Irish Echo has been running letters and opinion pieces challenging the NYC parade organizers to catch up with Irish culture, and drop their ridiculous ban. The miserableness of letting NBC gay employees march, but not Irish LGBTQ groups, is noted. Larry Kirwan wrote a particularly nice piece last week.
It's been impossible to post links to those pieces because the paper is not really online, but some clips are here.
Today the Irish Echo printed an Irish Queers op-ed. Given the effort to silence Irish Queers and sanitize queer Irish history, we really appreciate it! Here is the original version, which includes a few bits of history that didn't make it into the Echo.
Maybe you remember: the early 1990s were a time of queer political rising, much of which was centered in New York. I was growing up in New York then but I didn’t know much about it. When ACT UP protested Cardinal O’Connor’s campaign against condoms, I was in ninth grade about 40 blocks away, oblivious. A year later the Irish Lesbian & Gay Organization marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, unwelcomed by the parade committee but invited by a breakaway AOH Division 7. ILGO, joined by Mayor David Dinkins, were assaulted and taunted all along the parade route. I did hear about that. My grandmother had given me a t-shirt and I’d been wearing it to shreds – it said Life’s Too Short Not To Be Irish! On the back of it, in pearlescent fabric paint, I lettered it “I.L.G.O.” It was just in solidarity. Grown people tittering and panicking over the gays, and then bullying them on the street! I was indignant. Our English teacher, Kathleen somebody, raised her eyebrows high as I passed her in the hallway. That was the extent of my participation in the New York queer explosion of those years.
I landed in Belfast in 1994. I’d dropped out of college and needed to go somewhere. My family had roots in the North. By then I had come out myself. ACT UP, ILGO, and the Lesbian Avengers – all home to queer Irish émigrés who had worked in republican and pro-choice and feminist movements at home in the 1980s – had been churning out the queer Zeitgeist. Although I missed it in New York, I had finally caught it in college. Knowing nothing about the Irish queer political currents that carried me, I arrived in Belfast a queer activist.
When the term ended and I was leaving, again no one would lend their name to the group. We brainstormed. We eureka’d: a telephone number without a name was just as good, as long as someone could always answer it. A telephone needed to be somewhere – we needed a space. We could do that. If we disbanded now, no worries at all. We’d gather our resources and meet back up in a year, and then we would make it happen.
I came home. Giuliani was mayor, Bratton was police commissioner, and together they were attacking poor people, people of color, people with AIDS, and any activists who protested. This particular time in Ireland – on the heels of feminism, the frustrated abortion rights movement, and the ongoing power of the Catholic church; and in the North, following the Hunger Strikes and Save Ulster from Sodomy – saw many politicized queers exiled to New York. Here they had formed Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, joined ACT UP, and cofounded the Lesbian Avengers. ACT UP was at a fever pitch trying to build and protect public supports for people with AIDS, and fight the biases used to justify letting them die. The Lesbian Avengers were challenging the erasure of lesbians from history and school curricula, with the slogan “I was a lesbian child.” ILGO had decided it should march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the biggest celebration in the world of Irishness and the Irish diaspora experience. All three groups shared the logic that making queers invisible did violence both to the past and literally, daily, to queers. The parade organizers, representing the closed, church-bound Ireland from which they had come, could not bring themselves to admit that Irish queers were real, much less a central part of Irish life and history. The parade had become a flashpoint for struggles over queerness, religion, policing, immigrant community politics, and the City’s complicity in homophobia and violence. In truth, Irish politics and queer politics had never been separate; only the connections obscured. Now the ties were laid absolutely bare.
I went to an ILGO meeting early in 1995 to ask whether ILGO could help fundraise for a queer space in Belfast. It’s a joke now, that memory; fundraising was never going to happen, ILGO was not that kind of girl. But I was drawn in. The meetings were more than planning sessions. They were multigenerational in-gatherings of queers that taught politics. They broke with good manners in the face of crisis that was killing queers. They rejected the idea that dialogue and demands always had to be reasonable, and that peaceful activism couldn’t express rage toward people who were responsible for terrible things. They taught collectivism, building ideas and plans together, sharing responsibility, and passing along skills, difficult as the meetings often were. They taught that it was important and possible to do things without funding – we never stopped hearing that the Lesbian Herstory Archives bought its Brooklyn townhouse with $1 and $5 donations mailed in from lesbians everywhere – and that queer groups especially always had people with an incredible range of experience, skills and access. Most critically, they taught that it was possible to do things that sounded impossible: add queer history and sex ed to the NYC public school curriculum, or force the US government to invent better medications for HIV. (No one dreamed it would be easier to make the US government deal with AIDS and homophobia than to get an Irish gay group into the Irish parade.) Later, when I’d left that space, the exact same things felt less possible; it had been a communal effect.
In 1997 I was in Belfast again, as promised. I’d raised no money, but had bought boxes and boxes of used and remaindered books from queer shops. I started meeting my old friends for coffee, and they found other people to join in. We deliberately talked about the community space project as if it were already happening. (That was advice from Dermot Burke, who had opened An Béal Bocht in Riverdale a few years before. It was fantastic advice.) We made a primitive website announcing the project, and put up signs. More and more Belfast queers came to planning meetings. There were more musicians and more waitresses, social workers and civil servants, an East Belfast taxi driver, a witch, a student union president, a disproportionate number of Jews, students, more revolutionaries, a farmer, and many, many queers without an occupation. Before long the whole thing was real.
Queer Space opened in January 1998, in a space rented with a small loan, at the bottom of Botanic Avenue. On a crowded pre-opening workday we painted it purple, and someone drew a mural in the style of Keith Haring. We set up a coffee pot and a donation basket. Two women from the Shankill took on the task of keeping both full. Emma Donaghue sent a set of her novels to Queer Space that week, and we unboxed them along with the tattered books I’d brought over. We hung a bit of handkerchief art painted by a queer republican prisoner. Two West Belfast women delivered a huge amount of comfortable furniture. We were home.
Queer Space was intensively modeled on the direct action collectivism of the New York groups. To publicize the opening, we sent a press release; the reporter called Ian Paisley for comment, and the article generated a short controversy. In that way our publicity was taken care of and visitors streamed in. We made a mission statement and rules by consensus, and settled on the name Queer Space after hours of debate in a packed room. We took up direct action, wheatpasting Belfast with signs about lesbians, protesting Newt Gingrich’s visit to North Belfast, convening queers and Asian immigrants who had started to come under attack, and truly I can’t remember what else. The coffee box paid the rent, and it paid back the start-up loan less than a year after Queer Space opened its doors.
When Matthew Shepard was killed and queers in New York City were standing off against riot police on horseback, I came home. Some of the other Queer Space folk moved on to more official politics, especially when the Good Friday Agreement made queers a protected minority. Queer Space carries on these 16 years later. I would claim that it changed everything in Belfast; that it opened up possibilities at a time when people were ready for a change, and other stars were aligning too. Queer Space still turns out Belfast queers for antiracist action, most recently in support of Anna Lo, the Stormont MLA hounded out of office by anti-Chinese racism. Queer Space always comes out for Irish Queers on St. Patrick’s Day parade protests, although Belfast queers are incredulous that we’re still not allowed to march. Funny how the tables have turned.
The story of Irish queers and the parade is really the story of the transit between Ireland and New York of ideas about liberation. It’s the story of how Irishness hasn’t been only Catholic or white or male, nor especially polite, nor limited to venues marked “Irish.” These are true and important stories whether anyone likes them or not. When the parade exclusion comes up, we’re often told we’re not really part of the Irish community, as if it’s that – rather than homophobia – that keeps us out. It’s a pitiful attempt at diversion, but there’s something in it. After two decades of being shoved out of Irish history by the New York parade, why at all would Irish LGBTQ folk stick around the official Irish American community? We have not. Our communities don’t do dinner dances, nor play golf, nor elect Irish American candidates to office. Just as queers have made their own spaces forever, we make our own worlds here. They are Irish worlds in spite of begrudgers’ wishes to the contrary. The transit between queer Ireland and queer New York is as vibrant as ever. Look for it.