The impact the LGBTQ+ community in Cork had on the monumental advances for LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland needs greater recognition. Orla Egan shares the decades of activism and social change the county witnessed.
Recent changes for the Irish LGBTQ+ community, including Marriage Equality and the enactment of Gender Recognition legislation, did not happen out of the blue, or just because of the actions of a number of high profile individuals. These changes were the result of decades of activism and bravery of LGBTQ+ individuals and organisations throughout the country, decades of determination to fight against discrimination, and to demand equality and respect for the LGBT community.
The Cork LGBTQ+ community were architects of change. Cork LGBTQ+ activists brought about fundamental changes in how LGBTQ+ people were conceptualised, and in the social, political and legal landscape in which we lived. This included the creation of safe spaces, of community centres, and reaching out to others through telephone helplines and newsletters.
Prejudice and misinformation about LGBTQ+ people was challenged through media appearances and the distribution of leaflets and newsletters (it is worth remembering that this was an era before the proliferation of social media and the ease of mass communication). The community also campaigned for legal change, for decriminalisation of homosexuality and for legal protection for LGBTQ+ people. The community did not exist or operate in isolation; we made allies, we built alliances with other social change organisations and we campaigned on wider social issues e.g. abortion and contraception. The role of the Cork LGBTQ+ community in bringing about wider social, legal and political changes in Ireland needs to be acknowledged.
In the early 1970’s, there were no formal LGBTQ+ organisations or spaces in Cork, but there was an underground vibrant gay scene, for those who could find it. Finding it was the challenge. Many LGBTQ+ people experienced isolation and many emigrated to larger cities like London, where they could find a LGBTQ+ community. In Cork, as elsewhere, parks and public toilets provided loci for cruising and clandestine sexual encounters – out of this cruising circuit connections were fostered and networks of lifetime friendships formed. There was also a circuit of ‘fabulous gay parties’ in the homes of some of the wealthier gay men.
During the 1970’s, LGBTQ+ people started to meet in a number of Cork bars. The Imperial Bar, the Green Room, Le Chateau, the Steeple Bar and Krojaks nightclub provided important meeting spaces for the community. In the mid 1970’s, the London newsletter, Gay News, included Le Château in a listing of “gay friendly” locations in the UK and Ireland. When the owner of Le Château saw this she barred the gays she considered ‘too obvious’. The more ‘acceptable’ gays were not barred!
In the mid 1970’s, the Cork branch of IGRM (Irish Gay Rights Movement) was established and Cork’s first gay centre opened at No 4 MacCurtain Street. This Gay Centre provided an important space for the LGBTQ+ community, with social and community activities being organised, including weekend discos, newsletters and support services. The Cork IGRM set up a telephone helpline and counselling service, Tel-A-Friend, to provide support and advice to gay people.
The nascent LGBTQ+ community sought to challenge misinformation and prejudice, for example through media programmes on radio and on TV. The first Cork lesbian meeting of which I am aware took place in the MacCurtain Street Gay Centre on 30th January 1978.
The Cork IGRM engaged in informal discussions with local Gardai, and a good working relationship was established. The Gay Centre was directly across the road from a Garda Station. The Gardai would visit the club regularly and check if everyone was over 18, that they were members of the club and that no alcohol was consumed (there was no bar licence), but in general the Gardai did not interfere or try to prevent the operation of the Gay Centre. Unlike the situation in Dublin, I have found no reports of gay men being arrested and publicly shamed in Cork in the 1970’s.
The 1980’s saw the further development of the Cork LGBTQ+ community, with new organisations established and the opening of new community spaces. The Cork Gay Collective (CGC) was set up in 1980. It was established as a new, more radical type of Irish gay group, a departure from what many would have seen as the more reformist policies of groups like the Irish Gay Rights Movement and the National Gay Federation.
The CGC recognised that legal change was important, but that this was not enough. What was needed was a deeper challenge to society’s view of sexuality and gender stereotyping. They sought to encourage more positive and open attitudes among gay people to their sexuality. They also located the struggle for gay rights as part of a wider movement for social change and made links between homophobia and discrimination against gays and lesbians and other oppressed groups in Ireland and internationally.
The UCC Gay Society was set up in 1980, but UCC refused to recognise and support the society. The society was finally given formal recognition by UCC as a college society in April 1989, making UCC the first constituent college of the National University of Ireland to give recognition to a gay group.
The first Irish National Gay Conference was held in Cork 15-17 May, 1981. Workshops were held on a range of topics and 49 motions were passed by the conference, setting the agenda for LGBTQ+ activism in Ireland in the coming decades.
In the early 1980’s, two important spaces opened in Cork; the Quay Co-op and Loafers Bar, providing invaluable community space and helping to develop Cork into a hive of social change activism. The establishment of a Women’s Place as part of the Quay Co-op facilitated the development of new lesbian groups in Cork, including the Lesbian Discussion Group and the Lesbian Line.
Alongside the political activism there has always been a sense of play in the Cork LGBTQ+ community. From the circuit of ‘fabulous gay parties’ in the early 1970’s, to the establishment of the annual Women’s Fun Weekend in 1984 and the Lesbian Fantasy Ball in 1994, multiple sporting activities and participation in the International Gay Games (always bringing back gold medals to Cork).
These fun community spaces were the perfect antidote to the prejudice and discrimination frequently experienced by the community. When the Cork Lesbian Line and Gay Information Cork were established in 1985, one of the key challenges was to advertise their services. The local newspapers, The Cork Examiner and The Evening Echo, refused to carry advertisements for them, claiming that it would be illegal to do so!
In the 1980’s, the community faced increased prejudice, violence and discrimination with the emergence of HIV/AIDS. One activist tells of how her gay friends were frequently beaten up and how dentists would refuse to treat lesbians or gay men as they feared they would “catch AIDS”.
Cork activists were centrally involved in the establishment of Gay Health Action in 1985, providing information and support in relation to HIV/AIDS. Through the establishment of the befriending service, Cairde, they provided hands-on support to those affected by HIV/AIDS and training for health care professionals. The first Irish AIDS leaflet was produced in Cork in 1985.
The 1990’s saw the further development, and greater visibility of the community. A new Cork LGBT Resource Centre, The Other Place, opened in 1991 and provided an important base for the further development of activism and social space.
During the 1990’s there was increasing visibility and acknowledgment of the bisexual and transgender communities in Cork, with a Bisexual group and Transgender group both meeting in The Other Place.
The first Irish Lesbian and Gay Film Festival was held in Cork in 1991 as part of the Cork Film Festival. The first Irish LGBTQ+ float in a Patrick’s Day Parade was organised in Cork in 1992, in response to the banning of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation (ILGO) from marching in the St Patrick’s Day Parades in New York and Boston.
The end of the 1990’s saw the establishment of Cork’s first lesbian centre, initially called Cairde Corcai, the name was later changed to LINC.
These decades of bravery and activism by the Cork LGBTQ+ community fundamentally changing the lived reality for people in Cork and in Ireland. This is an important part of our national LGBTQ+ history – we need to move beyond a Dublin-centric approach to the telling of Irish LGBTQ+ history and develop more inclusive and nuanced historical accounts.
Orla Egan is the creator and curator of the Cork LGBT Archive and author of Queer Republic of Cork. The Cork LGBT Archive has just been announced as a Heritage Finalist (one of six nationally) in the Irish National Lottery Good Causes Awards.
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