‘An alternative community center’: the role of nightclubs in the LGBT community

Off Topic: Has the attack in Orlando shattered the sense of nigthclubs as a safe place for the LGBT community? And how much homophobic violence is there in Ireland?

 Rory O’Neill (Ms Panti Bliss) being interviewed at the launch of “KnowNow”, a national free rapid HIV testing programme. His bar  is offering free HIV tests to patrons. Photograph: Eric Luke

Rory O’Neill (Ms Panti Bliss) being interviewed at the launch of “KnowNow”, a national free rapid HIV testing programme. His bar is offering free HIV tests to patrons. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando has devastated the LGBT community in the US and abroad. It also directly targeted the idea of gay clubs being safe spaces for LGBT people.

On today’s edition of Off Topic, we discuss the role nightclubs play, how they act as community centres for LGBT people, and how crucial they are for a section of our society that is still on the receiving end of everyday abuse.

Our panel is made up of three people who have played central roles in Ireland’s LGBT community: Una Mullally is a journalist, activist and columnist with this newspaper; Buzz O’Neill is an events manager and club promoter; and Tonie Walsh is a journalist, activist, and founder of the Irish Queer Archive.

Each of the panellists discuss their first time, and remember the fear of it. “The terror of going to your first gay bar,” says Buzz O’Neill laughing at the memory, “and then never wanting to go anywhere else.”

“There is a sense of family,” says Una Mullally. When going to such places, “I feel my shoulders drop; the tension of life dissipates.”

Tonie Walsh quotes his friend Panti, who describes Pantibar as “an alternative community center”. And Una Mullally and Tonie Walsh recall poignant moments in one bar on Christmas and Stephens Day, when people with nowhere else to go would get together. Some had been forced to leave their family homes because they were gay.

Much of the change we’ve seen in recent years began in these bars and clubs, where the community started its planning. Una Mullally recalls the activity in places such as Pantibar during the recent Equality referendum, and Buzz O’Neill remembers how people would routinely go there after canvassing in Dublin.

Tonie Walsh remembers some of the earliest clubs and spaces, in particular the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar, which was set up in 1979. “The original imperative was to address the non-provision of services for the gay community. We created our own rule book. Those spaces enabled us to have conversations to empower ourselves. The value is one of bars and clubs being safe spaces. Once you create those safe spaces, you can dissuade yourself from the prejudices.”

Homophobic violence is a real, present issue in Ireland. All of our contributors have been attacked simply for being gay. “There are specific periods when that [anti-gay] violence flares; it’s when the LGBT community get their moment,” says Tonie Walsh. It’s “a backlash to progress”, adds Mullally.

The causes for this are many and complex, but people such as Ireland manager Martin O’Neill making jokes about being “queer” have far-reaching consequences. “People have to realise the cause and effect of their words,” adds Mullally.

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