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Proud as

My name is Bulelani. I am a Black, gay African man. I’m queer, and I’m Proud AF.

Ireland is seen as one of the most progressive countries in the world, but for LGBTQ+ People of Colour and Travellers, it can be a very different place. Proud AF is a campaign by Gay Project which highlights racism amongst GBTQ+ men in Ireland. The Gay Project is an Irish NGO that supports gay, bi, Trans and queer men, celebrates sexuality and gender diversity and advocates for LGBTQ+ human rights and policy protections.

Despite being among the many communities that make up our LGBTQ+ family, People of Colour and Travellers experience both homophobia and racism in Ireland, which can lead to isolation and feelings of invisibility in our generally white and settled GBTQ+ communities. Through storytelling and lived experience, the campaign explores the racism, bias and exclusion that is hurting our POC and Traveller siblings, such as sexual racism, racial profiling, objectification and fetishisation, cultural differences and discrimination perpetuated by white and settled GBTQ+ people. It is a call to action that asks the wider community to examine their own behaviours, and to change them.

As GCN’s cover star Pradeep Mahadeshwar puts it: “The community is vibrant, and diverse - the only thing missing is inclusion.”

The national Proud AF campaign, which is governmentfunded, will platform GBTQ+ POC and Travellers, making them loud, proud and visible across the country in washrooms, digital screens, video content and a social media campaign. Gay Project encourages People of Colour, Travellers and their community allies to share their experiences and stories on social media using the hashtag #ProudAF.

Taking part in the campaign are community activist and art director Pradeep Mahadeshwar, drag queen Viola Gayvis, law student and asylum rights advocate Bulelani Mfaco, TikTok star and mental health advocate Darren Collins, and Delroy Mpofu, who has just begun his studies at UCD.

BULELANI MFACO

“We used to assume for many, many years in the LGBTQ+ community that our queer-friendly spaces would be safe spaces for us, but you don’t find the same experience when you are a person of colour. For instance, as a Black man, I wouldn’t find the same experience. One of the most disturbing things that happened to me was when an old man walked up to me in a bar and asked, ‘Is it true that Black men have bigger dicks?’ I’m in a pub having drinks with my friends -I don’t think I want to be talking about my genitals with you. I don’t even know you! It’s how Black people are perceived, especially Black men. You’re expected to be a particular type of way, and people have these notions about you. It makes you feel as if you are some kind of piece of meat that people look at.

“It’s very difficult for people who don’t consider themselves racist to identify, or to even recognise or acknowledge that they are. In my personal experience of polite or very subtle racism, not everybody would know that it’s racist to simply just reach out and touch my hair on the bus. You don’t see Black people going around touching white people’s hair. We just don’t do that. But why does the white person feel that it’s something that they can just do?

“Many of the activists I’ve met through the asylum system didn’t come here to be activists, they all just wanted sanctuary. They feared for their lives back home. All they wanted to do was to get on with their lives. But situations and circumstances that we live in every day force us into the positions that we’re in today, where we have to go in, campaign and teach the Irish State to treat us more humanely, in the same way that we are expected to teach ordinary people how to be decent and kind and compassionate to Black people.

“It would be so nice to wake up in the morning and not have to think about all the horrible things that happen to us, to not have to think about my life being an asylum seeker in a Direct Provision centre - it would be very nice. But we don’t have that luxury because our everyday experiences demand that we liberate ourselves. A beautiful quote from Steve Biko says, ‘Black men, you are on your own.’ So, we literally have to do something about our circumstances in order to liberate ourselves. To have a meaningful life experience that isn’t characterised by racism, or homophobia or anti-Traveller racism, or anti-Trans bigotry that people have to go through everyday, that’s all that anybody who comes to Ireland wants to have.

I am Viola Gayvis. I am a 22 year-old drag queen from Dublin who respects everybody, loves everybody and says ‘do drag’, and I am Proud AF.

VIOLA GAYVIS

“I can’t speak for everybody, but from my own experience, I have found that being Black in the queer community is kind of a double-edged sword. There’s people who don’t even see the colour of my skin and they just treat me as the person I am, and then there are other people who see my blackness before they see me.

“It’s very prevalent, especially on the apps, which are part of the world that we live in. People will come to me and the first message is ‘I’ve never been with a Black guy’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to be with a Black guy.’ I’m not going to be your experiment - I’m not another notch on your bedpost. If you want to get with me, get with me because you like me. Don’t get with me because of the colour of my skin, or to fullfil some fetish or fantasy.

“The Ireland white people live in is very different from the Ireland that a non-white person lives in. I’m glad to say that I’ve seen a lot more people who are taking the initiative to go and teach themselves, and learn about some of these things and correct some of their mistakes. I’ve had people apologise to me, so we’re going in the right direction, slowly but surely.

“When I started going out on the scene I thought I wasn’t anything beyond my skin, until I started becoming friends with other drag artists. If you surround yourself with people who give you nothing but positivity and joy, that’s when you start to live life. I didn’t see many other queens of colour on the scene. There’s a few of us, but I’m the only one of African descent and the only Black one. There’s lots of space for all of us out there. The big beautiful world needs more glitter. Don’t be afraid of glitter.

“I managed to gain a lot of popularity working online during lockdown -I had nothing else to be doing at home, I thought ‘I may as well do it’. I feel like that’s what kind of solidified my place on the scene. From then, I managed to land the cover of GCN. I was part of the Brown Thomas Pride campaign. I’m doing quite well for a man in a wig. It’s not so bad!

I’m Darren Collins, I’m an Irish gay Traveller, and I am Proud AF.

DARREN COLLINS

“I remember dating a girl for about three to four months, and I soon began to realise there was something ‘wrong’ with me. I couldn’t figure out what it was, and it started affecting my mental health. As a young Traveller man, all you really know is to get married at a young age, to have a woman and to have kids. I started to get depressed because I couldn’t figure out who I was or why I was starting to look at men in a completely different way. I started to pull back from women.

“As time went on, I began to get more depressed. I was realising I was gay, and struggling to accept it. Being from the Travelling community, what barriers are you going to face? Are you going to be beaten up? Are you going to lose your family? Are you going to have to move from the town? Are you going to have to leave Ireland? There’s just so many barriers that young gay Traveller men and women face in the Traveling community. My depression started getting worse and I started hearing these voices in my head. Was my life worth living?

“Eventually I told my mam and dad. My dad said, ‘You’re my son, I accept you and I love you.’ That was just amazing. After six weeks, my mam started seeing me living the life I had wanted to live, and that’s when she finally accepted me. From that day on, she’s been absolutely amazing. She’s always had my back.

“Being an LGBTQ+ member from the Travelling community, I find that when you enter LGBTQ+ spaces you’re not accepted. When you say you’re a Traveller there’s an automatic barrier there, but when you say you’re a gay Traveller, there’s nothing. With the ignorance of other members of the LGBTQ+ community, they look at you and they have a wall up - there’s barriers there. I’d love it if those barriers could be broken down, mainly through education.

“I love being a voice for my community but it can be very, very challenging. So when I went viral with my story of coming out, I said I wanted to be the voice to help other people in my community because I know there’s other people that have suffered like me, and unfortunately some of them attempted suicide, and some have succeeded. After I was on television telling my story, I went home and heard ‘There’s that dirty disease that was on national TV’. Hearing that from your own community, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

“My advice to any young member who is struggling with your sexuality, and who wants to come out is to accept yourself. Be proud of yourself. Love yourself. You are who you are. You’ve got one life. Live in this moment. Tomorrow’s never promised. Open up your cage, let your wings spread, and fly.

I’m Pradeep. I’m brown, and fabulously beautiful, and I am Proud AF.

PRADEEP MAHADESHWAR

“My activism comes from my family and my mother- she was a feminist and that’s the upbringing that I got. If you feel something, you should talk about it instead of hiding. I chose Ireland as my home, so it becomes more empowering for me to talk about the issues here. I need to address these issues instead of hiding the truth all while pretending everything is fine and good. It’s painful to talk about it, but also it gives me a sense of power that I’m doing something right.

“I came to Ireland because it’s a much more open society, and there are laws to protect my sexuality. It was my first preference to come to this country from India, but what I’m seeing is that queer culture here is not that open and broad. I go to any queer space and people judge me because of my skin tone or my nationality, and that makes me feel not welcome at the gay scene or queer scene - especially on the dating scene.

“Sexual racism is the one of the least discussed issues. Over the past few years, I’ve been talking with other Asian immigrants here. If you’re from India, or Pakistan, or from Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh, you become non-existent. You are here at the scene, but people don’t want to see you, they don’t want to talk with you. It’s hard for your self esteem and your mental health.

“There is this assumption that only bad people are racist, but each person has their biases. The biases become toxic when your bias is affecting my livelihood, or my mental health or that of a group of people. This isn’t only about good and bad - it’s about learning how we see each other. Your personal preference is also a way of indirectly implementing your inner racist view on other people.

“We are talking about self-isolation so much in the age of COVID, but for queer people of colour, self-isolation is something they actually face. When there is no lockdown and before COVID, nobody wants to talk with them. Nobody wants to be a friend. Nobody wants to go on a date with them, or sleep with them or hook up with them. We should all look at Indian and Pakistani and Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ people and be nice to them, because it doesn’t cost anything to be nice. The community is vibrant, and diverse - the only thing missing is inclusion.

My name is Delroy. I’m a Black Transgender man. And I’m Proud AF.

DELROY MPOFU

“As an LGBTQ+ person living in Direct Provision, you face extra challenges compared to everybody else. You’ll find that some LGBTQ+ people would rather stay in the closet - they’re forced to be in the closet to avoid stuff like being bullied, or being harassed by other residents. And then while you’re there, you have no supports. For example, myself, I’m a Transgender person. Staff are not trained on how to deal with people or how to help people from the LGBTQ+ community.

“No human being deserves to live in Direct Provision. It’s a terrible system, whether LGBTQ+ or not. But specifically for LGBTQ+ people, we have an extra burden compared to everyone else, as you live in a community with people who come from areas with no LGBTQ+ rights. And then, besides the fact that you’re already isolated from everyone else, we’re isolated from other LGBTQ+ people as we are placed outside of the cities.

“Regardless of the fact that living in Direct Provision has its negative impact on anybody, I’ve had a really interesting and positive experience being here in Ireland. I’ve been able to freely come out and say, ‘I’m a Transgender man’. And before I came to Ireland, believe it or not, I didn’t know what the term ‘Transgender’ meant.

“Being here has also opened doors for me, I have people that I can call family, who accept me as I am, which is really a huge thing for anybody who needs to have a sense of belonging somewhere. Now, being in Ireland, I feel like I belong to this community with all this love. So which is an important thing for anybody, whether you are Trans or not, Black or white, it’s very important to feel like you belong somewhere.

“Sometimes I even forget that I’m all by myself in Ireland. It’s the community that’s been there. When the community comes together and stands for someone, you believe in yourself, and all the good things happen to you. You have all the faith in yourself. You know you can do it. If someone else thinks you can do it, you know you can do it as well. For me, that’s the most important thing - to be able to be myself, to flourish, to grow.

Find out more about the #ProudAF campaign at gayproject.ie.

For support, visit lgbtpavee.com, theswitchboard.ie or the LGBT Helpline at 1890 929539.

While an overview of Irish queer history is known by, or at least familiar to, an increasing proportion of Irish society, it still feels rare to see a mainstream establishment like the Gate select to highlight an original Irish queer story. More broadly though, over the last few years, the number of more regional stories (particularly those set outside America) has been on the rise: examples such as 120BPM in Paris, or It’s A Sin in London come to mind. I ask Philly if he sees Once Before I Go in the same light as those stories, and what our culture and history brings to it that might not be seen elsewhere.

“Those works were good references because it raised the question of ‘Well, what’s happening here?’ The play is set in Dublin, London, and Paris because people had to leave here for all sorts of reasons: for economic reasons, for health reasons, and that’s what’s unique to this story, to this city, and to this island. 120BPM is in Paris and It’s A Sin is in London, two big epicentres of the AIDS crisis, but we were just like this backwater. So that is important.

“There’s something about the stories in the air at the moment: wider society can hear them for the first time,” he continues. “I think for a long time, people were terrified of AIDS stories and in this country I think people were just like ‘That’s under the carpet.’ People that were dying of AIDS had family members who were saying ‘Oh they died of pneumonia.’ So I think wider society can hear these stories.”

The resonance of those issues today can’t be ignored, and I ask Philly if he was keen to make those connections in the play. “You know, there are parallels between the AIDS crisis and COVID, so it’ll be interesting to see what the audience takes in. I’m not clever enough to draw those parallels in the play but of course they’re just screamingly there anyway. Our job is to raise questions rather than give people the answers, so while the play is not concerned with the statistics of today, it’s saying that the struggle ain’t over,” he responds. “I think that there are a lot of things that I see within our community. I get really concerned about what’s happening in the chem-sex scene. There’s a lot of people still dealing with unresolved shame, and homophobia at home and their families rejecting them, and of course wider society doesn’t think that exists anymore. HIV diagnoses are at the highest they’ve ever been in Ireland. There are all these things that are still going on, so the play is picking at that but it’s also talking about a lot of things in very, very gentle ways, such as queer parenting. And generally how we navigate the world, how you often have to follow somebody else’s rulebook, or choose to rip that up and make your own.”

With talk of cinemas struggling thanks to a significant uptick in streaming in a post-pandemic world, I wonder if either Selina or Philly have thoughts about how theatre might need to entice audiences back in their door. “There’s nothing like the live alchemy that you have, and you need a live audience I think,” argues Selina. “It would be a great film as well, but I don’t think you can beat breathing the same air as other people, seeing something live, and feeling that they are on that journey with you: laughing with you and crying with you and coming out the other side of a journey, you can’t get that through film or on screen in the same way.”

Philly agrees. “You’re doing something that’s essentially human. Even though the audience are not talking back — when they’re being polite — you’re asking the audience to be in a dialogue with you and you’re saying ‘I will share this story,’ and asking them to bear witness to that. And I think in those rooms, like in nightclubs and like in theatres, when we get to be in rooms together they become these kind of town halls. We can create value systems together and we can sort some shit out there. You can’t do that on the screen because you’re watching it on the screen and you’re on your phone and you’re live tweeting and that kind of thing. So even though the great thing about streaming is that you break down the geography question and often you break down the access question, the cost, and all of that, there is no experience like being in those rooms. When the theatre is great, you can’t match it.”

Once Before I Go opens in the Gate Theatre, Dublin on Friday October 1, with previews from Friday September 24. Tickets can be booked at gatetheatre.ie.

This article appears in the 368 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 368 Issue of GCN