10 years on, gay Ireland is unrecognisable

 

It has been a decade of remarkable change for the gay scene in Ireland, but some things have unfortunately remained the same, writes Brian Finnegan.

I returned to Ireland at the beginning of 1993 after six years living it up on the gay scene in London. Like most of my graduating class, I had emigrated for economic reasons, but what kept me living in London for so long was the city's vast, socially progressive and somewhat, in the face of Thatcher's Clause 28, politically galvanised gay world.

It was a trillion miles away from the bleak isolation of my west of Ireland home town. Gay London's brash confidence gave me the impetus not only to come out to my family and friends, but to begin living my life as a gay man professionally. I learned to accept and declare myself.

My return home was prompted by family dilemmas. On first encountering Dublin's gay and lesbian social scene, I was horrified. Gay life in the capital consisted of two darkened, dingy bars and a couple of underground gay club nights.

Although there were several key activists fighting to get the Government to decriminalise homosexual acts, within the wider community there was a definite sense of defeat and paranoia.

Gay Community News (GCN), Ireland's only publication aimed at lesbian and gay readers at the time, was delivered to venues wrapped in brown paper, lest a distribution point be "identified" in broad daylight. Temple Bar's Hirschfeld Centre, which once openly thrived as Ireland's gay and lesbian centre, was a burnt-out shell, half-existing as an office for GCN and housing a disparate queer archive amid leaking roofs and charred remains.

This, I have to remind myself, was only 10 years ago. The enormous, almost unquantifiable changes in gay Ireland over the past decade make that world seem almost prehistoric.

When Máire Geoghegan-Quinn finally got the Bill for decriminalisation passed in July 1993, the community reaction was, in a word, incredulous. After all, only a few people had actually fought the fight. The rest of us, pushed under the carpet for decade after decade, had become resigned to living our lives under the shadow of the law. Change, when it came, was overnight and unexpected.

It also happened at the moment the Celtic Tiger began to gain momentum. Along with the rest of Ireland's previously economically disenfranchised population, the gay community gained a sudden brash self-confidence. Within six months of the Bill being passed, gay people all but forgot that it had ever been a criminal offence to be with your lover.

In early 1994, I was asked by two Irish publishing houses to edit collections of new gay fiction. GCN was no longer being delivered under the veil of brown paper and non-gay businesses were advertising in its pages. The George, Dublin's longest running gay bar, expanded its premises and installed a window that looked out on to the street, allowing the street to look in.

Countless one-nighter gay clubs sprang up on the straight social scene; In Dublin magazine asked me to edit their brand new "queer" pages; Dublin Gay Pride, which two years before was a 200-strong march through the city, became a week-long festival.

There is no doubt that the development of gay Dublin went hand in hand with the economic boom. Phrases like the "pink pound" and "Slinkie" (Single Income No Kids) began to be bandied about in the media, who had suddenly cottoned on to a globalised gay marketing niche, which had been identified in the wake of AIDS and its sudden demarcation of actual gay lives.

Everybody wanted in on the action and the pay-off for the gay community was a sense of value and privilege so badly denied to us in the years before decriminalisation.

Ten years on, gay Ireland is virtually unrecognisable. Social scenes have sprung up in all the satellite cities and many groups individually organise to gather in more rural areas.

You can go into a shop in the smallest village in Co Leitrim and buy a gay magazine. Internet chatrooms and classified services provide ample opportunities for men and women, who were previously cut off and ostracised, to meet and form friendships and relationships beyond the obvious social pull of the capital's diverse and flourishing scene.

My own career has developed apace with gay Ireland. The print media, which had previously only reported on gay politics, social and cultural developments from an outsider's standpoint, began to employ me to write from the horse's mouth, so to speak. With John Ryan I developed GI, Ireland's first gay glossy and this year I returned to GCN to rebrand it for a hugely expanded commercial market.

But all is not sunshine and daffodils, moonlight and pansies. Since moving away from the lifestyle, fashion and carefree focus of GI and returning to the grass-roots environs of GCN, I have begun to realise that our self-confidence and unapologetic visibility masks an unchanging ambivalence at government level about our rights as equal citizens.

The recent National Economic and Social Forum Report may have identified the absence of partnership rights for same sex couples as the major barrier to progress on equality for lesbians and gay men, but it also voiced concerns about the absence of positive action by the Department of Education and Science on issues relating to sexual orientation, particularly school bullying.

This is one area where there has been no change, not even since I was a child and identified as "the school queer". One survey found that 100 per cent of bullying in boys schools includes the use of homophobic terms such as "queer" and "faggot".

If society is to fully grow and accept difference in others, we need to be working at this ground level to implement change. My life as a gay man in Dublin continues in a bubble of acceptance and ease, but as you read this, some child is suffering relentless abuse at the hands of tormentors who are endorsed by the lack of action in the school system to tackle homophobia in the playground.

Like every human being, that child deserves to grow up free of the fear of rejection, without the scars that such abuse can leave. Our society deserves to be populated with people who grow up to feel a sense of real, not superficial, value and equality.

Brian Finnegan is editor of the relaunched Gay Community News.