I’ve written a piece for the Dublin Inquirer on how inclusive LGBTQ+ club nights are for trans people and LGBTQ+ women. It can be read here.
This article was originally published in the University Observer in March 2017. It was later published online.
David Monaghan speaks to Senator David Norris as he receives UCD LGBTQ+’s Foy-Zappone Award.
IN JUNE 1993, homosexuality was decriminalised within Irish law as a result of the Criminal Fraud (Sexual Offences) Bill. A century-old law that saw LGBTQ+ people thrown into prisons, beaten, tortured and analysed as sexual pariahs had finally been overruled, and many felt they could now begin the long journey to feeling like they were welcomed in Irish society.
The progenitor from which the momentum for decriminalisation came was David Norris, a former Joycean academic-cum-Senator, who kick-started the movement in the late 1970s. It is because of his efforts that many are no longer considered criminals in their home country, and why successive generations of LGBTQ+ individuals are now unaware of the threat those handcuffs held.
In February 2017, nearly 24 years since his efforts to increase the rights of sexual minorities in the country resulted in decriminalisation, David Norris has been honoured by UCD’s LGBTQ+ society. He recently received the annual ‘Foy-Zappone Award’, a prize reserved for anyone seen to do remarkable work within the field of LGBTQ+ rights advancement. It is named for Dr. Lydia Foy and Katherine Zappone TD, the inaugural recipients of the prestigious award, and Norris is the fourth person to be honoured since its inception in 2014.
David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Photo credit: senatordavidnorris.ie
Known for his jovial attitude, before the prize-giving began, Norris joked with society members and recounted various anecdotes from his career as a political activist: “I was once approached by a man who was worried his dog was gay,” he quipped.
The event began with a short screening of an RTÉ recording from 1975, featuring Norris being interviewed by the late Áine O’Connor – possibly the first time an openly gay man had been seen on Irish television – as the somewhat younger but still recognisable activist is asked upfront if he is sick. “When they approached me,” says Norris, addressing the audience that had formed to hear him speak, “they said, ‘well, we’ll have your back to the camera and disguise your voice,’ and I said, ‘well then I’m not doing it,’ because the whole point in being on television […] was to disprove the idea that we’re monsters.”
“If they had me sat there like the Elephant Man, back to the camera, in shadow, using a disguised voice, of course people would think I’m a fucking monster.”
Of course, RTÉ suggesting something like this was symptomatic of the time: many gay people were simply too afraid to be vocal about their sexuality in public for fear of violent backlash, or in extreme cases, incarceration. Norris, however, never shied away from discussing his sexuality, and he took his first baby steps towards campaigning for equal rights in 1969, as he informed the audience: “There was an advertisement on the back page of the Observer newspaper and it said ‘Homosexual? […] Send address on envelope to The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, 28-something street, Manchester.’ And I sent off my ten bob […] and became a member.”
“IF THEY HAD ME SAT THERE LIKE THE ELEPHANT MAN, BACK TO THE CAMERA, IN SHADOW, USING A DISGUISED VOICE, OF COURSE PEOPLE WOULD THINK I’M A FUCKING MONSTER.”
In the very early 1970s, Norris’s activism became more overt, shifting from the personal sphere to the public. Seeing the Troubles unfold in Northern Ireland, Norris was involved in the formation of the ‘Southern Ireland Civil Rights Association’, which was established to show solidarity with oppressed Catholics north of the border.
Although a member of the Church of Ireland, he felt Roman Catholics were being treated with contempt, but he became incensed when fellow campaigners suggested Presbyterians were more tolerant in the Republic, prompting Norris to stand up and say, as he recalls now: “‘You think you don’t discriminate but you do. I am ‘homosexual’’ – that’s the way we said it in those days, as if we were a species of rare butterfly – and I eventually persuaded them to include reform of the criminal law as part of their agenda, and that was the first time in Ireland that any group had committed itself to law reform.”
David Norris speaking to Áine O’Connor on RTÉ television in 1975, as chairman of the Irish Gay Rights Movement.
Despite this initial success there soon followed a brief hiatus in Norris’s overt campaigning until 1973. He explained to the audience that a conference was held in Trinity College at this time on the broad topic of sexuality, but as the event progressed it became increasingly apparent that most of the attendees were interested in the more specific and much more taboo subject of homosexuality. Norris continues: “Then they started another conference in 1973 that I went to, and they had various people from England coming over, [such as] the editor of Sappho, a lesbian magazine, and we had our own people, like Hugo McManus.”
Out of this sprung the Sexual Liberation Movement, of which David Norris was a member. Disappointed with the direction the group was taking, he led the first split and formed what became known as the Irish Gay Rights Movement. The first event was held by IGRM on the grounds of Trinity College. Norris, expecting a meagre 20 or so interested patrons, was shocked to find that, in fact, 250 people had shown up. “That set my little nose wriggling,” Norris jokes, “and I thought, ‘oh, there’s money to be made in this’.”
“I AM ‘HOMOSEXUAL’’ – THAT’S THE WAY WE SAID IT IN THOSE DAYS, AS IF WE WERE A SPECIES OF RARE BUTTERFLY”
The IGRM then began regularly holding discotheques. Later, Norris helped found the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin, which became a social hub for an oppressed and overlooked minority for many years after its inception. Norris recalls: “On the night it opened – St. Patrick’s Day, 1979 […] 450 people turned up! This surging, seething mob outside [was] trying to push the doors in […] I noticed that the floorboards were deflected, because of people dancing […] So I stopped the music and made the announcement […] and got hissed and booed, and then somebody said, ‘c’mon now lads, at least somebody gives a shit about our welfare.’”
Norris and company began work on fixing the issue and the Hirschfeld Centre was up and running again weeks later. Although he enjoyed working at the Centre, Norris admits that he knew little of the music that was played at the venue: “This led to me interrogating Freddie Mercury over his membership card and whether it was up to date – and I did the same to Elton John! I hadn’t a clue who they were!”
The Hirschfeld Centre, although successful, was targeted numerous times. Norris informed the audience of one such occasion: “I was in the office on the top floor […] and I could see sparks [coming from the roof]. When I got up I found a bomb […] Someone had put […] two milk churns full of explosives, one on each side of a barrel of petrol, and they had poured petrol on the roof and thrown up firelighters […] the idea was to heat up the roof, and that would explode the milk churns, blow the lid off the barrel of petrol, blow the roof off, and send flaming streaks of petrol down to the discotheque, where about 300 people would have been burnt to death.”
“THIS LED TO ME INTERROGATING FREDDIE MERCURY OVER HIS MEMBERSHIP CARD AND WHETHER IT WAS UP TO DATE – AND I DID THE SAME TO ELTON JOHN! I HADN’T A CLUE WHO THEY WERE!”
Horrified, Norris entered fight or flight mode and used fire extinguishers he had carried with him to put out the firelighters. It was a narrow escape. The Hirschfeld Centre eventually burned down in 1987: “I was in bed about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning,” Norris recalls, “and I was called down as a key holder […] and I ascertained that nobody had been injured, the archive was rescued, and the insurance was in place [and] I sat back to enjoy the fire.”
The Irish Gay Rights Movement, which had been founded by Norris, was about to experience another major split, as he explained to the audience at the award ceremony: “I was pushing for political change and public agitation – and this was a very, very frightened community at this stage, we really were threatened by the criminal law […] and a lot of people didn’t want [public agitation]. They wanted [us] to keep our heads down, and to be quiet, and to have discos, and meet somebody to go to bed with […] all these perfectly natural human things, but they wanted to cut out the political things.”
Image via The Irish Queer Archive.
David Norris then moved on to form the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which aimed to change the status of male same-sex activity in Irish law, then illegal. In 1983, Norris took this challenge to the High Court, and later the Supreme Court – where he was represented by former President Mary Robinson – and it was rejected both times.
The case was then brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Norris and Robinson, the latter of whom had made the submission, where it was found that Ireland’s anti-gay law breached the European Convention on Human Rights. “We won by one vote,” Norris reflects. “And there were about twenty judges, so it was very narrow. The Irish judge, of course, [voted] against us.” This ruling paved the way for decriminalisation by the Irish government in June 1993.
With such a vast, long-standing and notable career in campaigning for the advancement of gay rights, it is unsurprising that Norris would be selected as the next recipient of the Foy-Zappone award. Speaking to OTwo after a long talk, and a round of questions, he is quick to inform that receiving such accolades always comes as a surprise: “I’m surprised people remember these things, because my policy is to go straight on to the next thing and keep forging ahead, and I don’t look back very much, so it’s lovely.”
“I NOTICED THAT THE FLOORBOARDS WERE DEFLECTED, BECAUSE OF PEOPLE DANCING […] SO I STOPPED THE MUSIC AND MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT […] AND GOT HISSED AND BOOED, AND THEN SOMEBODY SAID, ‘C’MON NOW LADS, AT LEAST SOMEBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT OUR WELFARE.’”
The audience that had come to hear Norris speak and receive the award was comprised mostly of people in their twenties. “A lot of young people don’t realise it was a criminal offense, which surprises me,” Norris admits.
Senator Norris made headlines in 2013 when it was announced that he had developed cancer on his liver, and he had to undergo a transplant in late 2014 as a result. A month before receiving the Foy-Zappone Award, he signed off from his duties at Leinster House for a time, citing a chest infection. “I couldn’t breathe,” Norris explains, “I couldn’t do anything, and I was put straight into hospital […] Then they found I had a very severe form of diabetes […] But my energy levels, physically, are not what they used to be.”
Has Norris’s physical health impacted on his work in the Seanad? “I used to speak on absolutely everything,” he says. “But now I’m much more targeted. I select the issues on which I could make an impact, and I speak on those. For example: Alice Mary Higgins [Senator for the Civil Engagement group] put down a thing on the Canadian Trade Agreement, and I did my research on it and made a really passionate speech, and my speech led to Fianna Fáil abstaining, and the government were defeated […] which was good, but some of the other issues that are going around I just leave them.”
Image via LetsMakeHistory.ie.
One issue that Norris has spoken about is the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which currently prohibits women from attaining legal abortions in Ireland. “I think [the eighth amendment] is dreadful,” he says. “I don’t understand how somebody outside a relationship, with no connection to the people involved, can presume in their arrogance to tell a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped by a neighbour, that she has to keep the child. I think there should be choice: if women keep the child in those situations, or in terms of fatal foetal abnormality, or rape, or incest, then that’s wonderful and I admire them for it, but I definitely think they should have the choice.”
In 2011, Senator Norris entered the race to become the ninth President of Ireland, a position hotly contested by six other candidates. Support initially fell in his favour, with Stephen Fry even tweeting that Ireland “couldn’t have a more intelligent, passionate, knowledgeable, witty or committed President” than the famed Senator.
However, it was revealed in July of that year that Norris, over a decade previously, had used notepaper with the Oireachtas letterhead to send a letter to the Israeli High Court. He asked for clemency in the trial of his former partner, left-wing activist Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of statutory rape. Norris withdrew from the race later that same month, but re-entered in September when it seemed support was moving in his favour again. Norris eventually lost to Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins.
“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN FAIRLY LOQUACIOUS, SO THAT DIDN’T REALLY CONCERN ME AT ALL, AND I NEVER FELT IT WAS A BURDEN. THERE WAS OFTEN QUITE A LOT OF FUN INVOLVED IN IT, AND I WAS QUITE IRREVERENT IN THE INTERVIEWS I GAVE.”
Reflecting on this period, Norris calls it a “destructive and homophobic experience.” He elaborates: “RTÉ put out jokes that [said] ‘David Norris would like it up the Áras’ […] If they had said that kind of thing about women, they would have been burnt to the ground. They said I advocated parents having sex with their own children – I mean, crazy, crazy stuff […] And then also the Israeli Government were involved in releasing information which only they had about the case Ezra [Nawi] was involved in, which was actually a honey-trap by the Israeli police.”
Norris continues: “my whole campaign team — bar three people — buggered off and left me. Not one of them officially resigned. I learned it on the Nine O’Clock News […] that the principle PR woman […] no longer worked for Norris campaign. It was devastating – the utter scandalous disloyalty.” Despite losing after an embittering and dramatic race, Norris feels that our current President, Michael D. Higgins has done a stellar job. “I do think we have an excellent President […] He’s a little academic [and] if you tune into his speeches, if you’re tuned into his wave-length, they are brilliant.”
Flikkers Dance Club in the Hirschfeld Centre 1985/6. (Photo: Tonie Walsh).
The Senator has seen huge political and social changes in his lifetime, particularly in the area of LGBTQ+ rights. Having been born into a state in which he was considered a criminal, Norris now lives in a country where he need not live in fear of incarceration simply because of who he is, where anti-discrimination laws exist in LGBTQ+ individuals’ favour in areas of employment, the provision of goods and services, and speech, and where he can not only adopt children, but also marry the partner of his choice. And this is to say nothing of the Gender Recognition Bill, which allows Ireland’s trans citizens to change gender on legal forms without interference from doctors or psychologists.
“I rarely thought about [the changes that were possible],” Norris explains. “I had a series of defined targets at each stage. The first one was knocking out the criminal law, and then building on the social and human rights legislations. So I was usually targeting an immediate object, and planning and strategizing for that, rather than looking beyond that, at the next thing, because that would have been a waste of time.”
When asked if he ever felt a burden of responsibility in being one of the first openly-gay public figures in Ireland, Norris responds with a firm and decisive “no,” adding: “I’ve always been fairly loquacious, so that didn’t really concern me at all, and I never felt it was a burden. There was often quite a lot of fun involved in it, and I was quite irreverent in the interviews I gave.”
This article originally appeared on the HeadStuff website on March 14th, 2017.
On March 8th, an estimated 10,000 people partook in a march in Dublin to protest Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which positions the life of the unborn as equal to that of its mother. This restricts abortion access for Irish women and forces many to travel to the UK in order to avail of the country’s more progressive abortion laws. According to the website of the Irish Family Planning Association, approximately 166,951 women traveled to the UK between 1980 and 2015 in order to make use of this legislation. The mental and physical toll of this journey, coupled with the stigma many face upon a return to their native country, has been a subject of great anger for campaigners since the Eighth Amendment’s implementation in the October of 1983.
Although the march attracted a lot of media attention both at home and abroad, appearing on CNN and Buzzfeed, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, instead focused its news report last Wednesday on the worldwide significance of International Women’s Day, neglecting to mention the implications of such a movement in Ireland. They did not reference attendance figures, the Eighth Amendment, and also dedicated equal time during the broadcast to the rise in stamp prices.
“We set this up basically because we shut down the city twice last Wednesday, there were marches all over the country, we had solidarity come in from all over the world, and [there wasn’t]a peep from RTÉ. We decided to bring the story to their doorstep.”
This angered activists Eva Griffin, Sadhbh Ní Bhroin and Síofra Dempsey, who together organised a protest outside RTÉ studios on Monday, March 13th, in order to hold the broadcaster to account for its blatant misrepresentation of the march. Speaking at the protest, Ní Bhroin outlined the reasons for organising such an event: “We set this up basically because we shut down the city twice last Wednesday, there were marches all over the country, we had solidarity come in from all over the world, and [there wasn’t]a peep from RTÉ. We decided to bring the story to their doorstep.”
Echoing Ní Bhroin’s comments was co-organiser Eva Griffin: “After the strike and march on Wednesday, I saw a lot of people […] complaining online about the RTÉ coverage, which consisted of […] ten seconds of the strike, which they actually bought from another source, used as a segue into a story on the gender pay gap, which is obviously important, but they skipped over the biggest story in Ireland at the time.”
Also at the event was Síofra Dempsey: “The purpose […] is to make it clear to RTÉ, and to the state, that they can’t ignore the issue of Repeal the 8th. It’s something they want to sweep under the rug and pretend isn’t happening, and by not reporting [on the march], RTÉ are directly colluding with the state in covering up, so we want to make that impossible for them in organising a protest.”
Griffin set up the Facebook page ‘RTE Recognition 4 Repeal’ late last week, and overnight it attracted hundreds of interested participants. This was down to support from the Strike for Repeal movement, Trinity for Choice, UCD for Choice, ROSA, Amnesty Ireland’s Colm O’Gorman, and People Before Profit.
Griffin continues: “The Facebook group blew up. Between attending and interested, there was over 1000 people.” The protest on the day attracted approximately 90 participants who joined together in chants of “Hey hey RTÉ / Put the strike on our TV,” and “Enda, Enda / We want a referendum.”
The protest began at 4:30pm outside RTÉ’s side entrance at Nutley Lane, and eventually moved to Stillorgan Road where it continued until 6:30pm. It attracted attention from the Pro-Life Campaign and Liberal.ie’s Cora Sherlock, who is a noted Pro-Life advocate.
In attendance at the protest was MA student Aisling Fulcher, who noted the broadcaster’s hypocrisy in claiming to be non-biased: “They obviously show a centre-right leaning [in not reporting the march], and if they say it’s their responsibility to provide fair and equal coverage, they should do that. They should do [their]job.”
“[It’s important] that there’s more inclusion and intersectionality. With trans people and non-binary people, it’s a discussion that affects us too. Abortion is always talked about as a woman’s issue, but it also affects non-binary people and trans men, and there are added traumas they might have to go through as well”
Representing Non-Binary+ Ireland at the protest was Kay Cairns, who spoke about a neglected minority in debates surrounding the Eighth Amendment: “[It’s important] that there’s more inclusion and intersectionality. With trans people and non-binary people, it’s a discussion that affects us too. Abortion is always talked about as a woman’s issue, but it also affects non-binary people and trans men, and there are added traumas they might have to go through as well – such as being misgendered at an abortion clinic, or having terms used to describe our bodies that we might not use ourselves.”
“I say it’s important for trans and non-binary people to be included in these marches, but I do see the value in highlighting how much it is a women’s issue as well, because it’s a symptom of the systematic oppression of women. When legislators are making laws like the Eighth Amendment, they’re not thinking about trans or non-binary people, of course, so I do think it’s important we put women at the centre of that, but it is also important to talk about the trans and non-binary people that it affects.” Cairns led the crowd in a chant of ‘Trans for Repeal / Trans for Repeal.’
RTÉ sent out two cameramen at different times during the protest in order to record the event. Despite this, the event did not receive mention on either the Six One News or Nine O’Clock News that evening despite interest. Instead the event was mentioned in the ‘News in Brief’ section of RTÉ’s website. On this, Ní Bhroin stated: “It was a challenge for them to prove us wrong and give the movement some coverage but they didn’t step up. Normally I love being right but this time [I] was bitter.”
Featured Image by Louise Flanagan
Note: This article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, No. 6. It was later published online.
With HIV figures increasing both at home and abroad, David Monaghan looks at the student-led ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign and how effective the drug is in combating the disease.
RISING figures of HIV in Ireland have encouraged student activists to campaign for help in minimising its continued spread. ‘UCD for PrEP’ is a student-led initiative that aims to lobby the Students’ Union to take a proactive stance on introducing the drug ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis,’ or ‘PrEP’ for short. According to the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug is reported to reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90% when taken daily.
PrEP is intended for people who are at high risk of contracting HIV. This includes individuals whose current partner is HIV-positive, as well intravenous drug users. It is a preventative measure that is readily available in some countries across the globe, and has been recommended by the World Health Organisation since 2015. It has been approved for usage by those at risk of contracting HIV in the United States, where depending on income it can be obtained for free, and France, where it was approved in November 2015 and introduced the following January.
However, the drug is not readily available in Ireland despite increasing concerns about rising HIV figures. According to Newstalk, 513 people were diagnosed HIV-positive in the country last year, a startling increase of 5.8% from previous recorded figures. Numerous factors have been suggested to explain such a jump in numbers: a failing sexual education system; dating apps like Tinder or Grindr; disconnect between LGBTQ+ individuals and the history of the virus. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that immediate action must be taken to combat the spread of disease.
“513 PEOPLE WERE DIAGNOSED HIV POSITIVE IN THE COUNTRY LAST YEAR, A STARTLING INCREASE OF 5.8% FROM PREVIOUS RECORDED FIGURES”
Finn McLysaght helped establish the ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign with fellow activists. “There is a need [for PrEP]” they said. “HIV has reached a crisis point. There’s a new diagnosis every 18 hours.” The campaign was inspired by the work of ACT UP Dublin, a non-partisan group dedicated to using direct action against increasing HIV figures. “[It’s] a coalition to campaign for the introduction of PrEP and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis],” McLysaght continued.
In Ireland the drug does not fall under the HSE’s Drugs Payment Scheme, and trials are ongoing to establish its effectiveness. “It would cost hundreds for a thirty day supply,” McLysaght says. “Most people don’t even know about it. I think only 51 people availed of it last year.”
The current actions of the HSE echo the debate surrounding the introduction of PrEP in the United Kingdom last year. According to the BBC, a trial was established to see how effective the drug would be in preventing HIV transmissions. The trial finished early when it became obvious that PrEP worked successfully.
“IT IS CLEAR THAT IMMEDIATE ACTION MUST BE TAKEN TO COMBAT THE SPREAD OF DISEASE”
Despite this, in 2016, the NHS decided not to fund the drug and said it was the responsibility of local councils to deal with its distribution. This was successfully challenged by the National AIDS Trust in the UK’s High Court.
McLysaght has met with Students’ Union Welfare Officer, Róisín Ní Mhara, and last week a motion relating to PrEP was passed by the SU council. The motion will see the Students’ Union campaign for the licensing of PrEP at the Dublin Pride Parade in 2017. Speaking to the Observer before the council meeting, Ní Mhara said: “My own personal belief is that, if you need it, absolutely you should take it. If you feel you need it and you warrant it in your life, who am I to say it’s not suitable for you to take?”
UCD Students’ Union currently has a plethora of information on sexual health on its webpage. How will the introduction of PrEP augment this current campaign? Ní Mhara continues: “I’m not sure how we’re going to slot it in just yet…because the drug itself isn’t licensed for use in Ireland [but] I would like to sign it into sexual health week somehow.”
“HIV HAS REACHED A CRISIS POINT. THERE’S A NEW DIAGNOSIS EVERY 18 HOURS”
Although the campaign is external to UCD LGBTQ+ society, the committee is still very much dedicated to campaigning for its licensing and usage. Philip Weldon, LGBTQ+ society’s auditor, states: “we took a vote last Monday [23rd], the first committee meeting of semester two, and we all voted in favour to support [the drug], by making the campaign visible at our own events. For example, simply things like stickers. We’re more than happy to display it on our own materials at coffee mornings and other events.”
At present, the campaign has not been met with opposition at any level. PrEP is known to create minor side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea, but these are known to pass after a few days. “There are side effects,” McLysaght says, “but that’s part of the territory of taking any medication. They’re pretty minimal.”
With HIV diagnoses increasing, a trend that has not been curbed in recent years, it is becoming increasingly obvious that direct action must be taken to stop its escalation. Trials have shown that PrEP is effective in combating HIV, and so necessary measures are needed to see its licensing both at home and abroad.
This article originally appeared in the University Observer Vol. XXIII, Issue IV. It later appeared online.
In honour of World AIDS Day on December 1st, David Monaghan sits down with activist, archivist, and journalist Tonie Walsh, whose work in the LGBTQ+ community spans over 30 years.
TONIE WALSH has been involved in LGBTQ+ activism since the early 1980s, and has been a prominent figure in developments made within and outside of the community since that time. He was foundational in the evolution of the Hirschfeld Centre, a Dublin-based meeting place for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community, and the National LGBT Federation (NXF), a non-governmental collective designed for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. Alongside Catherine Glendon, he also became one of the founding editors of GCN, Ireland’s foremost LGBTQ+ publication.
Walsh’s interest in activism was inspired and spurred on by his familial ties: “I grew up in a feminist household,” he says. “I come from three generations of feminism. My great-grandmother was the founding secretary and manager of the Gate Theatre. She campaigned for women’s franchise in 1910… Her husband, Hector Hughes, helped set up the Socialist Party of Ireland [in 1918], and would have been a contemporary of James Connolly and Jim Larkin.”
Dissatisfied with the lack of momentum of the early Labour movement in Ireland, Hughes eventually moved to London and became a Labour Party MP for Aberdeen North, a seat he held until his death in 1970. “Politics ran…through every vein of my family,” explains Walsh.
Tonie Walsh speaking as the grand marshall of Dublin’s 25th Pride Parade. Photo credit: Paula Geraghty via indymedia
There has been a history of activism in Walsh’s family, and he has had, in turn, a front row seat to the dramatic, chaotic, emotional and sometimes frustrating narrative of LGBTQ+ progression within the state. He is keen to inform that, like most, he arrived from a place of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding his sexuality. “I came out when I was 19 [in 1979]. I was studying the History of Art and French in UCD… I arrived [to the college] expecting a hot bed of radicalism and I was instantly dissuaded of that… It just seemed like it was coming out of a grim decade. There was no gay presence on campus – Gaysoc [precursor to UCD’s modern LGBTQ+ society] had been founded two years previous — winter 1976 — and it had made some noise before I arrived – but during fresher’s week, it wasn’t staffed.” Indeed, at this time the Gaysoc stand was staffed by Student Union’s Welfare Officer, Brighid Ruane, due to the homophobic environment of the campus.
I GREW UP IN A FEMINIST HOUSEHOLD,’ HE SAYS. ‘I COME FROM THREE GENERATIONS OF FEMINISM.”
During this period, Walsh was dating a French woman who would later come out as lesbian: “the blind leading the blind,” he jokes. Discovering the Hirschfeld Centre, which had opened in March 1979, became the trigger for his eventual coming out: “I had been having sex with boys all throughout high school, but I just wasn’t ‘out’… I actually did a personal ad – like the Grindr of its day – and this guy came over to my granny’s house in Rathgar. We had a bit of a snog and a fumble, and then he says, ‘do you want to go into this club?”
The club in question was the aforementioned Hirschfeld Centre, which was named for Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish-German sexologist who became one of the earliest proponents of LGBTQ+ rights in the Weimar Republic.
The club became the epicentre for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland, and sported a dance floor, a women’s group, a youth group, counselling services, and a queer cinema club. “I thought it was going to be full of freaks,” says Walsh. “[But] I arrived in the middle of a slow set. It was all just so ordinary and fabulous.”
Within six months, Walsh experienced a complete political transformation. “The lesbian and gay movement was about five years old at that stage… and the [National LGBT Federation] was a part of this second wave of activism, and it hugely appealed to young kids like me at the time.”
Despite this emerging ‘second wave,’ very few LGBTQ+ people had the strength to stand up and speak out, as Walsh elaborates: “Ireland felt like a much smaller world, for a start, and it was! Very few people were living in [Dublin] city centre, the city was derelict, [and] at this time of nascent queer liberation, very few were [fearless] enough to stand up and be counted.” Only a handful of vocal pro-gay activists emerged in this period, including Senator David Norris, and future Presidents of Ireland Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, who with their combined efforts in the 1970s established the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which sought to decriminalise homosexuality in the Republic of Ireland.
While some gay people and their allies were vocal at this time, trans rights as we know them today simply did not exist. Walsh elaborates: “back in 1979… trans identity just didn’t enter our lexicon or our conversations at the time. There was a national transvestite group running from the Hirschfeld centre, but trans identity and the concerns of our trans brothers and sisters just weren’t getting a look in.”
Walsh’s decade-long involvement in the Hirschfeld Centre would later inspire his work on the Irish Queer Archive. The IQA was established in 1997 and is a collection of historical material from Ireland’s queer past, including magazines, posters, pictures, badges and other such ephemera, with a view to providing insight into the social, political and cultural development of LGBTQ+ communities in Ireland. Walsh’s direct involvement with the movement during the decades in question provided him with tangible links to such an expansive history. “We have the administrative records of all the major lesbian and gay groups in Ireland since 1974,” he says.
The Hirschfield Centre in the 1980s. Photo credit: Seán Gilmartin via IQA
Indeed, the archive contains material from the Alternative Miss Ireland contest, the GAZE Film Festival, the Sexual Liberation Movement, the National LGBT Federation, Gay Health Action, GLEN, Dublin LGBT Pride, GCN, and more. Although it contains such a vast collection of material, very little of the IQA’s material has been digitised: “most of it is still in storage in Whitehall somewhere,” Walsh explains.
He continues: “it’s inaccessible [to all but a few, such as] bona fide historians [like] Diarmaid Ferriter… You’ll see us a few of us making noise next year, people like Mary McCauliffe and Katherine O’Donnell from Women’s Studies in UCD, myself, Elizabeth Kirwan who manages the National Photographic Archive – these are people who came together to help find a home for the archive and were responsible for its transferral [to the National Library of Ireland] in 2008. We have to make it accessible [so] people can begin the process of rebuilding, of fitting all the blocks into place that go towards building this historical structure… We only have an incomplete picture of where we are now.”
GAY LIBERATION IS THE STORY OF SURVIVAL AND HOPE… IT’S THE STORY OF PEOPLE, IN SOME CASES, LIVING SHITTY, MISERABLE LIVES, AND BEING ABLE TO RISE ABOUT THE SHITTINESS OF THEIR SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT, AND FIND A WAY TO BETTER THEMSELVES, AND BETTER THEIR WORLD FOR THEMSELVES AND OTHER PEOPLE”
The key to promoting LGBTQ+ awareness, Walsh claims, is to be out and vocal: “the way to be a persuader of gay liberation is to be able to stand up on TV, in the media, in the newspapers, [be] out in the streets and say, ‘this is me, this is who we are, we are your brothers and your sisters, your sons and your daughters.” This is the attitude he carried with him into his journalism career in the 1980s. He is one of the founders of GCN,the longest-running LGBTQ+ publication in Ireland, and his beginnings in the field came as a staff writer for Out, Ireland’s first commercial queer magazine, which was established in 1983.
Out folded eventually, owing to a lack of funding: “gay businesses refused to advertise in the gay press, that’s how oppressive and repressive the situation was.” A decision made by the Carlow and Leinster Times, who printed the publication, also pushed the magazine into folding: they refused to publish the penultimate issue as it featured a safer sex ad of two silhouetted men embracing. This was largely because sex between men was illegal at the time.
“There was nothing expressly pornographic about the image, but given the taboo around homosexuality and anything to do with intercourse, the fucking printers had a conniption and refused to print it. You can imagine, our brothers were dying horrible, shabby deaths, and we have a culture where condoms were still illegal, and the government [did not] engage with the reality of what was happening at the time – the Dáil first began to have conversations about AIDS five years after the first people began to die of it.”
Indeed, the first AIDS-related deaths in Ireland were reported as early as 1985, but Leinster House only had its first conversation about the crisis in 1990. “All the time people were dying. There was hysteria in Ireland [among] very worried homosexual and heterosexual people.”
Conversations about the AIDS crisis occur frequently today, but very rarely are they in the context of the European or indeed Irish experiences. Such narratives are made invisible, undoubtedly contributing to the rise of HIV in contemporary Ireland – in 2015 it was reported that there had been a jump of 25% in such diagnoses, with young people being most affected.
The work Walsh strives to do in compiling and documenting indigenous LGBTQ+ history is vitally important to understanding the current problems such communities face: “gay liberation is the story of survival and hope,” says Walsh. “It’s the story of people, in some cases, living shitty, miserable lives, and being able to rise above the shittiness of their social and cultural environment, and find a way to better themselves, and better their world for themselves and other people.”
Walsh continues: “the history of [LGBTQ+] liberation is about how we coped with awful situations: people being beaten up, people being murdered and having [no help], people being kicked out of Garda stations when they went to complain about being set upon by a group of marauding, homophobic thugs in Phoenix Park or somewhere. [It’s about] young guys who were brutally murdered, like Declan Flynn or Charles Self, the RTÉ designer who was stabbed almost 30 times in his own home, and how his murder still remains unsolved because at the time the Gardaí just simply didn’t look hard enough or look in the right places. Dreadful stories of oppression and repression, but out of it there are stories of how we survived, and I think that’s important when we come to look at the problem in our midst right now with rising levels of STIs.”
Between Wednesday November 30th and Thursday December 1st, in honour of World AIDS Day, the Media Studies department in Maynooth University will host ‘AIDS in Irish Media: Art and Activism’ for the second year in a row. On the last day of the event Walsh will launch his new project, the Dublin AIDS Memorial, which runs parallel to his work at the IQA in addressing the gaps left by the erasure of LGBTQ+ narratives in Irish society.
Walsh describes how such an erasure stemmed from blatant ignorance: “I had just turned 25 when people my age started falling ill and dying of AIDS… I stopped counting the number of people I lost at 43… When you went to visit your friends you were expected to put on rubber gloves and masks.”
GAY BUSINESSES REFUSED TO ADVERTISE IN THE GAY PRESS, THAT’S HOW OPPRESSIVE AND REPRESSIVE THE SITUATION WAS
He continues: “the culture of engagement was just infused with hysteria and fear, and massive amounts of ignorance underpinning that fear.” A group of gay men came together in May 1985 to form Gay Health Action. It was the first group in the country to develop a tactical response to the unfolding crisis. Walsh was involved in its early development but had to step back due to other commitments.
“The GHA was responsible for producing the first leaflet on AIDS in Ireland,” he explains. “[They] got a small wedge of cash from the Department of Health, and then went for a reprint. Now remember this was the only [available leaflet on AIDS], the Department of Health hadn’t even produced information at this point, and remember that HIV was a death sentence at the time. The Department of Health balked at producing extra cash [for reprints] because the advice from the Attorney General was that, if they funded a leaflet that talked about male-on-male intercourse, it would be seen to be encouraging criminal activity.”
Tonie Walsh revealed his own HIV status in a Facebook post on December 1st2015, to commemorate World AIDS Day. In the image he holds a sign that reads, “I’m not proud to be HIV positive, but neither am I ashamed.” He joins fellow activist and friend Rory O’Neill (drag queen Panti Bliss) and former Mr. Gay Ireland Robbie Lawlor in the increasing list of notable Irish personalities who have publicly described living with HIV, in order to help alleviate the lingering stigma of the 1980s.
“I spent what felt like a lifetime… protecting myself, and those around me, and trying to survive when so many of my best friends and lovers did not. I became positive just at the point when I could benefit from the latest developments in antiretrovirals… but I felt fraudulent that I’d become infected and was able to survive. It’s a twisted way of thinking, but unless you’ve been in a situation where you’ve lost a lot of friends and lovers, it’s difficult, and that’s why I want us to begin the process of reconciliation of that period, and that means allowing the stories of the survivors [to be heard].”
I STOPPED COUNTING THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE I LOST AT 43… WHEN YOU WENT TO VISIT YOUR FRIENDS YOU WERE EXPECTED TO PUT ON RUBBER GLOVES AND MASKS.
Walsh continues: “Rory [O’Neill] was one of the first people I told… I became positive ten years ago. I was actually raped.” Rape can have long-lasting physical and psychological effects, with self-blame and guilt acting as two of the most common. Walsh experienced such patterns himself: “I was hugely ashamed… Lesbian Line were doing a mental health weekend in Outhouse a couple of months ago… and they asked me to talk, and I thought, ‘I’m going to talk about the corrosive effect of guilt.’ This feeds into my rational for an AIDS memorial. Guilt, if it’s left unchecked, can hugely damage people. I have lots of scars: I’ve been attacked, knifed [across the face], I have scars on my head… And I’ve found myself in some very weird situations. My first relationship with a man was very abusive.”
Cover of the first issue of Gay Community News (GCN). Founded by Tonie Walsh and Catherine Glendon.
Walsh’s consultant in St. James’s Hospital encouraged him to seek counselling. Instead he chose to talk about it in his own way: “I just sort of blabber at everyone, and that sort of normalises it. There’s a difference between secrets and privacy… Secrets corrode. I was angry… because I was not in control. It’s the classic victimhood that rape victims and abuse victims actually display.”
Sexual and emotional violence affects every community, and LGBTQ+ communities are no exception. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States in 2010, it was revealed that lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience such violence at similar rates to their heterosexual counterparts. The problems for LGBTQ+ peoples are intensified by outside bigotry: a 2016 BuzzFeed article titled ‘This Is What Domestic Violence Is Like When You’re LGBT,’ explains that many LGBTQ+ abuse victims live in fear of being ‘outed’ by their partners, and that many hotlines are not equipped to deal with LGBTQ+ specific abuse. “I want to talk about something that’s not talked about enough,” says Walsh, “and that’s abuse in same-sex relationships.”
Walsh hopes the Irish government will fund his AIDS Memorial project and give voice to countless numbers of LGBTQ+ citizens who died during the crisis. To date there is only one AIDS memorial in display in Ireland: a monument on Buckingham Street in Dublin 1. “That [area] was ravaged by heroin addiction and, consequently AIDS,” Walsh explains, “but to the best of my knowledge it’s the only one in the country.”
‘AIDS and Irish Media: Art and Activism’ will take place on November 30th and December 1st in Maynooth University’s symposium. Tonie Walsh will launch the Irish AIDS Memorial project on the latter date at 3:30pm. The Irish Queer Archives Facebook page can be accessed athttps://www.facebook.com/IQAadvisorygroup/
If you were affected by any of the issues highlighted in this article you can reach out to the following:
T: 1890 929 539 | W: www.lgbt.ie
TENI Helpline (Transgender Support)
T: 085 147 7166 | W: www.teni.ie
T: 1850 60 90 90 | W: www.samaritans.ie
T: +353 (0)1 873 3799 | W: www.hivireland.ie
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre
T: 01 661 4911 | E: firstname.lastname@example.org | W: www.drcc.ie/
T: 1890 303 302 | W: www.aware.ie | E: email@example.com
Pieta House (Self-Harm/Suicide Support)
T: 01-6010000 | W: www.pieta.ie | E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mental Health Ireland
This interview was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, Issue II in October 2016. It was later published online.
David Monaghan sits down with author Matthew Todd, whose book Straight Jacket examines why disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ+ people suffer from mental illness.
IN 2005, Matthew Todd debuted his play Blowing Whistles to captive audiences in London, and later Sydney. The play, which deals with contemporary LGBTQ+ culture, became a sort of therapy for Todd. “I was in turmoil when I wrote it,” he informs OTwo. “I’d come out of a relationship and I’d been cheated on and I was really angry, and I was blaming it all on him.”
The play depicts a gay couple who, on the tenth anniversary of the eve of their first meeting, decide to make their relationship more interesting by inviting a young man around for a threesome. “I’m all three characters in the play,” says Todd. “The first half is an adult comedy about these two crazy guys having an open relationship. The second half is much darker and it becomes a critique of gay culture.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, the themes and ideas considered in the play – social media, sex, and monogamy – would be facets of life that would later reoccur in Todd’s writing. Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy, Todd’s new book, is the result of such ruminations about modern LGBTQ+ culture: it explores why a disproportionate amount of gay men suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts and behaviour. Using his own experience as a backdrop for research – the book is ‘part memoir, part polemic’ – Todd lifts the mask on contemporary gay culture to see what lurks beneath, and does so with poise and insight.
The title of his book refers to the restrictive, heteronormative culture that LGBTQ+ people are born into, a ‘cultural straightjacket’ of sorts. “This society presumes everybody is heterosexual and cisgender when they are born and there’s kind of very little room to grow or to evolve or exist if you are not that way,” he states. “Everyone presumes that you are heterosexual and that a boy will be attracted to a girl or a girl will be attracted to a boy. There just doesn’t seem to be very many parts of society…that are adaptable or ready to accept that people are different.”
Although Ireland has made significant strides in recent years on LGBTQ+ social issues – in 2015 we saw the introduction of both Marriage Equality and Gender Recognition legislation – there are still lingering threads of homophobia left within the country. On July 30th 2016, a gay man was assaulted in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. He was set upon by teenagers who yelled ‘you fucking whore. How much? We’ll kill you, fucking fag.’ Todd asserts: “And I think just growing up like that, being shamed by family, sometimes by friends, by other people’s parents, by wider family, by religion, by schools…and then we have all the religious institutions who spout what they say about gayness, it can be tremendously stressful.”
LGBTQ+ people deal with this ‘cultural straightjacket’ in a plethora of ways. The majority are, thankfully, able to move on and establish healthy lives and careers. Others, however, turn to drugs, dangerous sex and various other forms of destructive behaviour. International research suggests that LGBTQ+ people are two-to-three times more likely to be become addicted to alcohol than their straight contemporaries.
“I certainly wanted to get out of my head, and I did,” Todd says. “First by eating, because it made me feel better temporarily – I think compulsive eating is a massive thing for a lot of people – and then by fantasy, by pop music…and then getting lost in alcohol, and [others get lost in] drugs and some people sex, and it can easily spiral out of control and become a huge mess. And some people don’t come out of it.”
One way in which the worldwide community has been able to deal with this has been in putting on a ‘brave face,’ which Todd suggests has been necessary: “Even the term ‘gay pride,’ [which suggests] ‘we’re gay and happy,’ and to be almost obsessively waving a banner and saying ‘everything’s fine’ – and that’s been needed in some ways, to tell each other and to tell young people that it’s okay to be gay and that you can have a happy and successful life, which you absolutely can, and many people do, but that’s kind of… We’ve just rejected all of [the negativity] and not wanted to look at some of the problems in case it plays to a narrative of ‘oh look, you’re absolutely right, we are really unhappy.”
The fear of conforming to the negative and reductive perception of ‘gay-equals-unhappy’ could explain why a book like Todd’s has taken so long to be written. “It didn’t feel like I could have a conversation about any of these problems when I came out” Todd explains. “There was never any room to have any discussion, certainly not in gay press…it was just constantly, rabidly, going on about how wonderful it was [to be gay], and never looking at any of the problems…I remember going a few times to sexual health clinics and seeing therapists and they didn’t have anything to say about it either. I remember one time, and I talk about it in the book, where I went to see somebody and I went, ‘listen, I’m not in control of the amount of sexual behaviour I’m having,’ and they looked at me like I’d said something sacrilegious.”
Dating apps like Grindr and Tinder, which are used by people within straight and LGBTQ+ communities, have made access to sex and hook-ups easier than before; at a press of a button people can meet others and, after a brief exchange of words, can find themselves in the rough and tumble of a fleeting sexual encounter. Considering that sex is used as a coping mechanism by some, does Todd feel online hook-up culture exacerbates problems within LGBTQ+ communities?
“Absolutely, totally, 100%. I know lots of people use them, and I use them, and will probably use them in the future, and lots of people will say that they’re really great because you certainly see you’re not completely isolated…but it feels like a way of behaving where we objectify each other to an extreme extent…when you get onto to Grindr where people are describing themselves as a ‘penis’ or a ‘hole,’ I do think that’s problematic. And I know that’s a controversial thing to say, but I do think that’s problematic because we’re literally talking to each other like we don’t mean anything.”
In recent years, on social media and beyond, there has been a drive to promote positive attitudes to sex. This movement has been spearheaded by left-leaning feminists to eradicate the social stigma attached to women who transgress socially-constructed sexual boundaries. In many cases the word ‘slut,’ which has been used in the past to shame and demean women, has been adapted and transformed into a positive term; sex is now a thing to celebrate.
Gay men too have faced a similar stigma in the past, mostly through right-wing media during the AIDS epidemic. In the book Todd refers to a 1980s’ Mail on Sunday article that claims the ‘awful genesis’ of AIDS lay in homosexual sex itself. By highlighting the problems with promiscuous sexual encounters, does Todd fear he may fall into slut-shaming, or that he will undo the work of sex-positive campaigning?
“There’s nothing wrong with having casual sex, if that’s what you really want, and you’re in control of it,” Todd explains. “When I was writing the book and I was talking to friends that was something I was really worried about…[In the book] I’m doing the absolute opposite of shaming. I don’t shame people for the amount of sex they have or don’t have whatsoever because I’m not in a position to – I have had sex with quite a lot of people. I just want to open a discussion about it so we are able to talk about it if someone feels that they have lost control of their sex life…we can talk about why that may be, what may cause that, if you want to do something about it, what you can do about it.”
Of course, the media plays an important role in shaping the outlook of LGBTQ+ people. In the book Todd explains how right-wing media perpetuated social stigma in the eighties using flashy, homophobic tabloid headlines like one from the Sun which read: ‘I’d Shoot My Son If He Had AIDS Claims Vicar.’
Even today mainstream news outlets will neglect LGBTQ+ stories and issues. The assault in Phoenix Park, as has been described, was not covered by the press outside of theoutmost.com and GCN, Ireland’s premiere LGBTQ+ news outlets. “[Media] plays a really damaging role. I mean, maybe things are a little bit better, but essentially they are only interested in showing LGBTQ+ lives through a straight lens…For instance: the issue of why there aren’t many openly-gay professional footballers comes up and the media takes a lot of interest in that because it’s something that they care about because football is something they are interested in. It’s very hard to get the mainstream media to do coverage of my book about mental health and I consider this a really, really important issue. From my experience of gay people I’ve had from working at Attitude [a magazine edited by Todd] that it is the most important issue we face at the moment, specific to us, yet most of the media are just not interested. They think it’s niche…Like I say, it’s just through a very specific heterosexual lens that they see us and I think that’s really damaging.”
Later in the book Todd makes a clarion call to LGBTQ+ writers and creatives to create more positive LGBTQ+ narratives. Often in fiction that features queer characters we are left with unhappy endings, broken hearts, and more often than not, death: A Single Man, Lilting, Cloud Atlas, and Blue Is the Warmest Colour are recent examples that spring to mind. Praise for 2015’s Carol, a film with lesbian characters that also features a somewhat positive conclusion, is a welcome exception. Repeated negativity can be a drain on LGBTQ+ youth who are looking for positivity when coming out.
He continues: “We all need to see ourselves reflected in the world. We all need to understand ourselves through culture, and I think even more so for LGBT people because we do feel different and maybe we don’t have role models when we’re younger and maybe we don’t feel we can speak to our parents, and then not to see a very broad range of experience in film and TV… it’s really, really damaging…where are the nice gentle rom-coms, where are the big films with two big, famous Hollywood actors that is about a nice, gay love story?”
In 2015, while Todd was in the process of completing his book, the documentary Chemsex was released. The film, which is co-directed by William Fairman and Max Gogarty, explores the subculture of ‘chemsex’ – that is, the dangerous practice of engaging in recreational drug use and sexual behaviour simultaneously – among gay men in London. It was an illuminating piece that shocked and bewildered viewers.
“I was very aware of them making it [while I wrote the book], but they were specifically looking at the whole chemsex thing. When I started writing the book I didn’t really know about crystal meth or methadone or G [shorthand for GHB, a psychoactive substance], what I really knew about was guys who were having problems with cocaine, and I was really shocked at how bad the situation was with crystal meth. Certainly I was surprised watching that film and it’s certainly a hard film to watch.”
Matthew Todd interviewed people for Attitude upon the film’s release: “[They] were talking about injecting blood into each other, fetishizing body fluids, which I think is tied up to our experience of HIV. There’s a real mess out there with a lot of people. It’s not just one or two, it’s a very small minority of people, but it’s too many, and enough for it to be a really serious problem, and I think it’s really important we talk about it, as painful as it is for people to look at it.”
In 2016, it was revealed that 498 people were diagnosed with HIV in Ireland within the last year, a 25% increase from 2014’s figure of 377. Half of the people affected were gay or bisexual men. Although we live in an age where information on HIV is readily available online and in print, rates of HIV transmission appear to be going up, particularly among young LGBTQ+ people.
“Young people are young and think they are invincible – who wants to sit there and wade through pages of information about safe sex? But I think they’re just not getting sex education, and they’re certainly not getting information about HIV. I think there was a whole thing in the early days of the AIDS epidemic where, because the right wing media were constantly saying ‘this is a gay disease,’ HIV organisations rightfully said, ‘well anyone can catch HIV, and across the world there are more straight people who have it,’ but they did this thing called the ‘de-gaying’ of AIDS, which I think has done us a disservice because I have met many young men, gay and bisexual men, who don’t understand or don’t accept or believe that we are more at risk in Europe and the West from HIV, and how we have higher rates of it…ultimately, this is the fault of the education system.” Those who do speak out about their diagnosis are often neglected, and there is an erasure outside and within LGBTQ+ communities.
Matthew Todd, who is currently setting his sights on filmmaking for his next project, hopes that this book will help start a dialogue about mental health within LGBTQ+ circles, and he reminds readers that mental health, gay or straight, is something that we should always be sure to keep in check: “If any of these problems do come up later, and they can come up later – I thought when I was younger that I’d dealt with all of the issues I had, and I hadn’t – there are places you can go to, be it therapy or gay groups, drug and alcohol supports…I’m saying these things as much to myself as I am to anyone else.”
Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy is available to purchase in all good book stores. If you are affected by any of the issues outlined in this article you can find help by reaching out to the following:
Mental Health Ireland
This article was originally published online on Sept. 22nd on the HeadStuff website.
The GAZE Film Festival has come and gone, showcasing once more the best in LGBTQ+ cinema on both international and indigenous fronts. Audiences were entertained, educated, stunned and most importantly, enlightened by the frank and unflinching portrayals of a worldwide LGBTQ+ culture. Although there were many films of great merit – including Edmund Lynch’s A Different Country, a much-needed and greatly-appreciated portrait of gay Ireland prior to decriminalisation, Viva, Paddy Breathnach’s new film about a Cuban drag queen and his estranged father, and Holding The Man, an adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s seminal 1995 memoir – one film stood out to me among the rest.
Real Boy, Shaleece Haas’ documentary about a young trans musician, is sweet and occasionally hard-hitting, offering viewers a multifaceted coming-of-age narrative that never succumbs to sensationalism. Speaking to me after what must have been an exhausting post-screening question-and-answer session, Haas explains her aims in making such a film and how she hopes to reach audiences with its narrative.
A co-producer of 2013’s The Genius of Marian, producer of the short films like 2012’sAwardwinninggir and 2011’s City Fish, and director of the documentary short Old People Driving – which won best documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2010 – Haas is no stranger to the small and silver screens. Filmed over a period of four years, her latest piece focuses on Bennett Wallace, whom Haas met at a small concert: “I was at a living room concert Joe [Stevens] was playing at […] and Bennett opened that show.”
Bennett and Joe’s friendship is central to the film and takes the shape of something akin to a mentor-pupil dynamic; Joe is shown in one scene teaching Bennett how to trim a beard. The film endeavours to highlight how the pair are linked by similar life experiences, as Haas now reiterates to me: “[Bennett] had met Joe at a conference for sober young people. They just struck up a very immediate friendship because of very similar experiences of addiction, of being trans, of their love of music […] Joe very quickly saw Bennett as a younger version of himself that he could support […] and Bennett idolised Joe at that point and saw in him the hope that his voice was going to turn out okay.” She adds: “not everybody has a mentor like that, it’s so valuable.”
Indeed, the text is a multifaceted one, simultaneously dealing with issues of family, friendship and, most upsettingly, addiction. Although the film maintains a kindly tone for its duration, there are intermittent reminders of the struggles many LGBTQ+ people face worldwide, and they come fast and strong. Indeed, queer communities have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health problems than their straight, cisgender contemporaries – writer Matthew Todd claims this is the result of living in a ‘cultural straitjacket’ that forces us to adhere to heteronormative society. Although other films at the festival deal with such issues in more overt ways, their inclusion in Real Boy acts as a small sobering reminder of the societal pressures placed on LGBTQ+ people.
It must be stressed, however, that the ‘cultural straitjacket’ forced upon LGBTQ+ is not unrelenting, and can be loosened. Case in point: Bennett’s mother, a key figure in the narrative, is at first sceptical of her son’s transition. Eventually, over the course of the film’s events, we see her gradually move from a place of ignorance to one of acceptance. In one of the film’s more touching sequences, Bennett sings to his mother a song that encapsulates their journey titled ‘For My Family,’ which goes “Mama, I’m sorry / I didn’t mean to make your cry / I’ve been trying to say hello / You thought I was saying goodbye.”
Of this inspiring transformation, Haas notes: “This is not about Bennett’s gender journey. If anything, Bennett’s journey is one from adolescence to young adulthood. The person who makes the greatest transformation is his mother, who has a longer journey to take from shame and loss and confusion and ignorance, really, to a place where she can embrace and celebrate her son.”
The process of learning undertaken by Bennett’s mother is one that some viewers of the film seem to relate to, as Haas explains: “there was an older lesbian woman [at the GAZE Q&A]who said, ‘I have a lot of trouble with with trans issues, and it’s something that challenges me and I don’t feel that I really understand, and this film made me see something and think about something and feel something that shifted that.’ There’s nothing more gratifying to a filmmaker […] because we don’t move the needle on more equity, more justice or acceptance until we can identify with people who are different for us.”
Haas is quick to note there is more than one target audience for the film, explaining that in the very same screening a young trans man claimed the documentary very closely represented his experience of transitioning: “so to me that is extraordinarily gratifying to say that I’m able to speak to both of those audiences.” The questions of family and relationships addressed in the film will also strike a chord with a multitude of people. Often queer-identifying persons must find chosen families in cases where they are rejected by their family of origin. Did Haas find speaking to multiple audiences a daunting task? “I wanted the film to be accessible to a lot of audiences, to be something that is embraced by my community of queer and trans people. It wasn’t elementary, it wasn’t rudimentary, but it also reached broad audiences, not from a place of curiosity or interest in what ‘those’ lives are like, but from a place of identification. To tell a story about family and a desire to be loved by family, that was important to us.”
There is a lack of trans representation in media, and when trans people are featured in interview scenarios they are sometimes mocked and degraded: in a 2014 interview with Katie Couric, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox endured offensive questions relating to her transition, to which she gracefully responded, “the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences.” This is a pitfall Haas was conscious to avoid. She says: “I did not want to make a film about gender transition per se, or certainly the physical aspects of transition Bennett is at a time in his life where he is transitioning […] but it wasn’t about that. It was about relationships and friendships, and what that moment meant for his relationship with his best friend. It’s what Joe says in the film, that there’s the ‘body’ part and then there’s the social and emotional part. And that’s what people on the outside don’t see as much.”
Haas, a filmmaker well-educated in the nuances of LGBTQ+ culture, is also conscious of her social circumstances and the circumstances of the subjects in the film. “[Bennett and Joe] are the best case scenario,” she says. “They’re white, they’re class-privileged, they live in California, and they have family who, even though they deal with strife and struggle, didn’t completely abandon them. They are binary, male-identified. There are many ways to them the path is much clearer and easier than for many of their fellow trans people – trans women, trans people of colour, people who live in rural places. The film is not meant to represent the trans community at all.”
Real Boy is set to be screened again in Ireland, on September 23rd at the Axis Art Centre in Ballymun. Organised in partnership with TENI, there will be workshops, conversations, and also specialised screenings for the trans community and parents of trans kids. “[There is the] opportunity to not only show the film and have people enjoy it as a piece of entertainment,” Haas states, “but [also]to really engage in conversation with each other about the issues in the film: addiction and recovery, self-harm and depression, [and]family acceptance.”
Real Boy will be screened in collaboration with TENI at the Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun tomorrow, September 23rd. Further information can be found here, and a trailer for the feature can be viewed below.
Featured Image Credit: Sarah Deragon.