Not done yet: Highlighting queer activists making a change in Ireland

Profiling a group of awesome WLW, queer and non-binary folk changing the country with their activism.

A woman holding a megaphone, it obscures her face

It has been a remarkable few years for women in Ireland. The author details a personal journey into activism and talks to other activists fighting the good fight.

Beginning with Marriage Equality and then standing to fight with other activists for reproductive rights, my first experiences of WLW (women-loving-women) solidarity and love were the kind of feelings that storm in with summer revolutions; we were coiled fury waiting for a spark to ignite us, arms worn from flag-holding over long days on hot streets.

The internet helped us activists organise when we were together, and provided love when we were scattered all over the country, but it wasn’t made for everybody, and days quickly became a barrage of wondering if you’d said too much beyond making a ‘respectful request’ for rights and not a rightful demand, or seeing people you respected do too little beyond othering or fetishising you.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with my WLW and queer friends, activists and loved ones, it felt like we did honest, hard and rewarding work to make life easier for those coming after us – and the best moments of love I remember were all the community-organising with teas and biccies, walking quiet city slip-streets and ordering whiskeys after our voices were hoarse with protest.

I’ve struggled to find that community in peacetime.

It seems without an external focus to face by weaving our experiences together, activists are fracturing into tribes again. Even though we’re globalising and our language and identities are evolving to include more diverse self-expressions, the definitions of the spaces we inhabit are becoming more rigid and putting up higher walls. There is huge value in the safety of seclusion, and bonding over specific shared experiences, but I contacted a few incredible women and non-binary activists in Ireland, who foster intergenerational and intersectional spaces for women and non-binary people of all backgrounds, to come together and find love.

Aoife O’Riordan, founded Bi+ Ireland back in 2013. She talks thoughtfully about how creating and continuing to volunteer in that space allowed her to facilitate more openness for people in an intersection of identities.

Aoife shared, “I identify with WLW, although it’s a little complicated since my own gender feels complicated as well. I’m also queer and non-binary, which has helped me a lot in understanding that who I am is consistent regardless of current relationships/connections. Overall, the subgroup identity I’ve found it most dfficult to own is my bi-ness, and so the space I’ve spent most time building because of my experiences, is Bi+ Ireland.

“I’d been doing workshops for and about bi people around the country for several years by 2013, which made it very clear that there wasn’t really a space where bi+ people felt they could be out and open. I created an online space from the connections that I’d made all over the island, and by working from the beginning, even without funding or resources, to be as inclusive and respectful as we could make it. We’ve always done our best to listen as hard as we can and to prioritise inclusivity and access, as well as share the process by which we make those decisions.”

Bi+ Ireland has grown from strength to strength, and has become as much a group for external advocacy and activists as for internal supports. It’s also, importantly, an all-Ireland community that’s consistently responsive to changes in social needs.

“I love Bi+ Ireland,” Aoife continues, “and the less-formally- delineated women’s/dyke communities from outside the Pale! In Dublin we have so much going on, but we can all end up in our different little bubbles.”

Over the last 20 years of exploring queerness and WLW spaces, Aoife is pragmatically observant about some of the inclusivity needs these spaces still have to address. “A lot of the Irish WLW scene is something people hear about via word-of-mouth, especially in rural areas. It means that it can be slow to change and especially difficult for people from different backgrounds to access. Similarly, accessibility isn’t the first thing many people think of.

“If the only ‘in’ to the scene happens in venues that are inaccessible for a myriad of reasons, a lot of people don’t get to be part of it in the first place. There is also resistance to creating cultural change to deal with the kinds of microaggressions that can be common within WLW communities. I think that people can be very aware of the ways in which all WLW are marginalised, and not so willing to see the ways that they can reenact that against other people within the community. That’s always tricky.”

Alannah Murray, a 23 year-old Washington Ireland Program alum, Disabled Women Ireland self-advocate and postgraduate researcher who shares the Bi+ Ireland discursive spaces, also relates to some of the challenges Aoife describes.

“The urban/rural divide is pretty massive – so I found Twitter pretty helpful, it very much seems to be the gay hive. I grew up in Meath and spent my teenage years in a small town in Cavan, and I actually didn’t really meet any other LGBT+ people my own age until I started college and making more friends in Dublin.

“There are few fully accessible spaces or events that I’ve come across so far so I think that’s something that really needs tackling. I obviously focus mainly on physical access as a wheelchair user because it’s what I know most about, but I know other advocates have also been vocal about the need for more sensory friendly spaces as well.”

Nonetheless, there is hope that our communities can incorporate everyone as an equal ‘in’ into making their connections, and finding and showing love. Says Aoife, “One thing I’ve loved seeing in recent years is Irish women’s communities really grappling head-on with inclusivity of trans women. While it’s been a very imperfect process, it’s beautiful to see people growing to actively champion and defend the trans women who have always been part of our community.”

A key to that inclusion is also having WLW and queer spaces outside of the conventional alcoholic based events. For Philippa Ryder, director of Diversity and Inclusion consultancy Under the Rainbow and member of TENI and European Trans advocacy groups, this actually came through involvement in sport, and representing at a national level.

Philippa explains, “As a trans woman in the gay community, there can be issues around acceptance and understanding of the lived trans experience, and in the straight community it can be equally difficult to feel comfortable. It can feel as if we’re on show, like people are almost waiting for the trans person to ‘slip up’. To be bi as well as trans therefore means that there is an added confusion that can be difficult to talk about.

“While parties and clubs are important it is also vital to think beyond that scene and expand into more long-term social activities. Being involved with Sporting Pride, Ireland’s LGBT+ sports organisation, gives me the opportunity to encourage and organise events for a wide variety of communities, including WLW focused events.”

“Ultimately, creating social spaces which allow diverse WLW to be with others and to ask questions, to feel comfortable and safe, are vital.”

One such creator, is non-binary artist and advocate Karen Miano, who co-developed Origins Eile, a grassroots space running open- and closed-space events for people of colour that intersects with disabled and queer identity exploration.

“Visibility and broadening access to queer spaces is super necessary and healthy for our growth,” Karen elaborates.

“Myself and my partner, we’re both non-binary, we live in rural South Dublin. In the local chipper we’re referred to as the ‘lady couple’ which I honestly laugh at every time I hear. We tend to just go with being read as women when navigating public spaces – something that has been driving me up the walls lately. Ultimately we need more visibility, and we have so much talking left to do about gender and identity within our communities, to help them grow out of binaries and heteronormativity too.

“The club nights and organisations we have in Ireland have been amazing support for LGBT+ people for years. However, repetitive practice within events that already have been established are inflexible to accommodate black queer POC folks all over Ireland. We need to encourage subcultures for it to flourish, and I’m super excited for Origins Eile in 2020 finding sustainable ways of having continuity within our black queer POC community – We deserve joy, rest and space, so we can move beyond token representation politics and into just being part of the norm.”

Hearing these stories and insights, I feel hope again. To see that from the last five years to the last 45 years, WLW experiences in Ireland share such similarity of insight and goals, that’s a sign to me that when I felt the power of strong WLW coming together to organise in activists, that power continues its legacy of running through generations and spanning intersections of colour, faith, ability and culture. And one day, it’ll build a cosy fire warming the community in times of peace, to gather round after we’ve used it as a catalyst for change.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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