‘I was living in the shadows of my friends who had died of Aids’

Mind Yourself’s Door to Door project has collected Irish stories in London for LGBT History Month

 

As part of LGBT History Month this February, Mind Yourself, a charity supporting the health and wellbeing of Irish people living in London, has been collecting the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people through a series of visual art workshops.

Here, Fr Bernárd Lynch tells his story:

“I was sent to New York initially to do postgraduate studies in theology and psychology. I did a doctorate at Fordham University and New York Theological Seminary. I worked there for over 20 years and I got very involved in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual liberation movement.

“It collapsed into the Aids pandemic in 1981 where Aids was first “officially” diagnosed in New York and San Francisco amongst the gay community. It was known then as GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency. I became chaplain or theological advisor to people who were dying of Aids.

“It was a diagnosis on a Wednesday and a death on the Sunday, and most of the people who were dying at that particular time were in their 20s and 30s. They had not lived their lives, to say the least. I don’t think they had even imagined their lives; they were too young.

“And I was very soon drafted on to the Mayor of New York’s task force on Aids - that was Mayor Koch. It was an advisory group. The organisation that I was on was called Dignity and 600 of our membership died of Aids in the period from 1981 until I came to London in 1992.

“I suppose that was the raison d’etre of my coming to London. I wanted to get away from what had become for me a ghost town. Even though I would seriously consider myself a born-again New Yorker, I was now living in the shadows of so many of my friends who had died of Aids.

“I came here in 1992 to work at London Lighthouse which, no pun intended, was the lighthouse of Aids care in the United Kingdom. I brought my ‘experience’ and my expertise to there and worked in Aids/HIV.

“Now, we had testing so you knew whether you we HIV positive or not. Initially nobody knew so therefore we prepared for death. “Whose turn was it next?” There were all sorts of bogus reasons given for contracting the virus, from drinking from the same cup to sitting on the same toilet seat to kissing somebody. But with the development of the epidemiology of Aids, we were able to say whether one was positive or negative.

“But people were still dying, right up to [the introduction of anti-retroviral] combination therapy, and so I stayed in the forefront of the battle right up until two years ago, even though the battle in the last 10 years was not so much a battle as supporting people who were on combination therapy, or long-term survivors, or indeed people who had lost lovers and friends.

“So that’s how I came to England. I came initially just to get away from New York, from all the horror of what we call the “Aids holocaust”.

“I only came for three years. That was my contract but I met my husband - quite accidentally. I didn’t come here looking for a husband. You know, as they say, the rest is history. I fell in love with him, we’re together, I guess, over 20 years.

“So it’s been an extraordinary journey. I haven’t lived in my home county in Ireland, Clare - Ennis - since 1965, which is a long time. But I go back there - I still have a father who’s alive, thank God, and in very good health - and my husband and I have a home there on the Atlantic coast that we built in the last ten years. So I have a lot of connections to, a lot of grá for Ireland, even though I wouldn’t claim to know Ireland.”

- In conversation with Rob Costello from Door to Door

Participants in the LGBT History Month workshops were encouraged to share stories as a group, and create imagery individually. Issues such as identity, privacy and transition emerged as significant themes over the course of the sessions, with works of considerable humour and freedom being made alongside pieces evoking sadness, loss and anger. Spoken stories and poetry were also recorded.

The project was carried out as part of Mind Yourself's Door to Door programme, which has been collecting stories from the Irish diaspora documenting journeys from Ireland to London. Volunteers run workshops exploring different ways of telling and sharing these stories, ranging from drama and writing to audio-editing and visual storytelling (read more about Door to Door in this article by Bairbre Meade and more about Mind Yourself’s work in this article by the charity's director Claire Barry).

The Door to Door stories, including those collected for LGBT History Month, are available to read on doortodoor.org.

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