Unshrinking Violets: 50 Years of Lesbian Activism is a series of events, part of the Age and Opportunity Bealtaine Festival 2023, celebrating the remarkable achievements of lesbian, bisexual, female-identifying and non-binary people working towards improving LGBTQ+ rights across Ireland since the formation of the Sexual Liberation Movement (SLM) up to today. Han Tiernan fills us in on what to expect.
Did you stomp your feet to Fairview Park in ‘83 or ‘Lust for Power’ at the Dyke March in ‘98? Did you pop your cherry at Women’s Camp or get frisky at the Fun Weekend? Did you make friends in JJ Smyths, Loafers or Zulus or shake your bootie on Flikkers dance floor (on a Thursday night)? Did you knock on doors to put a ring on your wife’s finger or learn how to grow a moustache at an aLAF drag workshop? Did you answer the phone to a woman in need? If so, you could be an Unshrinking Violet, and we want to hear your story.
But first, let’s go back to where it all began.
2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the SLM at Trinity College Dublin. The group is credited as being the first lesbian and gay organisation in the Republic of Ireland, heralding the start of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Among the ten founding members were four lesbian and bisexual women: Irene Brady, Mary Dorcey, Margaret McWilliam, and Ruth Riddick. These women would go on to pave the way in the fight for rights across the island. Although prevailing laws of the time prohibited sexual acts between men, same-sex acts between women weren’t subject to the same legislative prohibition. As a result, the plight of lesbians was cast aside in favour of a push towards legislative change.
However, due to regressive laws pertaining to the rights of women – such as employment, divorce, contraception, abortion, and custody – lesbian and bisexual women often experienced additional hardships to those of their gay male counterparts.
As a result of this double jeopardy, many lesbian and bisexual women found themselves focusing their efforts on the struggles of others at the expense of themselves until the formation of LIL (Liberation for Irish Lesbians) in 1978.
With LIL came the introduction of the Dublin Lesbian Line, the country’s first dedicated helpline for lesbian and bisexual women. Shortly after, Cork followed suit with the formation of the Cork Women’s Collective and the Cork Lesbian Line. Lesbian lines also emerged in Belfast, Galway, Limerick, Derry, and Sligo, solidifying an island-wide network of lesbian-focused groups. This, in turn, fostered cross-border initiatives, women’s camps, fun weekends, conferences, new lesbian-focused organisations, and a dedicated lesbian centre in Cork, to name but a few.
50 years on from the formation of the SLM, the landscape of Ireland is very different. Much has been achieved, such as the decriminalisation of same-sex acts between men, marriage equality for same-sex partners, gender recognition, abortion, and divorce. Lesbian and bisexual women, trans and cis, and gender non-conforming people who identify with the lesbian community have played a vital role in bringing about these changes.
As part of the Age and Opportunity Bealtaine Festival 2023, the Unshrinking Violets: 50 Years of Lesbian Activism programme aims to recognise the incredible achievements and dedication of lesbian, bisexual, female-identifying and non-binary people across Ireland. Curated and produced by myself and Francis Fay, the programme will comprise three exciting events; an exhibition, a discussion day, and a screening of the film Outitude.
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Firstly, the dynamic exhibition will run in the Theatre of Outhouse from Wednesday, May 17 to Friday, May 26. The exhibition aims to capture an overview of lesbian activism, from the personal to the political. One of the key elements of the exhibit will incorporate a beautiful sound piece composed by filmmaker Cara Holmes, sharing the experiences of women who volunteered with lesbian lines.
The visual display will centre around a series of themed panels, incorporating research by Cara and Ger Moane, producer of Outitude, and research conducted by myself for the Queer-in-Progress. Timeline with Project Arts Centre. As well as mapping a timeline of lesbian and feminist histories, the panels will provide an account of the Lesbian Line organisations, the cultural and social experiences of the community, the political actions, and the personal experiences.
Secondly, the discussion day – Unkshrinking Violets: A Movement in Deliberation – is a free afternoon event. It will take place in the Wood Quay Venue at the Dublin City Council Civic Offices on Saturday, May 2, from 1:30 to 4:30pm. The first part of the afternoon will see a panel discussion hosted by Ailbhe Smyth, featuring leading community activists from the last 50 years, followed by an interactive audience participation ‘long table’ discussion. The discussion will aim to evaluate the community’s achievements, explore the community’s current needs, and understand how lesbian activism can still play a role. This will be an in-person event and will also be live-streamed via YouTube. In-person spaces are limited, so booking is essential.
Finally, there will be a screening of the aforementioned Outitude, the multi-award-winning documentary exploring lesbian grass-roots activism, collectives, community, academia and politics from the 1970s to the present day. The film focuses on interviews with seminal figures from the Irish lesbian community, including Nell McCafferty, Ailbhe Smyth, and Katherine Zappone. Directed by Sonya Mulligan, the documentary asks what it means to be lesbian. The film will be screened in the theatre at Outhouse on Wednesday, May 24. Tickets are free but spaces are limited, so booking is essential.
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Alongside these events, we would love you, the members of the community, to be involved. As part of this celebration, we invite you to share your story. We’re looking for photographs, badges, diaries, banners, posters, flyers, or any other ephemera that might relate to lesbian life.
Unshrinking Violets: 50 Years of Lesbian Activism is an Age and Opportunity Bealtaine Festival 2023 commission supported by the Arts Council and Dublin City Council. Age and Opportunity is the national organisation to enable the best quality of life for us all as we age.
This article was originally featured in print in issue 377 of GCN. You can read the full issue here.
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This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 377 (April 1, 2023). Click here to read it now.
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