Dancing in the Margins: How Inclusive Are Dublin’s LGBTQ+ Spaces?

This article was originally published on June 6th 2017, on the Dublin Inquirer‘s website.

In its early days, the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar hosted a few different nights.

The centre – which had opened in 1979 in what was then an underdeveloped neighbourhood – was a three-storey knocked-back warehouse with a small black-box nightclub. It had a dance floor, mirrors and mineral bar at the end of the upstairs area.

The weekend disco was called “Flikkers”, named after the Dutch word for “faggot”. It was one of the only nights for LGBTQ+-identifying individuals in the country, and soon became grounds for experimentation, liberation, and conversation between people who otherwise may not have found each other.

Thursday nights were designated “women’s nights”, but that was hotly contested by its male patrons, says Izzy Kamikaze, the LGBTQ+ activist and occasional DJ.

Thursday “wasn’t a particularly high-demand night”, she says. It would attract 20 or 30 people in a given week.

“I often went on a Saturday night [too] and there could be a couple of hundred men and maybe two or three women,” she says. “If you were looking to cop off” – she laughs – “then it certainly wasn’t the right environment.”

Indeed, some feel that even decades later Dublin’s clubbing scene, that staple of queer identity, remains focused on cis gay men, with other members of the community pushed to the margins.

Spaces

Tonie Walsh, co-founder of the magazine, GCN, and current curator of the Irish Queer Archive, says that the Hirschfeld Centre had its pluses, though.

“Despite its flaws – and we’d be silly to imagine it as a perfect nirvana – it created a space for a generation of Irish lesbians and men to imagine and embrace new identities,” he said.

As he sees it, the conversation should focus less on attendance figures, and more on how those who used the centre’s various spaces felt in coming together to build a community.

It was “a home from home for young lesbians and gay men who […] had been devalued, expunged from family and community lives […] to build a positive, holistic attitude to their lives,” he says.

Outside of the centre, there were other attempts to establish nights for women: every Saturday, the proprietors at J.J. Smyth’s on Aungier Street offered an upstairs space to LGBTQ+ women.

“There was no dance floor, [only] a sticky carpet, and a portable sound system. Most of the dyke-scene stuff was like that,” says Kamikaze. Eventually, this scene withered away.

More Public

As LGBTQ+ people have become more prominent in the public sphere, some in the community have become more introspective.

Speakers and writers are challenging omissions in present-day LGBTQ+ campaigning, to create an intersectional dialogue between sexuality and issues of race, class, and gender.

Take Anne Mulhall’s depiction of the Yes Equality campaign in 2015, as focused on white middle-class gay men.

“The failure to address migrant communities or to include LGBT migrants and people of colour in the Yes Equality campaign compounded the alienation, marginalisation and exclusion that are the experience of minority communities in a white nation,” wrote Mulhall, a lecturer at University College Dublin.

Some feel the same about Dublin’s clubbing scene, that this staple of queer identity remains focused on cis gay men.

“It’s like every area of life: trans people are not catered to meaningfully,” says Gordon Grehan, the operations manager of Transgender Equality Network (TENI).

He sees more education and awareness as necessary. “Often the people in the L, G, B parts of the community are lacking in knowledge,” he says.

Clubbing in the nineties was an important part of Grehan’s life and his gay identity, and being able to meet other gay men in a pre-internet age was exciting.

“I don’t think there is something like that for trans people, but I do think there are spaces that are very inclusive,” he said.

But Grehan questions whether the answer to this is a nightclub just for trans individuals. “Is that a bit othering?” he asks.

“What are we saying, that trans people need something that others don’t? Everywhere should be trans inclusive is where I’d be coming from, and that there would be certain spaces that are majority trans or trans-only spaces, but I don’t know if a club should be one of those spaces,” he says.

Some promoters have made an effort to create inclusive LGBTQ+ club nights. Cormac Cashman, who is behind the weekly events “PrHomo” and “Mother” held out of The Hub in Temple Bar, says he has made great efforts to make his spaces inclusive.

This includes a gender-neutral bathroom policy. “Trans inclusivity is vital on the LGBTQ scene. We’re a community,” he says, by email.

“Honestly I don’t know why people get so worked up over bathrooms. Why the fuck should anyone care who is in the next cubicle to them?” he says.

Emily Scanlan has also worked to address the omissions present in Dublin’s LGBTQ+ community.

She has, in her career as a club promoter, organised nights for queer-identifying women such as “Cake,” and “Crush”. She set up the latter after the end of the lesbian-and-bi night K.I.S.S, which was around for about 10 years then weaned out.

“And at that stage there were absolutely no lesbian or bi nights whatever, and so I set up Crush with GCN, and that was really successful,” she said.

These days, she runs “Spinster” once a month out of Sycamore Street near Dame Lane. It’s mostly marketed to queer women but she strives to make it as inclusive as possible, she says.

“It’s not a ‘gay’ night, I never said that anywhere, I want it to be really inclusive […] There are a lot of lesbian and bi women at it, of course, but it’s very open. It’s the kind of place anyone can come to and have fun. I feel it’s the most inclusive thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

It is harder to run a commercially viable club night for a smaller and more marginalised group of people, though. “I don’t know if [Spinster] would work every week,” says Scanlan.”[It is] a hobby for me. I have a full-time job.”

Grehan echoes Scanlan’s sentiments: “In the trans community, the cohort of people who are interested in going out every week or every month is much, much smaller, so I don’t think you could create a club around that.”

The Rise and Role of Drag

One of the mainstays of LGBTQ+ club nights in Dublin are performances by charismatic drag queens. It’s a draw.

Drag queens grace the dance-floors of “PrHomo” and “Mother”. The George has also hosted a drag-themed bingo night every Sunday for 20 years. It was a platform for performers such as Shirley Temple Bar and Veda.

But as drag has become more mainstream, some have begun to cast a critical eye on the stereotypes and the ideas of femininity that it can spread – and have asked whether in some forms, it can alienate groups in the LGBTQ+ community.

For some, drag has served as a way to explore gender identity.

“As I started to perform, I suddenly realised that, just by putting on a frock and a wig and clown make-up, that I was challenging the norms and stereotypes of gender,” said Noel Sutton, who has performed in drag regularly since the nineties.

When you perform outside of the rigid stereotypes inscribed onto you, “you become a magnet for people who feel different”, says Sutton, who is also the manager of Dublin’s LGBTQ+ film festival GAZE.

But that’s changed a bit as drag has moved from the margins.

Says Grehan: “Some trans women have a problem with drag queens in terms of creating an idea of femininity that isn’t real. That causes confusion around what it means to be a trans woman, or to be a woman.”

There’s a move in drag towards being as glamorous as possible, or to be as passing as this incredible attractive cis woman, he says.

“But that holds up an idealised version of how women should look, and particularly trans women, which is reductive and unhelpful.”

To some, it’s unsurprising that as drag has gone mainstream with RuPaul’s Drag Race – in a particular form, and with a particular attitude – there are questions raised about the potential dilution of drag.

“The judging on that show has given the impression that only a certain presentation of drag is worthy – and this is a hyper-feminine, padded and contoured version,” said Declan Buckley, known for his drag persona Shirley Temple Bar.

But while there are many who take to the stage without considering the political currency of drag, who simply want to entertain, there are many others “who are challenging the norms and the stereotypes,” he said, by email.

Sutton says that the idea that some would cater their personalities to fit an established ideal is disappointing. “I never set out to look like anyone when I dress up,” he said.

For Buckley, however, the idea that someone can “do drag wrong” is counterintuitive. But it’s a conversation worth having, he says.

“While the visual aspect of drag – through exposure and over-familiarity – may have lost some of its capacity to be impactful, the performative aspect still allows us to do what we have always done: poke fun, raise questions, rally the troops and entertain,” he says.

It is not just sections of the trans community that have come to challenge contemporary drag. Some queer and feminist critics have also criticised such performances, in particular what is presented, and indeed mimicked from, RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In this critique, drag is often seen as an outlet through which cisgender gay men can express a certain kind of misogyny: with gendered slurs and harmful stereotypes of women as ditsy, promiscuous or dangerous.

Club promoters in Dublin may be isolating some of the LGBTQ+ community by supporting drag acts that spread these ideas.

“I think there is something very challenging for trans women in that this is a cisgender man performing and being able to take the layers off and live [his] life and not have people take that second look at [him],” Grehan says.

“Really thoughtful and good drag is aware of that, and aware of the binary and what they’re doing,” he says.

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