Growing up, it was nearly impossible to locate queer characters in easily accessible media, be it in books or on screen. I remember sneaking into the sitting room late at night to browse niche networks for even the smallest glimpse of someone like me. This experience is fairly universal amongst LGBTQ+ individuals, and is often the impetus for many queer artists to ensure that the next generation of queer youth don’t need to feel so goddamn lonely all the time.
The quantity of LGBTQ+ representation in media, however, means little if the quality is poor. As a kid, the few gay characters I did see were either hypersexualised or altogether sexless. They were plagued with sickness, destined to die to further the plot of the straight protagonist. They were caricatures of queerness, walking stereotypes that only gave people permission to laugh at me for who I was.
For writers like me - cis, white, gay men - the market has allowed a space for our voices over the past few years, especially after the mainstream success of novels and films like Call Me By Your Name and Simon VS The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Love, Simon).
To casual viewers this can make it seem, at times, that the fight for quality queer representation is over. However, trans voices remain marginalised, black queer voices remain marginalised, bisexual and non-binary characters are seemingly erased from successful queer narratives that have been ‘allowed’ into the mainstream by the powers that be.
I thought that I understood the full scope of issues facing the LGBTQ+ community when it came to publishing queer content until I started taking Irish Language courses at university in the US in 2017. Even as an American I was aware of the reputation that Gaeilge had garnered as a ‘dead language,’ but after a few short weeks I had fallen in love with it.
Through my two years of studying Irish at university, however, I often found it difficult, impossible even, to fully describe my experience as a gay man as Gaeilge. My professor did her best to provide me with resources to locate new Irish language LGBTQ+ terminology, though I had to do much of this research on my own.
In my writing courses I started sprinkling Gaeilge into my stories and shortly realised that my struggles to find my voice as a gay writer were only compounded when I tried to write in Irish. For me this was mostly an issue of not having access to terminology that I had deemed necessary, terminology that, as far as I could see, was not available at the time. Understanding, however, that Gaeilge had its own history in Ireland, I was curious to investigate how other LGBTQ+ Irish language writers managed to find their voice.
I talked to Antoin Beag Ó Colla, a gay screenwriter hailing from the rural Donegal Gaeltacht, and Cian Griffin, known more popularly as Gaylgeoirí on Instagram, to ask about their experience writing LGBTQ+ content as Gaeilge.
Both Ó Colla and Griffin expressed being drawn to careers as writers as a direct reaction to the lack of LGBTQ+ representation they saw growing up.
“Over time I just got frustrated with never seeing people like me on TV, even on TG4,” Ó Colla reported.
“RTÉ don’t ever have Irish language characters on their shows - and Irish is everywhere - and even on TG4, they have camp stereotypes but never fully realised gay characters with wants, needs, desires, or sex drives,” he added.
Griffin echoed Ó Colla’s frustration: “I grew up an avid reader, and the lack of representation is what brought my pen to paper.
“I didn’t realise as a teenager that it was in fact a lack of LGBTQ+ representation, but that’s where I’ve naturally gravitated over time,” added the Wicklow native.
The pair expressed their motivations as a call to action. “There’s now a huge amount of opportunities for queer stories as Gaeilge,” Ó Colla said. “In Ireland there’s definitely a way they view gay characters, a way they view Irish language characters, so I feel that options are limited. However, my mission in life is to fuck that shit up.”
“It is my duty as a writer to give life to these stories and to immortalise them so nobody that has struggled unnecessarily at the hands of another will be forgotten,” Griffin added with similar gusto.
There has been a trend over the last few years for more LGBTQ+ inclusion in Irish-speaking spaces through the work of organisations like REIC, Aerach.Aiteach.Gaelach., and An Queercal Comhrá. Additionally, both Ó Colla and Griffin have reported recent and upcoming opportunities with major networks like RTÉ, TG4, and the BBC.
However, despite these advances for LGBTQ+ gaeilgoirí, Ó Colla reported that “there’s still a battle for Irish language queer writers.”
“The Irish language audience are by and large, older, conservative, vote against abortion and gay marriage. “Commissioners really see Gaeltacht life in a very particular way and want to reinforce a particular image. They’re very skittish about the LGBTQ+ way of life and are about ten years behind major trends on other channels.”
It is a sad truth that the Irish language world, and indeed even English-speaking Irish audiences, are not always willing to listen to LGBTQ+ voices in media, and often, even those who do listen, struggle to understand. However, writers like Ó Colla and Griffin recognise that there are people out there, trans and queers youth living in the Gaeltacht, who need these stories to be told.
“There is such scope for queer storytelling and there is such a hunger out there for it that I know how important it is to tell these stories,” said Griffin.
“If a straight white man is bothered by my work because I am gay, then that will motivate me to write more and more because the fact that that mindset is still out there is the reason I write,” he added.
LGBTQ+ Irish language writers battle more than just conservative audiences and commissioners, however. Unlike other non-English writers, those who write as Gaeilge write to an admittedly small audience. Only about 1.2 million people speak Irish worldwide, with only 170,000 of those being native speakers in Ireland. While Irish language programming remains a lucrative business venture in Ireland through organisations like TG4, the traditional attitude of many Irish-language speakers makes opportunities for LGBTQ+ gaeilgoirí writers difficult to come by.
It is an uphill battle for these artists, but one that can be overcome if we take Ó Colla and Griffin as examples.
There is an old Irish proverb that says “Go n-éirí an bóthar leat” which translates to “May the road rise to meet you.” For queer artists, however, the road that all other artists walk has been blocked to us, and as such we have had to pave our own yellow-brick road to success.
We have had to traverse a wilderness of oppression and marginalisation to get to where we are today, a path laid out for us by generations before us, and we are better artists for the struggle.
It is true what they say, an té a bhíónn siúlach bíonn scéalach; he who travels has stories to tell. And we are determined to tell them. Come hell or high water, our voices will be heard.