Lesbian Lives was first established in University College Dublin (UCD) on February 5, 1994, as a collaborative one-day event hosted by Women’s Education Research and Resource Centre, (WERRC) and Lesbians Organising Together (LOT) under the guidance of Ailbhe Smyth, Ger Moane and Rosemary Gibney. As Ger recalls, “we called it Lesbian Lives to mark that this was about ‘us’ – not an abstract conference on sexuality. To see almost 100 lesbians in the Arts Block in Belfield was amazing for everyone.
“Only a few years previously, UCD was still refusing to give recognition to the lesbian and gay student society. The programme was peppered with interesting workshop titles and they were filled with great discussions. As a lecturer in UCD at the time, I got a particular kick out of the workshop on stereotypes where we ended up filling a blackboard with slang words for lesbian – from dyke to lipstick to pearl-diver – which we left on the board as we left the room.”
In her report of the first conference, (which appeared in the inaugural ‘Lesbian Pages’ in issue 60 of GCN) Deborah Ballard wrote, “Invisibility was seen as the problem. Lack of knowledge about our lives and negative stereotyping not only lead to discrimination but also affect our sense of ourselves.” And she delivered some pretty disheartening statistics to support this. “Asking 40 Dublin secondary level pupils which of three disadvantaged groups they would prefer to belong to, their teacher found that 26 would prefer to be travellers, 12 drug abusers and just two lesbian or gay!”
But the conference was far from being all doom and gloom. As the report concludes, “Happily, we were given bread and roses, as Louise Walsh gave a slide presentation of her sculptures, drawings and mixed-media work and Mary Dorcey read poems and extracts from her novelin-progress, reminding us of the creativity and vibrancy of lesbian culture and experience.”
From the outset, the conference combined academics with activism, social engagement with art and literature, with the aim of bringing women together to explore themes specific to the lesbian community. Although lesbian activism had been enmeshed in feminism and the fight for gay rights and had been addressed in this capacity at other conferences, the Lesbian Lives Conference was unique in its aim of placing lesbians at the forefront.
In true Irish style, one of the most popular components of the conference became the evening social event which was held off campus in a city-centre bar or nightclub. This fast became one of the highlights on the annual calendar of Irish lesbians, often drawing a larger crowd than the conference itself. As well as the social element, it also became a space to carry on the conversations and plot new ideas.
By 1997, the conference had grown both in attendance but also in the volume of workshops and presentations being offered. Sessions began to be scheduled in parallel to one another. Although the main focus was still on the Irish lesbian community, a number of visiting international speakers also delivered academic papers. But it wasn’t until 2003, when Noreen Giney joined the organising committee, that it really gained international attention.
At that time and up until 2017, it was the only lesbianfocused conference worldwide and as such, it served a unique role. Noreen proposed using the internet to put out a call for papers. Up to then, most presenters had come through invitations and contacts within the community, however, by exploiting the internet, the conference expanded its scope and began to run across two days.
Following a three-year hiatus, the Lesbian Lives Conference is back, in its new home of University College Cork (UCC). And it could be argued that it’s the best place for it, given both the university’s and the city’s LGBTQ+ history.
Where the conference and the LGBTQ+ community met with resistance in UCD, UCC was leading the charge. In April 1989 the UCC governing body voted 13 to seven to recognise the college’s Lesbian and Gay Society. Cathal Kerrigan, co-founder of the society, described, “We invited David Norris down and he and I spoke ‘for’ and there were two speakers ‘against’ and the place was packed. The large auditorium was jam packed, literally standing room only, and it was overwhelmingly passed. About half the people were not gay themselves, they were allies. From the very beginning, the Gay Soc in UCC was built around allies and also many of the people were women.”
The university would go on to make it into the Irish LGBTQ+ history books several more times. Firstly and crucially, in 2007 when Cathal again co-founded UCC’s LGBT+ Staff Network with Joan McCarthy, the first officially recognised network of its kind within a NUI college. Then again in 2019, when they introduced Ireland’s first course to examine the modern history of the Irish LGBTQ+ community offered at a university. And let’s not forget, last year they became the first Irish university to install a permanent rainbow walkway.
But what of the legacy of Cork itself and in particular its lesbian activism? Well, it should be noted that Cork was the site of the first-ever National Gay Conference in 1981. Held at Connolly Hall across three days, it was convened by The Cork Gay Collective, Cork Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM) and the UCC Gay Soc (all of which had been established with Cathal’s involvement). The programme included workshops covering topics from religion to education, disability to isolation and, of course, lesbians and feminism. The event also hosted a debate over whether or not the Cork IGRM should host a weekly women’s night in their headquarters on MacCurtain Street.
On the Cork LGBT Archive website, Orla Egan reports that the first documented lesbian meeting in Cork took place as early as January 1978. By 1982, under the Cork Women’s Collective, Cork had its very own safe space for women and lesbians. The Quay Co-op on Sullivan’s Quay provided a dedicated Women’s Place. The space facilitated a number of lesbian groups and organisations including the Cork Lesbian Collective, a Lesbian Line and the Cork Lesbian Discussion Group. The Women’s Place remained at the Quay Co-op until 1990 when it moved to a new location on MacCurtain Street.
As an antidote to the often serious nature of lesbian and feminist activism, the Cork Women’s Fun Weekend was established in 1984 as a way for women to gather socially without having the pressures of facing the issues of rights and visibility. Initially attended by women from all walks of life, the event gradually became more of a lesbian space with many attendees reporting having met their wives, partners and life-long friends at various events. Although events were cancelled for the past two years, the weekend will return this year between April 29 and May 1.
But lesbian activism in Cork has not only been confined to meeting rooms and social spaces. Throughout the ‘80s and beyond, lesbians were taking to the streets to campaign for whatever issues were at hand. Two events, in particular, gained media attention. In solidarity with members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation (ILGO) who had been refused permission to participate in the New York St Patrick’s Day Parade, 32 lesbians participated in the 1992
Cork parade. They sported a banner that simply read ‘Hello New York’. The following day, a photograph of them made the front page of the New York Times.
Another key event not only in Cork’s LGBTQ+ history but one that had an impact on Irish legislation was on April 26, 1993, when Donna McAnallen was dismissed from her job at Brookfield Holiday Village as a lifeguard and fitness instructor after allegations were made that she had been seen kissing another woman. Her supervisor informed her at the time that she was being fired because having a lesbian working at the fitness club would ruin its reputation. The Cork LGBT community came out in support, sporting t-shirts saying, ‘I kissed Donna McAnallen’.
To this day, Cork remains the only place in the Republic of Ireland to have a dedicated lesbian and bisexual women’s resource centre. With growing demands for the lesbian service hosted at the Women’s Place, by 1999 it was determined that there was enough of a demand for a space solely for lesbians and bisexual women, hence Lesbians in Cork was formed. With the expanding diversity in the community using the services, in 2010, it was decided to drop the name of Lesbians in Cork but to retain the acronym of LINC. Today LINC has become a vital support for lesbians across the southwest of the country, providing services in both Kerry and Waterford.
LINC will partner with the UCC LGBT+ Staff Network along with scholars from UCD, Cambridge University and the University of Brighton to host this year’s Lesbian Lives Conference. With the theme of ‘Solidarity’ it promises to be an incredible addition to the Lesbian Lives catalogue.
Keynote presenters will include acclaimed American author, filmmaker, and theorist, Professor Susan Stryker. Her work on gender theory and trans history has been a critical part of shaping discourse around trans identity. Sociologist, feminist campaigner and author of the new book Female Masculinities and the Gender Wars, Finn MacKay will be exploring the middle ground in the TERF war.
And this year’s programme doesn’t disappoint on the literary front with readings from crime writer Val McDermid, poets Felispeaks, Julie Goo and Sarah Clancy and journalist Zainab Boladale. With the full programme still to be announced, the 25th Lesbian Lives Conference is already shaping up to be an unmissable event.
To register to attend the conference and to find out more visit www.ucc.ie/en/lesbianlives2022.