Ciarán McKinney is a lifelong activist, committed to human rights and equality for all. He volunteers with Gay Health Network, BeLonG To and MPOWER. He spoke with Padraig Burke about activism and what the community needs to do to improve the lives of its members.
How would you describe life as/for an older gay man in 2022?
Speaking personally, I am working full time, love my job and volunteer with three LGBTQ+ organisations, so my life is quite busy. I have a small group of wonderful friends and family and feel privileged to be alive, as during the onset of HIV in Ireland in the ‘80s, I never expected to reach 40 let alone 62!
Society can be quite ageist, do you think it is even more acute in the gay community?
I am very aware of ageism in society in general and the fact that we can internalise so much negativity around ageing. I haven’t experienced ageism in the gay community but have heard others talk about feeling invisible because of being older. While I am quite happy being open about my age I don’t want to be a “daddy”. I think older guys are made to feel welcome on the Bear and Leather scenes. I don’t know what it’s like for older guys in other parts of the scene.
Do you think there are enough resources out there for older gay people?
I think all of us as older LGBTQ+ people need more resources and greater awareness of our needs as we age, particularly in terms of health and social care. I know that there is a sense of anxiety among some older LGBTQ+ folk about receiving appropriate care and fear that our identities might not be acknowledged.
What are some of the things that could be done to help improve the health/lives of older gay people?
Greater awareness that many of us remain sexually active and interested/involved in relationships in older age. This applies to older heterosexual people as well, as one of the impacts of ageism is a denial of our sexuality, irrespective of our sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
You have led a life of activism, fighting for causes and working for various charities. What drew you to this?
I was lucky to grow up in a loving family with a sense that I was relatively privileged compared to other people. I struggled with my sexual orientation as I was a devout Catholic for many years and it led me to challenge homophobia and a desire to create safe places for our community.
What are the pressing LGBTQ+ issues of our time and what changes do we need to see?
I think there is a need for a societal conversation about Trans and Intersex people. I think the pace of advancement of Trans rights has been so rapid that the rest of society needs help to catch up (this includes some in our own communities). Trans people remain the most vulnerable in society and we must act together to ensure their safety and that they have equal access to services. There needs to be a concerted commitment to raising awareness of the needs of Trans, Intersex and non-binary members of our community. I also think that for this dialogue to succeed it needs to be a two-way process. We need to find ways to build on advances and insights gained by the women’s and feminist movements in advancing women’s rights and understanding of their particular oppression. We need to facilitate dialogue about this and begin to understand each other’s perspectives in a respectful way. Such a conversation would potentially reap rewards for all of our communities.
Looking around Ireland and indeed the world, what is of most concern to you at the moment?
I think increasingly Ireland is becoming more polarised in terms of basic human rights to housing and employment. I think that Government should abandon the neo-liberal belief that the market is the answer to societal challenges and take on responsibility for direct provision of housing.
More is being made of our sexual and mental health being connected. What is your take on this? 3
I am happy that the connection is being increasingly recognised and that there is a growing awareness that our mental health and sexual health are intertwined. The Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme should be recognised as being a lead agency in promoting this.
Do you think we pay enough attention to our sexual health?
I think there is always a need for more accessible information and service provision. I was really aware that the Gay Men’s Health Service was negatively affected by the transfer of staff and equipment to Covid-related provision. This should not be an either/or situation. Sexual health provision is as important as other areas of healthcare.
Mick Quinlan is a long-time community activist, especially on HIV and AIDS and sexual health, since the 1980’s -from the Dublin Lesbians and Gay Men’s Collective and the first book -OUT For Ourselves -on the lives of lesbians and gay men, to the formation of Gay Health Action (GHA) in the 1990’s, the Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) in the health board and the founding of Gay Health Network (GHN) in 1994.
Mick was the manager at GMHS, and as it is a public health service, he had to retire when aged 65 in 2016. Nevertheless he continued with his voluntary work with GHN and particularly the EMIS 2017 research and coordination of the Community Reports.
Mick outlined how he has dealt with his retirement and being an older queer man:
“I was never one for gardening, drawing or reading and retirement to me meant changing, or doing other actions. Also, I refused to see myself as ‘old’. No-one believed that I was 65 and certainly, I didn’t feel it!
“Though fairly active, the biggest change on leaving the job was not having the routine of going to work so I gained further weight. My GP had already encouraged me to reduce weight. Truthfully, I was thinking I could go to Bear bars and events and fit in but my health was affected with some foot and leg infections. Then in June 2018, for a wedding function I had to try on 2XL and larger clothes sizes. When later seeing myself in a polaroid photo, I decided it was time to act.
“So, in July it began, my GP weighed me at 105kg for a 170cm height. How to proceed? Luckily, I am able bodied and live on my own. For any exercises, I knew I could do it as I had ‘muscle memory’ and not to give up bread, potatoes, cheese, as I knew I needed these for energy. I used a guide I had heard on the radio -‘Half the Portions and Double the Exercise’. I looked at my intake and burning of calories and studied labels on groceries (typical Virgo). I got rid of all large plates and weighed the food before cooking; like potatoes (100 gram) because usually when you boil them there are loads more and being Irish and working class, I couldn’t throw them out. Also, when you’re older you don’t need as many calories so my aim was 300 for breakfast and lunch and less than 800 for the evening meal. I knew I could burn at least 600 calories and more with the exercises. I only weighed myself once per month and over the next months I dropped about a kilo per month.
“When in France in September 2021, I turned 71. I reflected on what I was doing and decided to reduce the weights and stop the crunches. Presently it’s swimming every second day and weights the other day and cycling seven days (around 15km to 20km per day). So, I now weigh 75kg.
“‘Motivation is action, action is motivation’ is something I use either to write or to exercise. So, each morning when I get up, I start by running on the spot and some other stretches, then either weights (4kg dumbbells) or swimming; 1,000 metres in 32 to 34 minutes none-stop. I cycle between 15km to 20km or over every day. Afterwards I do yoga-type stretching and my proudest achievement is the ‘Tree’; which I do every evening; by standing on one leg with the other foot linked into the side of the knee, joining my palms at chest height and then overhead, holding for over two minutes each leg. Not bad for 71!
“In terms of mental health, experiencing various levels of anxiety over the years added to by COVID -this December and January just gone were the worst for me. I experienced the onset of extreme anxiety and panic attacks and crazy sleeping habits. I did reach out to my friends and GP. Also, as I’m not a pub goer, I was concerned about my homedrinking of a ‘bottle and half of wine’ per evening and some beers during the week. So, I stopped cold turkey (it is best to talk with GP as any sudden stopping of alcohol can be dangerous). Presently, I am over 13 weeks off alcohol and my attitude is ‘Will I go back? Do I need to?’ Anyway, there’s no rush.
“Importantly apart from the exercise above, I started to use some relaxation techniques. There is a great session on BBC Sounds on the internet with some great music along with instructions for breathing and relaxation which is really helpful for anxious times and for sleep.
“As you become older, thoughts of sickness, dementia, COVID, dying, care homes, immobility and the lack of sex all comes in your head. This along with lack of heat, food or just surviving on the pension and renting can become scary and weigh you down physically and mentally and affect confidence. It’s important to try to live in the now!
“I have always travelled and one of the ‘senior benefits’ is free All-Ireland travel and also 50% reduced ticket costs in many EU countries. When in France last year I travelled over 2,500 km by train and as I am sexually active, I met many at the same age or older or younger and had a good time. So, when I see statements on Grindr -‘no oldies’ -I think-‘fuck off ’. Luckily, apart from the apps there are cruising places, saunas, and indoor sex venues.
“Attitudes toward ageing and sex need to be addressed consistently, not only on a particular month. I have told my friends that if I’m found dead in a cruising place, rather than say ‘ah the poor oul fella, he must have been lonely and needy’, celebrate and toast saying ‘fair play to him he kept trying his best!’”