To mark Lesbian Visibility Day, we are highlighting some of the many Irish lesbian trailblazers who work tirelessly in front of and behind the scenes to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ people the world over. There are countless lesbians who have paved the way both historically and currently at home and abroad in all fields of life, and this is list is by no means exhaustive. It simply aims to give a flavour of some of the many game-changing Sapphics our Emerald Isle luckily boasts.
First up in our list of Irish lesbian trailblazers is the feminist and lesbian activist, Ailbhe Smyth.
Involved in radical politics in Ireland for over four decades, the indomitable Smyth was a spokeswoman and convenor for the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. She is also a founding member of Marriage Equality, convenor of Feminist Open Forum, an organiser for Action for Choice, a board member of Equality and Rights Alliance and is the former Chair of the National LGBT Federation. As if all that wasn’t enough, Smyth also received the ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award at the Galas 2015, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from NUI Galway.
Orla Egan is known as one of the country’s most prominent lesbian trailblazers, particularly for her work in Cork. She has continuously highlighted the significance of the rebel county’s queer history by founding and exhibiting the Cork LGBT Archive.
The collection can be explored in multiple ways: through the physical archive housed in the Cork Public Museum, digitally through corklgbtarchive.com, and through more alternative means such as the ‘Queer Republic of Cork’ exhibition which travelled to Belfast and Berlin, a book published by the same name, a theatre piece called Leeside Lezzies and more.
Egan is the perfect person to spearhead this essential project, as not only is she passionate about history, but she also lived much of it. Having been involved in the queer Cork scene since the ’80s, she experienced life in the Quay Co-op, Loafers Bar, the Women’s Place and the Other Place, all the while becoming a crucial figure in achieving vital rights for the LGBTQ+ community.
While Ireland has a whole host of inspiring LGBTQ+ athletes, Katie McCabe has emerged as one of the most prominent in recent years. As captain of the Republic of Ireland women’s soccer team, she helped the squad make history by securing qualification for its first-ever major senior tournament, the 2023 FIFA World Cup, taking place later this summer. The Tallaght-born star is also a key player for Arsenal in the Women’s Super League (WSL), England’s top football league.
In an episode of GCN’s In & Out series in 2021, Katie detailed her coming out story and shared some of her experiences as an LGBTQ+ athlete. She is currently in a relationship with Ireland teammate Ruesha Littlejohn, who also plays in the WSL for Aston Villa.
The intrepid Una Mullally is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster. She writes columns for The Irish Times covering areas such as Irish and global politics, social justice issues, LGBTQ+ rights issues, feminism and technology. She was named Journalist of the Year (2015) at the Irish LGBTQ+ Galas Awards, and the Foy-Zappone Award (2016) from University College Dublin.
Her first book, In The Name Of Love, was a critically acclaimed oral history of the movement for marriage equality in Ireland. She was also the editor of Repeal the 8th – an anthology of writings about reproductive rights in the country. On the podcast front, Una co-founded the award-winning Irish Times Women’s Podcast and is the co-host of the hugely popular United Ireland podcast.
No list of Irish lesbian trailblazers would be respectable without the inclusion of Izzy Kamikaze. A veteran LGBTQ+ activist working tirelessly for the community across four decades, she was profiled in the 2019 Dublin Pride Guide. Celebrating the theme, ‘Rainbow Revolution’, the guide revisited 50 moments of LGBTQ+ change and progress since Stonewall.
Izzy Kamikaze is that rare breed of political animal: a fierce lesbian and civil rights activist who came of age in the turbulent 1980’s, embracing intersectionality in her political ideology decades before it became a post-millennial thing. More pertinently, she’s lived to tell the tale and still has fire in her belly.
“One came out of the other,” explains Izzy when describing how Dublin Pride reinvented itself in the early 1990’s by piggybacking on the energies and connectedness of Act Up Dublin.
Although Dublin Pride has been celebrated every year since 1979, the marches had ground to a halt by 1986, victim to massive emigration, burnout, despondency and the devastation of AIDS.
Dublin Pride Guide – Mapping Pride
Sara R Phillips
Sara R Phillips has been devoted to the trans community for over 20 years and served as Chair of TENI for 10 those. She also founded and spearheads the Irish Trans Archive.
Phillips, who appeared on the cover of GCN in 2015 to celebrate the passing of the Gender Recognition Bill, is a role model for many in the LGBTQ+ community and was recognised as such with an award at the 2020 Galas.
Upon receiving her award, she explained the importance of her work, saying, “Everything I do is for our trans community, everything I do is for the people who have gone before me but also those who are coming after me, because currently life as a trans person in Ireland still is not good enough. [There] is still a lot more to do.”
Zainab is a rising star in the world of Irish journalism. Currently working with RTÉ on the longstanding popular program Nationwide, her strengths include her ability to connect with people and make them feel comfortable enough to share their important moments, views and emotions. She is passionate about work surrounding the right to education, gender inequalities, racism and LGBTQ+ issues, and she has a young and ambitious mind capable of influencing change through her fascinating work.
Recently, Zainab was one of the keynote speakers at the 2022 Lesbian Lives conference in University College Cork, and her presentation was warmly received by all attendees.
The inspirational Denise Charlton is a force for positive change. In 2020, Denise was announced as the new CEO of the Community Foundation of Ireland, a role which she still maintains.
Denise was the former Co-Chair of Marriage Equality and was represented on the strategy advisory group of Yes Equality and Together for Yes, of which she was also head of fundraising.
A former vice-Chair of the Children’s Rights Alliance, she is presently the Chief Executive of Community Foundation Ireland. She somehow impressively also found the drive and energy to work on a range of government and NGO committees, including the Irish Government Working Group on Trafficking of Human Beings; the National Steering Committee on Violence against Women, and the National Crime Council and the Women’s Health Council.
With her obvious devotion to her fellow human beings, Denise rightly deserves to be celebrated.
Affected by the death of Savita Halappanavar, Anna Cosgrave set up Repeal Project – the organisation behind the iconic black jumpers that have become synonymous with the movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
As well as spreading the message, the Repeal Project helped raise hundreds of thousands for volunteer organisations working on the campaign, such as the Abortion Rights Campaign, Not At Home, Coalition To Repeal The Eighth and Together For Yes. Anna was nominated as one of 10 Ashoka Changemakers in 2017, won U Magazine Campaign of the Year 2017 and represented Ireland in Brussels at the FI gathering of feminist political activists. Thank you, Anna!
Independent TD Katherine Zappone and her wife Ann-Louise Gilligan campaigned fiercely for years to achieve marriage equality in this country. Zappone made headlines when she popped the question live on RTÉ to Ann-Louise, saying she was “feeling emotional from the top all the way down to my toes”.
The couple were also co-founders of An Cosán, an organisation in Tallaght which offers adult education, among other services, to women from disadvantaged areas.
In a historic first, Minister Zappone became the first openly lesbian member of the Irish Cabinet in 2016.
Born in Rome to Sri Lankan parents, Wickremasinghe was left homeless after she came out as gay. After years of travelling, she moved to Ireland in 2000 and decided to stay. Since then, she has gone on to become one of the leading Social Justice and Mental Health Journalists in the country.
Dil is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist, known for her podcast Sparking Change which ran for 58 episodes. Through it, she highlighted the latest social justice and mental health stories with the aim of igniting positive social change one conversation at a time.
The highly successful woman is also a co-founder (alongside her wife) of Insight Matters, a counselling and psychotherapy service. With a team of approximately 50 therapists, they provide essential, inclusive, affordable and accessible mental health support services to over 400 clients per week.
Dil has faced a lot of adversity and injustices throughout her life, which fuels her in her work to make things better for others in similar circumstances – a very noble feat, to say the least.
Lilith is a fearless and inspiring trans and lesbian trailblazer who works with TENI as its National Community Development Officer. Her online activism particularly has centred on exposing the catastrophic state of affairs for trans folks trying to access healthcare in Ireland.
Lilith gave a most powerful speech at the 2021 Dublin Pride digital festival and wrote eloquently in a previous issue of GCN about ‘A state of collapse: Trans healthcare in Ireland is a national emergency.’
In 2015, Gráinne took home the Galas Award for Volunteer of the Year, and for good reason! Longtime feminist and LGBTQ+ activist, former chairwoman of Marriage Equality and Co-Director of the Yes Equality campaign, Gráinne Healy was instrumental in securing a Yes vote in May 2015.
Along with progressing the LGBTQ+ movement, she has dedicated her life to campaigning for women’s rights in Ireland, including reproductive health rights, violence against women, prostitution and trafficking and anti-poverty issues.
One of the first Irish lesbian trailblazers to come to national attention, Joni Crone came out on The Late Late Show in 1980 – two years before Declan Flynn was murdered in Fairview Park and 13 years before homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland. She was there to talk about the need for law reform and to give insight into the horror stories she heard on the Lesbian Line.
Joni returned from London in the 1970s and began the fight for civil rights for LGBTQ+ people in Ireland. Her play, Anna Livia Lesbia, was written as a response to the erasure of the gay rights movement in Ireland in the ’70s and ’80s in the Marriage Referendum narrative.
GCN interviewed Joni for the 2017 Annual Pride issue and it’s a cracker. Find it below.
A tireless activist for LGBTQ+ rights, amongst her myriad incredible work for the community, Nuala was the founder of Galway Pride and was fittingly honoured by leading the Galway Pride Parade as its Grand Marshal in 2019.
Nuala was also honoured by NUI Galway “in recognition of her dedication to human rights issues, in particular, LGBT+ issues, her work in advocacy, activism, awareness-raising and outgoing community service spanning over three decades.”
Dublin Lesbian Line
Set up in 1979, Dublin Lesbian Line is one of the oldest LGBTQ+ helplines in the world, with a team of highly trained volunteers who have diligently offered support for the community. As stated on its website, “Our goal is to provide a supportive, confidential, non-judgmental helpline to those in need and expand our service accordingly.” DLL celebrated 40 years in 2019 and marked the occasion with a fabulous event, 40 Years Fearless.
In 2020, DLL launched a brilliant new podcast about the lives of LGBTQ+ women in Ireland – Women STAR, which focuses on mental health, emotional resilience and what it’s like to be queer in Ireland.
The one-and-only Mary Dorcey is a beloved addition to our examples of Irish lesbian trailblazers. In the 1970s, she advocated both in Ireland and internationally for LGBTQ+ rights. She was a founder member of Irish Women United, Women for Radical Change and The Movement for Sexual Liberation.
Mary has published several collections of poetry alongside her other books. A member by peer election of the Irish Academy of Arts and Literature, Aosdána, she won the Rooney Prize in 1990 for her short story collection – A Noise from the Woodshed.
The fabulous Dr Mary McAuliffe is an Assistant Professor/Lecturer in Gender Studies at UCD, specialising in Irish women’s/gender history. Mary has written the books We were there; 77 women of the Easter Rising (co-written with Liz Gillis), and Sexual Politics In Modern Ireland.
Mary is a devoted member of the board of the NXF (National LGBT Federation) – the publishers of yours truly, GCN, and the national organisation to campaign for the equal rights of and to combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in Ireland and internationally.
The wonderful Moninne Griffith is the CEO of the essential Belong To – the national organisation that advocates for queer youth in Ireland. The work that Belong To carries out with heart and passion has saved and improved the lives of countless young LGBTQ+ folk – its worth cannot be underestimated.
Moninne was also the Chair of the Gender Recognition Act and was heavily involved in the campaign for same-sex marriage in Ireland, acting as Director of Marriage Equality. More power to her!
Paula Fagan is a force to be reckoned with. She has been striving for greater LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion for many years. She was a founding board member of Marriage Equality and has published a number of seminal research reports into the experiences and needs of LGBTQ+ people and their family members.
In her current role as the CEO of LGBT Ireland, she has overseen the expansion of the organisation and the services it provides, offering a comprehensive range of services that support and give information on issues relating to sexuality and gender identity.
Paula has been fighting the good fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ parents and their families for many years and the community is lucky to have her!
For over 20 years, LINC has been the only community development organisation working exclusively with lesbian and bisexual women in the Republic of Ireland. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of women have been supported and assisted during that time, and thousands more have found friends, family, a safe space, a lifeline and a home.
Kate Moynihan is the Chief Executive of LINC, and those who know her rightfully recognise her as one of the most devoted Irish lesbian trailblazers in our history.
One of the founding members of the national LGBT Helpline and Centre Manager of Dundalk Outcomers, amongst many other things, the invaluable Bernie Quinn has long been a tireless supporter of our LGBTQ+ family.
Bernie is the Social Inclusion Officer for Outcomers, a social and befriending support group for all members of the rainbow spectrum operating in the centre of Dundalk town since 1997.
If you want to read something truly inspiring, you can check out an interview we did with Bernie in one of our 2019 issues here. Thank you for all you’ve done for the community, Bernie!
Ranae von Meding
An activist campaigning on behalf of LGBTQ+ parents in Ireland, Ranae von Meding has written many wonderful, informative and empowering articles for GCN, sharing with the community the struggles rainbow families face.
She is a founder of Equality for Children – a campaign for equality for children of LGBTQ+ families in Ireland. The campaign shares how children of same-sex parents in Ireland are denied the right to have a legally recognised relationship with both of their parents. Equality for Children, and Ranae, will not rest until it is achieved.
The impressive Maeve is the founder of the Lesbian Lawyers Network. She accepted the Galas 2020 Award for Outstanding Company on behalf of Arthur Cox, of which she is an Associate.
The firm was recognised for its work in promoting LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion both in Arthur Cox and the wider community. The firm’s LGBTQ+ network alliance was founded in June 2017 and continues to provide advice and support to LGBTQ+ employees and their allies. The alliance also supports the external LGBTQ+ community through sponsorships with many of the LGBTQ+ university societies, Pink Ladies Hockey Club, OUTLaw network and attendance at the Belong To Rainbow Ball.
Music sensations and two-time GCN cover stars, Pillow Queens, also deserve a place on this list of Irish lesbian trailblazers. With the release of their two highly-acclaimed albums In Waiting and Leave the Light On, the queer rock group is putting our little country on the musical map.
Unapologetically queer and Irish, both in their personal and professional lives, the band proves that being LGBTQ+ can be a catalyst for success and not a hindrance. Read more about the latest release from the Pillow Queens in GCN Issue 371, and get to know the band (including their drag names) a little bit better below!
This list of Irish lesbian trailblazers is merely a tiny selection out of all the incredible members of our community. To every single lesbian in our community, during this Lesbian Visibility Week – we love you, we see you, we’ve got your back. x
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