Tag Archives: lgbtq+ representation

Bridging A Gap, Finding Our Voice: An Interview With Activist Tonie Walsh

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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:

LGBT Helpline

T: 1890 929 539 | W: www.lgbt.ie

TENI Helpline (Transgender Support)                                                                                                      

T: 085 147 7166 | W: www.teni.ie

Samaritans

T: 1850 60 90 90 | W: www.samaritans.ie

HIV Ireland

T: +353 (0)1 873 3799 | W: www.hivireland.ie

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

T: 01 661 4911 | E: info@rcc.ie | W: www.drcc.ie/

Aware (Depression)

T: 1890 303 302 | W: www.aware.ie | E: wecanhelp@aware.ie

Pieta House (Self-Harm/Suicide Support)

T: 01-6010000 | W: www.pieta.ie | E: mary@pieta.ie

Alcoholics Anonymous

W: www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie

Mental Health Ireland

W: www.mentalhealthireland.ie

How To Be Gay and Happy: An Interview with Matthew Todd

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.”

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Straight Jacket author Matthew Todd speaking on ITV.

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.’

the-sun

        The Sun, Oct. 1985. Source

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:

LGBT Helpline
T: 
1890 929 539 | W: www.lgbt.ie

TENI Helpline (Transgender Support)                                                                                                       
T: 
085 147 7166 | W: www.teni.ie

Samaritans
T: 
1850 60 90 90 W: www.samaritans.ie 

Aware (Depression) 

T: 1890 303 302 | W: www.aware.ie | E: wecanhelp@aware.ie

Pieta House (Self-Harm/Suicide Support)
T: 
01-6010000 | W: www.pieta.ie | E: mary@pieta.ie

Alcoholics Anonymous
W: 
www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie

Mental Health Ireland
W: 
www.mentalhealthireland.ie

BeLonG To Youth Services
T: 
01 670 6223 | E: info@belongto.org

Gay Men’s Health Service
T: 
01 873 4952 | E: gmhpoutreach@eircom.net

 

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Friends, Family and Folk Music | An Interview with Real Boy Director Shaleece Haas

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 Wallace and Joe Stevens. From the Film 'Real Boy.' Photo Credit: Shaleece Haas.

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.”

Sharleece Haas - HeadStuff.org

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.

Small Print? | Changes in Irish Publishing

This article was originally published on the HeadStuff website on August 16, 2016.

It is well-documented that Irish writer James Joyce once said, “No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.” Although the automatic and unthinking response of many to such a claim would be dismissal, the long, broad narrative of Irish history only reaffirms the well-known Dubliner’s witticism: our island has long been tinged by accounts of emigration, from the days of the Great Hunger up until the present.

This inescapable and unfortunate truth has also not eluded the nation’s writers, many of whom in the past sought to publish their works abroad. Joyce himself published his works in Paris after lengthy battles with conservative publishers in Ireland and Britain, and Samuel Beckett lived in the French capital for most of his life, writing in both French and English. Women writers, in decades past, have also had their works suffocated by a male-dominated printing scene and, up until recent years, did not have access to popular outlets through which they could publish their works. Although writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien enjoyed some success, it was limited when compared to their male counterparts.

“I suppose one of the key things in the twentieth century was censorship – ‘unsuitable’ literature just wasn’t going to be published in Ireland,” says Claire Hennessy, co-editor of the literary journalBanshee. Indeed, the Irish Censorship of Publications Board was established in 1929 in order to monitor literature in various forms, effectively banning any writing deemed ‘obscene’ or ‘inappropriate.’ Its power and influence has dwindled greatly in recent decades however, and very few works are blocked in the country. Although restrictions on what can be printed are now minimal, many Irish writers still look to the UK and beyond in order to publish their major works. “I think it’s a desire to reach a larger readership,” says Eimear Ryan, one-third of the Banshee team. “Ireland has had a lively literary journal and small press scene for the last few decades – there’s no shortage of outlets – and Irish people are great readers, but it’s still a relatively small market.”

In the last six years, however, indigenous publishing has undergone a transformation, with new literary journals appearing across the country. Irish writers, too, are beginning to win more and more prizes on the international front. Many Irish writers use small quality presses and journals, such asLilliput, The Stinging Fly, and Tramp, as a springboard before moving to bigger deals in the US and UK. She continues: “the likes of Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume published first in Ireland to great acclaim, and then got picked up internationally. I think small Irish presses have gained this reputation for being brilliant talent scouts and I think that the bigger publishers are keeping a close eye on what’s coming out of the Irish publishing scene.” So what has triggered such an incredible turn around? And how has this affected the quality and themes of Irish writing?

Poetry On The Fringes

Although novelists and prose writers have enjoyed success in Ireland, the poetry scene has been met with some minor difficulties: many older presses have shut down. Jessica Traynor, poet and Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre, believes this is indicative of an emerging new wave in poetry publishing. She says: “we’re seeing a little bit of a recovery […] I think these things go in cycles: while we’ve lost older poetry presses like Doghouse, other presses […] like Arlen House tend to be outwardly going from strength to strength.” A huge concern for Irish publishers is funding, and this is intensified for poets; when budgets are tight, poetry is somewhat impaired by its smaller audience relative to prose writing.

Michael Naghten Shanks was the editor of The Bohemyth, a former quarterly journal publishing short fiction, poetry, essays and photography. A fervent poet, Shanks has also felt the figurative pinch of tightened budgets: “when it comes to the next stage of a writer’s career […] I do think that prose writers are in a much better position. Ultimately, one has to acknowledge the economic argument for why this is the case, but I still believe more could be done to correct the balance. It is not that the talent is lacking when it comes to Irish poetry, it is more to do with how the majority of poetry publishers in Ireland are lacking the funding they need in order to be able to take the necessary risks on finding and supporting new poets. Make no mistake it is the same case for fiction publishers, but they do seem to be less reticent when it comes to the crunch.”

Internet Influence

Before its closure on August 8th 2016, The Bohemyth operated exclusively online. The role the internet has played in the recent resurgence of Irish writing cannot be understated: writers can publish their works online without fear of interference from middlemen, network with others on Twitter and Facebook, and experience greater, worldwide exposure, the levels of which might not have been attained otherwise. “If I were to think of a reason for why things seem, outwardly at least, vibrant, I think a lot of this has to do with the new lease of life the internet has given to poets” Traynor claims. “I recognise that the internet has been instrumental in building connections for Irish poets overseas. For poets, short story writers and novelists, the internet is a wonderful thing […] and I think having the internet there as a buffer has allowed some of the smaller publishers to think, ‘I can take a risk on this person.’” The internet has also influenced the writing of those working in literature in Ireland, leading many to discover artists and works they may not have happened upon in other circumstances.

The internet cannot be credited exclusively with shaping the character of contemporary writing. It is also worth noting that the new wave of Irish talent materialised in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, so one would not be mistaken in assuming that the economic, personal and political impact of such an event permeates the very pages of the writers most affected. “Sara Baume is really interesting on this,” Eimear Ryan notes. “She points out that the lack of jobs post-2008 sort of gave young artists permission to be broke and on the dole and writing, whereas during the Celtic Tiger years, there would have been much more social pressure to be earning big money, or to at least be in a job related to your degree.” Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, published in 2012, deals with the personal fallout of the economic crash; people are left stuck in unfinished ghost estates, contemplate emigration, and attempt to make sense of what is perceived as an unprecedented catastrophe. Such a book describes accurately the environment from which modern writers have emerged.

Break From Tradition

 

Kevin Barry with Alan Bennett on The HeadStuff Podcast, Beatlebone, City of Bohane - HeadStuff.org

Kevin Barry (right) is one writer moving away from traditional subject matter in his writing. Source – HeadStuff.org

 

There is a sense in modern literature that Irish writers no longer subscribe to a mandate to write ‘in tradition,’ as Eimear Ryan elaborates: “In the work of Kevin Barry, Claire Kilroy, Paul Murray and others, the settings and characters are often Irish, but the influences aren’t. Contemporary Irish writers are being inspired by European and American fiction, comic books, video games, HBO shows, the internet.” Irish writing has traditionally been unified by overlapping themes and ideas: James Joyce wrote about Catholicism and sexual repression in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artistdecades before Patrick Kavanagh touched on similar subjects in his poetry, and the pastiche of staunch republicanism in Ulysses’ ‘Cyclops’ chapter is not entirely dissimilar to Martin McDonagh’s caricature of militant nationalism in plays likeThe Lieutenant of Inishmore. Joseph O’Connor, in Star of the Sea, reminds us of our history of emigration, while Kate O’Brien and Jamie O’Neill both deal with gay characters living in a new but wholly-suffocating Ireland, despite writing decades apart. As has been described previously, in recent years indigenous publishing has undergone a plethora of changes, but has this altered the common signifiers of what makes an ‘Irish’ text? “There are still some very traditional stories,” states Hennessy. “Disapproving mothers! Dead fathers! Abusive priests! The nuns! Funerals! Emigration! […] Often these appeal to an international audience, tying in to a certain notion of ‘Irishness’. But there are fresh themes and topics too – in Young Adult, for example, we’ve had a number of dystopias recently [such as]Eilis Barrett’s Oasis, Cecelia Ahern’s Flawed, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, which was not something many Irish writers did previously.”

Young Adult fiction has experienced a resurgence in popularity, with many adults now reading from the genre. Claire Hennessy has recently published Nothing Tastes as Good, a young adult novel that pushes the important issue of eating disorders to the fore. The writer states: “Annabel [one of the novel’s primary voices]came very much from reading several Young Adult novels which featured the same trope about the protagonist losing a friend to an eating disorder while in hospital, and this serving as the catalyst for their own recovery – how angry would you be, to be just a catalyst in someone else’s story?”

Readjusted Balance

 

Irish Publishing

Sinéad Gleeson, editor of The Long Gaze Back. Source – Independent.ie

 

As such, the established canon of Irish writing has been altered and, in select cases, challenged, and so have the inherent biases of a male-centred publishing scene. The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s writing, was published last year to mass acclaim. The anthology’s editor, Sinéad Gleeson, aimed to fill a gap within the large narrative of Irish writing left by the exclusion of prominent female voices. The women writers that feature in the collection are wide-ranging and span decades – the gap between the oldest and youngest writer in the collection is 218 years. “There’s always been Irish women’s writing but it’s about what gets paid attention to,” states Hennessy. “Anne Enright published her first short story collection in 1991 and got critical acclaim […] but it wasn’t until winning the Booker sixteen years later that she became a household name. Emma Donoghue’s debut was in 1993, long before Room exploded onto the literary scene […] Irish women’s writing has always been there. It’s about what we take seriously – and what we dismiss.”

Hennessy, alongside Eimear Ryan and Laura Jane Cassidy, established Banshee, a literary journal whose output is evenly split down the gender divide, an unusual occurrence in the Irish literary scene. “We’ve tended to publish more female writers than male” Hennessy explains, “but it’s not our intention to have the journal as a women-only publication that somehow provides a ‘safe space’ for female writers. The women writers we’re publishing don’t need that – they deserve to be read widely, as indeed do the men we’re publishing.” Eimear Ryan adds: “[alongside women writers]we’ve also published really brilliant work by the likes of Dylan Brennan, Dean Browne and Andrew Meehan. Issue #3 is shaping up really well and should hopefully be out in early September.”

Despite emerging liberal views regarding female voices within the male-dominated environment of fiction and poetry writing, women writers still experience certain gender-influenced difficulties in their line of work, as Hennessy explains: “Rob Doyle is lauded for writing about angry violent men, but when Louise O’Neill writes about the impact of male violence on women she gets hate mail […] Men are praised for subject matter that is more typically undertaken by women – Colm Tóibín’s Brooklynis basically a Maeve Binchy novel, in so many ways – not a criticism, I love her work – and it’s gotten infinitely more respect than anything she ever wrote.”

Gender bias is not the only issue contemporary writers must overcome: although externally the new Irish writing scene seems a safe haven for new talent, many minority writers – those within the LGBTQ+, travelling or immigrant communities, for example – will be quick to find that certain social biases still pervade the indigenous publishing scene. There is also a blatant lack of narratives that deal with issues of disability and mental illness. Michael Naghten Shanks discusses how to address such erasure: “As a straight, white male, my position in the literary community is undoubtedly one of privilege, whether desired for or not, and the least I, and others in my position, can do is to be conscious of that privilege, so that we can, whenever possible, readdress the balance.”

All scenes, movements and trends come and go – they enjoy their time in the spotlight before fading into memory. With little government support for literature, it’s uncertain how long the literary boom will last, or what shape Irish writing will take in the future. There are precautions, however, we can take to help ensure that there is a future for our literature: “It’s lovely that there’s a perception that there’s a groundswell of new work,” Jessica Traynor states, “it’s something that we need to try and protect, even in terms of buying books. If there’s an imprint you like, buy their books, go to their launches, get to know the people involved.”

History, Reality, and Star Wars

This article was originally published in the University Observer in November 2015, both online and in print. 

In light of comments made about John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars, David Monaghan looks at the importance of history and reality in film, TV, and other popular media.

On October 19th, the trailer for much-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, and fans worldwide took to social media to express their excitement. Two stars of the film were particularly vocal; John Boyega uploaded an Instagram video of himself jumping over a couch in anticipation and Daisy Ridley had a nice cry. The number of tweets about the film reached 17,000 per minute with the hashtags #TheForceAwakens and #TieFighter trending for hours after its initial airing. Everyone was pleased. Or so it seemed.

A small but vocal minority took issue with Boyega. Not for his performance or his costume or anything to do with the trailer as a whole. No, these people took issue with the fact that he was a black actor in what they considered to be a predominantly white world. Angry white nerds took to social media websites to jumpstart hashtags like #BoycottStarWarsVII. “#BoycottStarWarsVII because it is anti-white propaganda promoting #whitegenocide,” writes one twitter user. “If white people aren’t wanted in Star Wars, then our money must not be either” said another. To these people the inclusion of black actors in Star Wars is ‘social justice gone mad.’ They fear that, by making popular franchises multicultural, they will no longer be represented in the things they love.

These fears are unfounded. Never mind the fact that white actors are privileged in the film industry –many white actors have even been cast in roles originally written for people of colour, such as Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily in Pan – Star Wars has always been multicultural. The original trilogy featured black actors James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams as Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian respectively, and the prequels featured Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu.

Of course, it is not only the race of certain characters that these people take issue with. When writer Chuck Wendig released his Star Wars novel ‘Aftermath,’ another small but vocal minority accused him of propagating the ‘gay agenda’ for featuring queer characters.  In response to these critics, Wendig wrote: “You’re not the Rebel Alliance. You’re not the good guys. You’re the fucking Empire, man. You’re the shitty, oppressive, totalitarian Empire. If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars.”

The real world is diverse. Ireland and the USA have both recently legalised same-sex marriage, instilling a new confidence in LGBTQ+ people. In 2014, Ireland became the fourth country in the world to celebrate Black History Month as 1.3 per cent of the population is of African origin. It is only normal that creators want to reflect this reality in popular fiction, as these groups are also consumers. The anti-diversity Twitter brigade will claim that blockbuster cinema should be escapist and reject reality, but what they feel to realise is that history and reality are integral to some of the best-loved franchises.

“THE ANTI-DIVERSITY TWITTER BRIGADE WILL CLAIM THAT BLOCKBUSTER CINEMA SHOULD BE ESCAPIST AND REJECT REALITY, BUT WHAT THEY FEEL TO REALISE IS THAT HISTORY AND REALITY ARE INTEGRAL TO SOME OF THE BEST-LOVED FRANCHISES.”

Dominican American writer and critic Junot Diaz, when speaking about representation, said “without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Colour, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense… If it wasn’t for race, X-Men wouldn’t exist… If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense.” Diaz is right.  When writing the X-Men series, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with Professor X acting as a stand-in for Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto acting as a sci-fi version of Malcolm X. This metaphor was carried into the X-Men film series by Bryan Singer, who also included vague LGBTQ+ themes. X-Men 2, considered by many to be a high point for the series, includes a ‘coming out’ scene in which a young Bobby Drake has to tell his parents he is a mutant. In the comics, it was recently revealed the Bobby Drake is also gay.

When conceiving the Star Wars, George Lucas wanted the Rebel Alliance, the ‘good guys’ of the original trilogy, to have American accents, while the evil Empire had to have British accents. This immediately draws parallels with real world history. At the height of its influence, the British Empire was the world’s largest global power and had control over American colonies. In the film series, the Galactic Empire also destroys multiple planets and people in order to gain more power. The influence of imperialism that Diaz discusses is at the very surface of the film franchise.

Reality is intrinsically linked to Iron Man’s backstory. When “quintessential capitalist” Tony Stark is injured during the Vietnam War he designs a power suit that will help him survive, and early Iron Man stories saw him fighting the dangers of communism. When the character was adapted for the big screen in 2008’s Iron Man, he was transported to the modern day, receiving his injury against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan.

Real life is integral to the development and success of popular entertainment, and director J.J. Abrams is keenly aware of this. Shortly before the trailer for The Force Awakens aired, he posted an image to his Twitter that read, “We cannot wait to share the trailer with you tonight. I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, Jawa, Wookie, Jedi, or Sith. I just hope you like it.” What Abrams understands, and what some people fail to grasp, is that popular media is exactly that: popular. It is for everyone, not just a select few. It reflects reality and mimics it. Speaking once again about representation for people of colour, Junot Diaz writes: “Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together.”

Filming a Queer Revolution: Conor Horgan

This work was originally printed in the University Observer in October 2015, both online and in print.

David Monaghan sits down with Conor Horgan to discuss his upcoming documentary about drag queen activist Panti Bliss, The Queen of Ireland.

Conor Horgan is the director of the moment. The man behind the woman of the biggest LGBT documentary to come out of Ireland this year, he has no doubt found himself inundated with interview requests and press junkets. Tapping away on his phone he breaks intermittently to apologise. “Sorry,” he says. “This week has been manic.” No doubt. One cannot make a documentary about the country’s most outspoken drag queen and the biggest social revolution we have experienced in the 21st century without experiencing some attention.

The Queen of Ireland maps the journey of Rory O’Neill from his childhood in the market town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to his accidental activism as Dublin’s charismatic Panti Bliss. Filmed over a number of years, it captures notable events in O’Neill’s life such as the infamous ‘Pantigate’ fiasco, as well as the viral sensation that was the Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre, where Panti Bliss made a rousing speech about the RTÉ controversy. The speech went viral on YouTube, amassing over seven hundred thousand views. And finally, he captures the historic marriage referendum in May 2015, which saw the Irish people vote overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. “I always knew that interesting things would happen,” says Horgan. “We had no idea how interesting or what things indeed, but we started filming because I knew Rory and I knew Panti and I knew that we had this really interesting central character who’s very politically astute, extremely articulate, and wildly entertaining… Then when the actual story arrived, it arrived in spades,” he laughs.

“And another thing about Rory is that Panti is always camera-ready. Panti is always very sassy and very quick and very smart and very funny. There’s such a disparity between them as characters.” So at what point does this disparity become noticeable? “All of the front of house stuff happens through Panti, and Rory is really quite shy. If they were both exactly the same kind of character, just one wore a dress and the other one didn’t, I don’t think it would have been interesting.”

Production on this film began immediately after Horgan’s last feature film had been released, and was born of a meeting between him and his producer, Katie Holly. “She knew I knew Rory. I’ve known Rory since the mid-90s, when I started doing pictures of Panti for the Alternative Miss Ireland posters.” The Alternative Miss Ireland was an annual drag queen beauty pageant organised to raise funds for Irish AIDS charities. The very last one, held in 2012, is depicted in the film. “Rory, when we first approached him, said he’d been approached a number of times before but he never really felt like it, but he trusted me enough to say yes. I knew it was a big deal for him, not least because he comes from a small country town… He has a horror about being seen to have notions about oneself, which is a very Irish thing.”

The film ends, rather surprisingly, with Rory returning to do a show as Panti in his native Ballinrobe. Why was this ending chosen over the more obvious passing of marriage equality? “It was our decision [to do that]. When we first approached Rory, he said, ‘you’re not going to ask me to walk down the street in Ballinrobe wearing a dress, right?’ It was quite a big deal for him to agree to that… The film is about the intersection between the personal and the political, so you have a political climax, which is May 23rd, but then the personal. As Rory actually says himself in the film, the personal always trumps the political.”

In the film, O’Neill describes the secrecy that came with being gay in Dublin in the 1980s. As they danced in underground nightclubs, straight people went about their everyday lives, totally oblivious to what was happening. Gay people had to hide away and there are huge gaps in Irish LGBTQ+ history as a result. By featuring footage and interviews from this time, does Conor hope to fill this gap? “Basically, almost everything of that, that exists, is in the film. All a minute and a half of it. RTÉ would have gone in there with a camera crew maybe twice. We looked elsewhere to see what else there was, and there really wasn’t anything else. Does it fill a gap? I suppose any documentary, especially when it’s about, ultimately, how a country is changing is going to become part of the historical record of that country.”

The passing of marriage equality on May 23rd marked a significant turning point in Ireland. With overwhelming support for the ‘yes’ campaign, it signified to many that the country had finally moved on from a repressive past, 22 years after homosexuality had been decriminalised in Irish law. “I think the entire country was gobsmacked by just how big a deal this was,” Horgan says. “Everybody I knew had this emotional investment and really felt it when the thing went through, because it was about the country becoming a better place for everybody.” Conor had the privilege of being at the centre of events. “There was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been for that day, other than chasing Panti around with a camera.”

The Queen of Ireland is the director’s second feature film, following One Hundred Mornings in 2009. A post-apocalyptic drama filmed in the Wicklow Mountains, it details the breakdown of society and the loneliness that would ensue from such an event. “Of all the lies we tell ourselves,” he says, “the greatest is that there’s any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society. A lot of people, especially younger people, just go, ‘well great, it’ll be like Spring Break forever, except with guns, and we can do whatever the hell we want and go tearing around the place and shoot people and all bets will be off,’ and it wouldn’t be like that. It would be boring, and cold, and lonely, and scary, and I just wanted to make a realistic film saying, ‘is this what you want?’”One Hundred Mornings won an IFTA for Best Cinematography and a Special Jury Award at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival.

So what can we expect to see next from the filmmaker? “Nothing. I’m retiring now, that’s it,” he laughs, before his phone starts buzzing once more. “No, I’m working on a science-fiction love story with another writer called Pierce Ryan and we’re having a lot of fun doing that, so that might very well be my next film.” Quite a departure from following a drag queen around Ireland.

The marriage referendum created reverberations all over the world, as did the story of Panti Bliss and her noble call. This film captures that story and acts as a time capsule for this unique period in Irish history, and it is thanks to director Conor Horgan that it is on record. Whether he is detailing the breakdown of society, or following a man in drag, he undoubtedly has interesting things to say about the changing social landscape in Ireland.

The Queen of Ireland is in theatres now.

The Queen of Ireland: Review

This work was originally published in the University Observer in October 2015, both online and in print.

Director: Conor Horgan

Starring: Rory O’Neill (Panti Bliss), Niall Sweeney, David Norris.

Release Date: 21st October/Out now.

“My job as a drag queen is to commentate from the fringes, to stand on the outside looking in, shouting abuse.” This is the battle cry of Rory O’Neill, also known as drag queen Panti Bliss, the subject of Conor Horgan’s new documentary The Queen of Ireland. The director’s first feature-length film since his post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings, it details Rory’s journey from childhood in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to international recognition as a key gay rights activist.

The documentary captures a huge moment of social change in Ireland, the passing of Marriage Equality on May 23rd 2015. While Panti was at the centre of events, and it plays a huge role in the narrative, it is simply used to punctuate the film by appearing at the beginning and end. Equal emphasis is placed on Rory’s upbringing, his anxieties about growing up gay in small country town, the club scene in 1980s and ’90s, and how he dealt with his HIV diagnosis. Any one of these subjects would have made for an interesting documentary, but The Queen of Ireland manages to balance all of the above without faltering; at no point does a discussion feel like it has overstayed its welcome.

Where the film really succeeds is the way in which humour is balanced with the serious. Comedy underpins every aspect of this film; after a very solemn opening that briefly recounts the events of May 23rd, we are immediately transported to a dressing room in which Panti is getting ready. She converses with herself in the mirror: “Panti,” she says, “you look fucking amazing.” “I know,” her reflection responds. This sets the tone for the rest of the feature. When Panti returns to do a show in her home town of Ballinrobe it is a significant, poignant, and emotional moment for both the character and the audience. When she gets up on stage, however, she immediately tells people that she is “crapping it.” Whenever moments of serious reflection are introduced, they are hushed almost instantly. These two aspects of the film never feel disparate or at odds with each other, instead they come to reflect the contrasting sides of the Ms. Bliss’ personality, and make for an emotional rollercoaster.

Another aspect of the film that must be commended is its editing. Conor Horgan followed Panti around and filmed the events in her life over a number of years, and likely had days worth of footage to sift through as a result. To condense all of that down and make it into a coherent 82 minute narrative is truly astounding; not once does it feel like a moment in Panti’s life has been skimmed or not treated with enough gravitas.

Also of note is the positive message the film carries for LGBTQ+ people. The drag queen’s power, as discussed in the film, comes from taking something that was once used as an insult (being too ‘girly’ or effeminate) and turning it into something powerful, and this is exactly what Panti does, meaning the greatest voice of the Marriage Equality Referendum was a man in a dress. And that’s nothing to be scoffed at.

In A Nutshell: The Queen of Ireland acts not only as document of a changing Ireland, but also as a powerful LGBTQ+ piece about our country’s most outspoken drag artist. Funny, emotional and poignant, this is an unmissable piece of work.