGBT people. I was the only one that I knew of when I first arrived. We thought now that there is four of us, maybe we can actually do something.

“There was no LGBT movement in Cambodia. There were one or two gay bars but it was very much a male scene and it somewhat overlapped with sex work and ex-pats.”

Collette and her fellow LGBTQ+ volunteers thought it would be a great idea to organise a Pride event, having chatted about it in one of the gay bars they used to head to for a drink together. There had been a party, but they wanted to see more than that.

“Being VSOs, we were very clear in that it had to be Cambodian-led and it had to be very politically sensitive,” Collette describes. “We had monthly meetings and hooked it on International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, May 17, to give it an international dimension.

It was a massive success. In June, we had our reflection meeting with some LGBT Cambodians there. They expressed how they wanted to do more and that was the beginning of RoCK – Rainbow Community Kampuchea.

“We stopped calling ourselves the Pride Committee, so we had to think of a name for our group. People were saying that it has to have ‘community’ and they wanted to have the rainbow flag because they hadn’t really known it before that. They loved what it meant: the hope, the inclusion, the colour and positivity. And it had to have Kampuchea because they are Cambodian and proud to be so.”

Collette explains how RoCK grew and how it has had a real impact for the LGBTQ+ community in Cambodia: “People would go to their home towns and provinces and tell people there about RoCK. It really gradually grew. We got a lot of media attention. In 2011, the UN passed the vote to recognise the human rights of LGBTQ+ people, recognising the need to actively protect and promote LGBTQ+ human rights. The UN has a strong presence in Cambodia because they would have been part of the peace process. Then, they started to come and speak at our events, we started to translate the Declaration of Human Rights and highlighted where LGBTQ+ human rights are within that.

“We got strategic and had some TV coverage as part of the news and the Prime Minister saw it. The next day, at a speech he was giving at a university, he went on a tangent about Cambodian LGBT people, saying that they have their human rights and that all of his officials should respect that. That was pretty astounding.”

Collette’s experience is an example of the worldwide impact our community has had. The story of the Irish LGBTQ+ diaspora is difficult to define as one singular history. As Maurice points out, “it’s far more than just one thing” -a message that this exhibition aims to portray.

Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora will be on show at EPIC until December, with free admission during June as part of the Dublin LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations.

This article appears in the 367 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 367 Issue of GCN