Seeding The County: Connecting and supporting the LGBTQ+ community in Cork

Hayley Fox-Roberts fills us in on a fantastic new LGBTQ+ action for the Rebel County which encompasses empowerment, engagement and awareness for the community.

A rainbow flag blowing on a beach

I’ve worked with all kinds of people in community development, but what’s closest to my heart is my tribe: now here I am, revelling in leading out Seeding The County: LGBT+ Action in the County of Cork. Here at the grass roots, I know that empowering people is the strongest tool for change.

Cork city has two long established LGBTQ+ organisations: LINC (Lesbians in Cork) and Gay Project (supporting gay, bi, trans and queer men). Both have targeted outreach into rural areas but with limited budgets and staff, their primary focus has to be on the high urban population and those coming in and out of the rebel capital. So deep down in West Cork, or up at the fringes of the Blackwater, there is still little on offer for a country-living queer.

During COVID-19, we’ve learned new ways of communicating, and this brings both challenges and benefits to a programme that wants to make contact with the most isolated. Online groups means that people can join wherever they are, not needing transport, funds to travel, childcare – but it’s also true that internet services in, say, West Cork, are poor at the best of times.

Nonetheless, both LINC and the Gay Project are lifelines in these days of COVID: LINC strives to include as many community members as possible. Their LINC-Out outreach programme, in Tralee, ran successfully for six months until restrictions hit. Currently they reach out via social media and newsletters, inviting LBT women from around Ireland – and anywhere in the world – to join in virtual meet-ups. Gay Project also runs a number of online meetups, with their Queer Vibes Cafe, Gold Coffee Mornings for the Over-55s and an online community centre.

Down in West Cork is BRÓD: an LGBTQ+ community group affiliated with the West Cork Development Partnership SICAP Programme. They work towards a community where LGBTQ+ people feel safe, equal and included and advocate for inclusion and equality.

Seeding The County is funded by Cork County Council. It’s a short-term action (till December 2020), and that’s enough to get us going. Its core group spans the county: Youghal LGBT+ Network; Family Resource Centres and Cumann na daoine CDP; BRÓD and LGBTQ+ activists. We’ll be liaising with LINC and the Gay Project too. It has three strands: empowerment (enabling individuals to form networks and get tech supports without compromising their own individuality); engagement (in training, education and interactive events) and awareness – for the wider community and for us to see ourselves reflected in local, civic life.

A high proportion of those who’ve been in contact are older, often living alone. We’re also aware that West Cork, in particular, has a wonderfully high percentage of LGBTQ+ people, so we hope to make contact with as many of you lovely people as possible.

Mainstream agencies all have support to offer but that doesn’t mean they want to direct LGBTQ+ lives; the most sustainable LGBTQ+ networks are those built by the people themselves. So this project will assist with setting up WhatsApp and other networks specific to members – by location, interest (arts or sports, anyone?) and by need (mental/sexual health supports, companionship by age).

Localised and long distance learning are key elements. An interactive LGBTQ+ history course will complement the Gay Project’s ‘Queer Hedge School’ course and give participants a sense of their own his/herstory; the roots of the Gay Liberation Movement and the changing/unchanging faces of mainstream representation and LGBTQ+ activism. IT and tech training is available to get people online or increase their online skills. Governance training for small groups will be rolled out as requested.

Hearing people’s views, needs and hopes are vital in giving this project long term benefit. Seeding The County will include an online survey, postal surveys and online consultations. The project report will inform policy makers, services and state agencies and, hopefully, secure future funding to keep the work alive.

Visibility is vital to recognition within mainstream communities. A sticker campaign in Youghal worked well and we’ll be rolling that out across the county. Look for the ‘Proudly supporting our LGBT+ community’ stickers and remember those who display it (even during lockdown there are windows). Physical posters will promote the activities in shops and post offices around the towns.

Some needs are already being addressed, with an LGBT+ Dementia Network (in partnership with Alzheimers Association of Ireland) and Cumann na Daoine’s Big Creative LGBT+ Youth Project now going online and open to a wider audience: we hope to see young people from around the county making new friends as they develop their anti-homophobia designs. Skibbereen FRC was already working on setting up an LGBT+ InterAgency Forum: Covid has slowed progress but they’re getting there!

Cork Pride supported Clonakilty and the Youghal Network in holding their first Pride events in 2017. It’s testament to Cork Pride’s outreach that both Prides have now become independent, providing events targeted to the area and engaging local communities. Youghal (virtual) Pride by the Sea this year was a steep techno learning curve for me…and a moving event to create. My heart rose to be sending out that message of community in our estranged times.

The pandemic has brought two things to the fore – firstly our need to take self care seriously, including self-love; positive self-identity and connections with one’s community. Secondly it has witnessed the rise of a rabid far-right which attacks our community. In this atmosphere, it can be hard for someone who is not ‘out’ to their family or neighbours to take a risk – but we are hopeful we can help make change by providing secure support, empowering LGBTQ+ people at an individual level and by promoting inclusion in mainstream communities.

Call me an aul wan, but that tried and trusted communication – word of mouth – is how we aim to get the message into the furthest reaches of this fine county. We’ll ask people to ‘pass it on’ – links for Zoom Teatime Sessions (Fridays at 4pm); consultation forums and courses will be sent as emails and text messages. A message inviting you to join is may provide involvement in queer life that some people have never had before.

Rural Ireland has progressed in terms of LGBTQ+ inclusion – look at the Marriage Referendum results – but changing laws doesn’t always change attitudes: older people especially are still impacted from what went before, with older gay men still remembering what it was like to be a ‘criminal’. Small towns and villages without any point of reference for their LGBTQ+ neighbours may still go for silence in case of offence – or may still keep the homophobic attitudes that prevailed for so long.

LGBTQ+ people still experience abuse, attack and discrimination: and the smaller the area, the less easy it is for an LGBTQ+ person to make a complaint to the guards (who may be their neighbours) or to avoid places where they know they will come under scrutiny. We’ve evidence of some of the challenges we face: the ‘churching’ of gay people to ‘cure them’; an LGBTQ+ youth group operating ‘underground’ to avoid church refusal of premises…these things that seem fado, fado are still happening.

Rural people don’t always want to be integrated into a city community; they may not want a ‘scene’ or an exclusively gay bar – but they would like to be themselves, to be recognised and valued, and to be supported in making their own plans and developing their own futures.

So, all of you out there in the County of Cork – come and make your voice heard; take part in Seeding The County, join us for an online cuppa, join a WhatsApp network, take part in our courses and most of all, let us know what would be best for you. We’re here to listen – and to make positive change wherever we can!

Seeding The County: [email protected]/ 087 9890336

Youghal LGBT+ Network [email protected]

Brod: [email protected]

Hayley Fox-Roberts is a writer, activist and community development worker. She worked with the LGBT Diversity programme 2010-12; established Carlow and Youghal LGBT+ Networks and was co-founder of Northwest LGBT Family Pride 2006-2016. Formerly living in the rural Northwest, she now lives and works in East Cork.

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