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‘My Own Personal Sligo’ will be forever rainbow-strewn

On April 15, I stood on the steps of Sligo’s City Hall and looked out at a scene that was familiar and simultaneously… all wrong. For 20 years, Sligo has been my nearest “big town,” the one I go to when I need LGBTQ+ company. A rainbow-clad crowd of LGBTQ+ people and our allies are at the heart of all my Sligo memories. “My Own Personal Sligo” will be forever rainbow-strewn.

Last Friday’s crowd, although crammed with familiar faces, looked wrong because this time when we came together again – it’s been a while – it wasn’t in joy and Pride but in grief. Two local men, Aidan Moffitt and Michael Snee had died and a third had been very seriously wounded in a series of nightmarish attacks. The rainbow flag flew at half-mast.

The loss of Michael and Aidan to their closest people is something nobody can understand. All we can do is stand with them in grief. The grief that a town or a community feels when something horrific happens is different but still very real. Sligo mourns because these deaths make people question the peace and safety of their hometown. They have to explain to their children now that hate exists. The LGBTQ+ community mourns also because the threat of violence is never very far away from us.

We worry about what might happen when one of us is alone and ends up in the wrong company. Sadly, that worry is not new.

It’s almost 16 years since a rainbow flag first flew outside Sligo City Hall. I was one of those who called people there that day, for something everyone said was crazy – the first Northwest Pride Parade.

LGBTQ+ Pride in a town of fewer than 20,000 people? It was unheard of, but a tiny number of queer and Trans people living in very rural counties – Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Donegal and Mayo – made it happen year after year. Our t-shirts said, “Still crazy after all these queers.”

The fear that is with us always can neither rule over us nor be forgotten. Every time I ever spoke in Sligo, I tried to mention Robert Drake’s name. Robert, a well-known, gay, American author was living in Sligo in 1999, when he was assaulted by two men who beat him almost to death. Robert lay, horribly injured, in his home for 15 hours before he was discovered. Robert will live forever with the disabilities inflicted on him 22 years ago, but he chose to “get better, not bitter” and, in learning to embrace its LGBTQ+ Pride, Sligo has done the same. Every town, every village, every family and every individual has to learn to live with all of our experiences, our own unique mix of pride and shame. And Sligo has its glory also…

When I stood on the steps of Sligo City Hall in 2006, I was probably the first person to speak there on LGBTQ+ rights, but I’d recently seen a picture of local girl Constance Markievicz standing there when she received the freedom of Sligo in 1917. To soothe my mounting anxiety, I consciously stood where she stood. I called on her courage to supplement my own. I tried to summon up the passion with which the Countess would have defended her sister and lifelong best friend, Eva Gore-Booth.

Eva is much less well-known in Ireland than ‘Con.’ She spent her adult life in Manchester and London, where she was a pioneer of the trade union and women’s suffrage movements. Like many suffrage campaigners, Eva was a sex and gender radical. Together with her partner, Esther Roper, and other people we would now call LGBTQ+, she founded a publication called Urania.

If Eva and Esther were around today, I think they’d say they were non-binary, every generation reinvents the language to describe ourselves. Eva’s words, “There are no ‘men’ or ‘women’ in Urania,” were splashed on the front page of every issue and another Eva quote, “Sex is an accident” was frequently invoked by the Uranians, long after her death.

Eva never received the freedom of any city, but she’s one of the 55 women’s suffrage campaigners named and pictured on the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue in London.

I think of Eva whenever some historically illiterate person claims that feminism, socialism and the struggles for gay rights and Trans rights have been separate struggles. They never were. The Millicent Fawcett statue has become a rallying point for transphobes who cheekily claim the suffragette legacy. Every time that happens, I think of Eva’s face and name below Millicent, literally holding her up.

I think of Con too. Her name and image as “The Countess” have been shamelessly appropriated by campaigners against Trans rights. In 1908, when Winston Churchill was standing for re-election in Manchester, he wanted to ban women from working as barmaids – the belief that women need “safe spaces” has usually meant “women are too delicate for the real world and should stay at home.” Eva and Esther organised “a fantastically flamboyant campaign” against the ban as part of which, Con drove the couple through Manchester in a coach and four. Churchill lost his seat also. Did the Countess fight for us? She surely fought for Eva and Esther, so I say she did!

Every time LGBTQ+ people assemble, we banish the pain and loneliness of the closet. We banish for a little while all our fears of what Robert or Aidan or Michael, or Declan Flynn in Fairview Park long ago, suffered all alone. We banish the lesser assaults and abuse that we ourselves suffered on the road to today because we’re not alone anymore, we are together. Together we are unafraid, filled with the spirit of Eva and Esther and Constance, charging through city streets on a coach and four. It was heartening, after the isolation of lockdowns, to see so many good people together in one place again last Friday, however heartbreaking the reason that brought us together.

These are dark times. There are concerted attempts to divide us from each other and in particular to drive a wedge between gay people and Trans people. We must never let that happen. The vigils gave me hope that it never will. In Ireland, we’ve been fortunate so far, these campaigners have little grassroots presence, but they’ve made worrying inroads into media – which is exactly how Britain’s conversion therapy debacle happened.

We are grieving now, as we did during the AIDS epidemic, but I hope we are also rising in solidarity now, as we did then. I hope we always stand together. Only the light of truth can dispel this darkness. When we stand together, we honour our fallen, but we also fight for a better future for those who are not yet here.

Right now, I’m calling on the unbreakable spirit of Eva to steady my hand for my next project, a series highlighting the activities of some of the Irish anti-trans extremists, especially those actively campaigning against bans on conversion therapy. Afterwards, I’ll deal with those who have the cheek to appropriate the name of Eva’s beloved sister, Con. If Con herself turns up in spirit, to drive a coach and four through all their dangerous nonsense, so much the better!

“The wind is our confederate, The night has left her doors ajar, We meet beyond earth’s barred gate, Where all the world’s wild Rebels are.” – Eva Gore-Booth, Comrades.

This article appears in the 372 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 372 Issue of GCN