Nominated for Editor of the Year at the Irish Magazine Awards, Brian Finnegan reflects on the massive journey GCN has taken since it was first published 28 years ago.
Yesterday I was at the Today FM studios to contribute to an item on The Matt Cooper Show, when one of the researchers said to me: “My first piece of writing was published in GCN”. It turned out she’d written a review in one of our annual youth issues, which she proudly told me she still keeps to this day. It was one of the many stories of personal connection with GCN I’ve heard over my years as its editor, and as always I found it very moving. I always get emotional when I hear how instrumental this little publication has been in so many people’s lives, in so many ways. I get emotional, because GCN changed my life too. My own first piece of writing was published in it, sewing the seeds for my career as a journalist, and through it I gained confidence as a gay man that I was missing.
In a country where new magazines come and go overnight, and some beloved ones remain national stalwarts, GCN is among the latter. In publication since 1988, it began its life as an eight page black and white broadsheet with a cover price of 20p, created by activists Tonie Walsh and Catherine Glendon. Its remit, in a world where the Internet didn’t exist, and a country where homosexuality was criminalised, was to create a sense of community for lesbian and gay people (bisexual, trans or intersex people didn’t have a look-in then), giving them information about what was happening culturally, socially and politically.
Twenty-eight years later, GCN continues to fulfill the same role, although it has also changed radically over that time. I came on board as editor in 2003 at a key moment in its evolution, when the publication had secured investment from Atlantic Philanthropies so it could try and become a commercially viable. The Celtic Tiger was roaring, but GCN was at death’s door. It needed a new vision and a total overhaul if it was going to tap mainstream advertisers and survive.
I was charged with the difficult task of straddling the divide between a high-end consumer magazine and a free community publication. The first thing I did was turn it into a full-colour monthly magazine, with big production values and professional journalism. Along with an incredibly creative staff and bank of freelancers, I filled it with a mix of features, interviews, opinion and snippets that were about lifestyle, culture, entertainment, politics, and most importantly the evolution of Ireland’s LGBT community at a time of huge change in this country.
Back then it was my insistence that LGBT people interviewed in the magazine would be photographed, and that they would be smiling…
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I wanted to present a proud, self-directed, confident Irish LGBT community, both to outsiders and to itself. Given that people chomp at the bit to have their photos in GCN nowadays, you would be surprised how many turned the chance down when I started in the job, saying they didn’t feel comfortable being featured in a ‘gay’ magazine. But by and large it worked.
We carried features like ‘Work it Out’ in which people talked about being out at work (at the time less than 30% of gay people were open about their sexuality in their jobs), and we interviewed and photographed LGBT people from all walks of Irish life, including people with disabilities, Travellers, people living with HIV, people living in rural communities, and older people. We introduced a Youth Issue, with which we mentor young people to take over the editorial reigns of the magazine once a year, and give young writers a chance to be published. We employed a range of LGBT columnists to give their opinions on all aspects of LGBT life in Ireland.
While GCN remained a vibrant community publication, we also began to publish lifestyle content, celebrity interviews and reviews, crossing over into a much more commercial arena. We also held on to our political chops, and in the years leading up to marriage equality we were there every step of the way, working with all the stakeholders to put their messages across, interviewing politicians and Taoisigh, activists and artists, and providing a soapbox for leaders of organisations across the LGBT spectrum as the fight for our equality grew. We created an annual awards ceremony, The GALAS, to celebrate those people, and to honour all the people who worked towards the evolution of an Ireland where LGBT people would be respected and included.
The most rewarding time in my years as editor so far was in 2009, when after the economy crashed and the publishing industry went into crisis we had to do some fundraising to keep GCN alive. We called our campaign GCN Forever, and we asked our community leaders and LGBT people in the public eye, people like Senator David Norris, Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, Rory O’Neill (aka Panti), Ann Nolan and Brendan Courtney, to talk about what GCN meant to them. Their responses were amazing, and the response of the community was enormous…
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In the midst of deep recession people were popping into our offices every day with cash, telling us how vital GCN was to their lives. In partnership with a successful scene promoter we started a club called Mother as a fundraiser for GCN Forever, and together with so many generous, heartfelt donations, the money we made from the club saved GCN from going under. It was a true community effort to save a beloved, and much needed resource.
Being nominated for Editor of the Year at the Irish Magazine Awards this year is a real honour, not only for me, but for all the previous editors of GCN, and the many people who have worked on its staff over the decades, keeping this magazine in publication every month, 12 months a year since 1988. It is recognition in the mainstream for the part GCN has played in so many lives, and the success of this small Irish magazine that has survived through thick and thin. We know we can’t please everyone all of the time, but we do our very best to represent all the facets of our rainbow community, and we are always open to hearing how we can do that more effectively. GCN is still a growing, evolving thing, in print and online, and the community we do our best to represent is hugely important in informing that growth.
We may have marriage equality now, but there is still much work to be done within the LGBT community. Our current issue interrogates the epidemic of new HIV infections and STIs in men who have sex with men, and providing vital information for our readers in respect to their sexual health. We’re still identifying the issues that affect our community, and talking about them, and we’re listening too, so that this magazine and website can continue to represent and reflect our LGBT lives in an ever-developing Ireland.
On a personal level my journey as editor so far has been challenging, rewarding, humbling and life changing. I’m incredibly grateful to the 33,000-plus readers and subscribers who have been so loyal over the 28 years since GCN first appeared in Irish lives. Being at the helm a publication with such a loyal and engaged readership continues to be a real privilege.
© 2016 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.