(Updated July 2006)
(1) Dublin’s Liberal Downtown
Dublin resonates with images and sounds both ancient and modern. As I walked into a gay/mixed café/bar called The Front Lounge, located only steps away from Dublin Castle, I could hear Christ Church Cathedral’s 18th century deep bell tolling six blocks away. Suddenly slicing through the sonorous chime like a jack hammer was the ramrod roar of a Kawasaki motorcycle charging past and round the corner of O’Neill’s Victorian pub with its stained-glass windows.
Inside the Front Lounge an assortment of patrons huddled over their Guinness, Cokes or Beaujolais chatting with friends as they gestured with cigaretted hands punctuating their talk. The Front Lounge is a gay/mixed place with high ceilings, lots of floor space, comfortable sofas and a lunchtime food bar. Along the walls are paintings and sculptures bathed under display lighting.
I listened for a while as four men in their twenties and thirties bantered and asserted their momentary thoughts about friendship, job security, a new outfit, changing flats, and gossip from a recent party. Each one of them had a cell phone that seemed to chirp every twelve minutes. From their accents it was obvious they were not all Irish. As it turned out no one in this little clutch was. One handsome dark man spoke Spanish. When I asked him from where he replied,”from Columbia—but my father is Irish”. Another member of their circle was from Brazil, a third from Paris and the other from Italy. Modern Dublin is busy, gay and very international.
The capital is a remarkably comfortable metropolis in which to be a gay or lesbian denizen. In no small part is this due to the esteemed former President Mary Robinson (currently the UN’s high commissioner for Human Rights whose term ends in 2002) who as a young solicitor took her own government to the European Court of Human Rights because of its anti-gay statutes still lingering on the books from an obsolete moral era.
She and co-counsel David Norris won their case and the Irish parliament was left struggling to modernize their legal thinking about homosexuality or face censure from the European Union, something Ireland could ill afford. In the ten years since that landmark action, Ireland has made up for lost time with some of the most pro-gay protections and equality laws in the European Union.
Dublin is also unique in the prominence and visibility it gives to its literary figures—gay or straight. James Joyce’s visage has at least two statues around town (photo right). In Merrion Park, gay icon Oscar Wilde (once imprisoned for loving another man) has a dramatic—if not a quietly flamboyant–presence in colored marble. His unusual reclining statue (photo below) is located across the street from his childhood home, now a museum owned by the American College in Dublin. A nearby bookstore sells postcards with the faces of Irish writers: in addition to the two well-knows with statues, there are J.M.Synge, Jonathan Swift, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker, and G.Bernard Shaw.
And this literary tradition is not just an historic artifact. In the October ’02 issue of Gi magazine (Gay Ireland) four of Ireland’s most respected living writers are profiled—all happen to be gay: Jamie O’Neill (author of ‘At Swim, Two Boys’, recently made into a mainstream film), Colm Toibin (nominated for the Booker Prize in 1999 for ‘The Blackwater Lightship’), Frank Ronan (awarded a top Irish prize for his 1989 ‘The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton’) and Keith Ridgway (debuted in 1989 with the intense ‘The Long Falling’).
So it should not be surprising that in such a literate town would be found a gay bar called The Wig & Pen, a “straight friendly” pub where writers bring their works-in-progress to read or listen to other budding literati.
Perhaps not as poetic or academic, ‘Gi’ magazine is a trendy glossy monthly with slick international fashion pics, gossip and images of celebrities as well as thoughtful interviews. There are serious features about dating, gay families, politics, gay immigrants as well as adverts for more mainstream items as cars, liquor and watches. There are no sex ads in the back. For those, one has to read GCN (Gay Community News), the monthly newspaper which has here-and-now entertainment, news and events. The third gay rag is Free! which are strictly gay-scene happenings at the various clubs, bars along with party gossip.
Gay Dublin at Night
As well as being a vibrant colorful museum with traffic coursing among its antique Georgian (18c) architecture, Dublin buzzes with countless cafes and pubs, some with daunting names like ‘The Bleeding Horse’. Focused in (but not limited to) a section of the old downtown called Temple Bar is Dublin’s modest but vital gay night life. Half a dozen bars/pubs, two, B&B’s, a couple of saunas, four or five disco clubs and dozens of organizations abide quietly among the trendy non-gay cafes, department stores, crystal shops, the ubiquitous Spar convenience stores, souvenir stalls—and hundreds of straight pubs populated with serious Irish drinkers (beer/lager is drunk here in pint-sized glasses).
The best-known gay bar is The George. It’s not unlike other watering holes in its casual ambience, somewhat cliquish attitude and pricey drinks. Actually there are two Georges, one next to the other. The larger one has a late-night DJ spinning out disco tunes for the younger set as they shimmy on the dance floor. Some nights are film night and patrons watch flicks with gay themes: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was on when we stopped in. The other George one is half as big and serves up drinks to patrons twice the age without the dance.
Just across the river on one of the main streets is Gubu, a spacious popular bar on two floors. More than a gay brew house this venue also offers live programs such as dance performances and stand-up comedy night.
What makes these watering holes and dance halls additionally appealing is they are not exiled to seamier edges of town among warehouses or run-down apartment blocks. Rather, they are close in next to chic restaurants, fashion boutiques and countless non-gay pubs.
But neither are there rainbow flags to signal their presence either. Except for the handsomer-than-usual bouncer at the entry to George there are no distinguishing markings to set it off. It’s an appropriate decision, much like similar decisions in other European cities where homosexuality—despite its legality—is still a volatile and ambivalent stimulus to roughneck hets who love their beer more than queers. Gay bashing is rare but neither is it absent from the street scene, especially after midnight and a few pints of brew.
A few blocks away—in opposite directions—are the two openly gay B&B’s. Inn on the Liffey looks out onto the Liffey River, in the center of the old town. We stayed at Frankie’s Guesthouse which has been offering its hospitality for nearly fifteen years. Tucked away on tiny Camden Place, it appears from the street as a colorful row house with lavender paint and hanging flowerpots. It offers 14 rooms to visitors some with and some without bath. TJ Cunningham (Joe) and his partner Frankie from Malaysia own the residence. For the literate-minded, it is only a couple of blocks from the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw.
Add to these venues the hip-hop light and sound that emanates from the numerous clubs (on different nights) such as Club Soho which has theme nights such as Candy, Campus (students) and Atomic (80’s night). On Sunday nights a “homosocialite merry-go-round” happens at the Spy Club. Then there is another nightclub called Delicious at the Viva with its Red Room (“chill to mellow music”) and Blue Room (“camp classics and cocktails”). At the Temple Bar Music Center there is the monthly Club Tease with on-stage visuals (girth to drag), dance floor and two bars. Oil Can Harry’s pub and restaurant has food, live music and karaoke. There are currently two saunas for men in Dublin, the most popular one being aptly called the Boilerhouse.
And certainly not to be overlooked is the Alternative Miss Ireland pageant where, as I was told, “anything goes” from outrageous drag entries to coifed poodles. Billing itself as “the years most post-culturally-kinky event”, contestant vie in outlandish attire for the top prize. Check out their web site: (http://www.alternativemissireland.com/2002/index.asp?page=p review).
Heart of the Scene
The noisy and sexy gay scene may be found in the various bars and clubs, but the heart of the gay pulse in Dublin is found in the many quiet organizations that have formed over the past decade. All of these listings are found in ‘Free!’ and ‘GCN’, both published in Dublin. On the last page of GCN, I counted nearly 75 lesbigay listings of organizations and services offered in Dublin alone. This is clearly not a provincial city.
The range of special interest groups in Dublin is typical of a large urban gay community: sports, recovery, Amnesty International, bisexuals, naturists, leather, spiritual, parents, books/literary. Some of my favorites as I read the listings were Swimmin’ Wimmin and one called Clitoratae Sexualities (“sex, desire, gender, workshops, multimedia dance clubs, queer artists”—for women obviously).
Dublin’s most outstanding organization is easily the LGBT center called OUThouse whose administrator, Jim Lowther, told me there are approximately 18 groups that utilize the three stories of their recently purchased building on Capel Street in the downtown area. Their web site (http://www.outhouse.ie/) lists services and happenings that range from a drop-in café, a library-in-progress, counseling, telephone hotline, youth groups, a transsexual-support group as well as LGBT education outreach to the public.
Housed in one of the OUThouse offices is the highly valued Gay Men’s Health Project/Gay Health Network offering a variety of services and referrals for all health matters for the LGBT community. They also offer clinical services for STDs and HIV patients in association with Baggot Hospital.
Jim was especially proud that OUThouse is the only major LGBT center that actually owns their building, thanks in part to private donations and funding from the city of Dublin.. To cap this happy purchase, the President of Ireland, May McAlysse, attended the grand opening of the new quarters in 2002.
Lowther observed that much of the success of the center was due to a conscious effort to include lesbians and gay men equally in governance and offered services. “Exclusionary organizations, for men or women, often break down after an initial period of defiant excitement. So from the start we were sure to be inclusive in our efforts and it has worked very well here.” As well, OUThouse makes every effort to network closely with other LGBT organizations around the country including The Other Place in Cork city, Red Ribbon Health Project in Limerick, Foyle Friend in Derry (Northern Ireland) and the Rainbow Project in Derry and Belfast.
I asked Jim about gay activism in Ireland and how well it was organized.
“Homosexuality has only been decriminalized since 1993. Before that time there was considerable activity to change the laws; there was a big and constant push against that oppression. But once the law was changed there was a significant drop in activity. Many people thought that was all we needed, but in truth that’s just the beginning. Small town Irish thinking has not yet been liberated to the point where sexual varietion is acceptable. That’s why most gay people move to Dublin, to get away from small towns—and small thinking.
“It’s slowly changing as people are exposed more with TV and films and more coverage in the media. You find some organizations in other cities like Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and even less in some other towns like Kerry or Sligo. But there isn’t nearly the force or presence here of funded national organizations like Stonewall in England or the Human Rights Campaign in USA. Ireland is still a conservative country. There is still a lot of personal fear in coming out and risking rejection from your family or the community you live in.”
Is there any good news in any of this, I asked?
“At the local level, there are a lot of organizations to be praised, considering we’ve had less than ten years of legitimate life. Surprisingly, the best news comes from the federal government and not just from the changes in legislation. There is an Equality Authority (www.equality.ie) which just this year issued a significant report on the status and condition of gays and lesbians and transsexuals in Ireland. It’s an extensive analysis based on consultations with many groups regarding important aspects of life and how they affect gays. It makes positive recommendations about marriage, adoption, arts support, discrimination, health, finance and education as they relate to the LGBT community. It’s very well done.”
However, Lowther continued, the challenge is to disseminate and activate this valuable information at the grass roots level. “It’s great to have this report but now the challenge is to inform rural gay people about their rights and to educate straight people about the unfair treatment of gays. It’s an effort we’re working on, however slowly.” One small step, he noted, was at a recent choral concert given by the police where they invited a gay choral group to sing with them. This is a small but big step. It came about because of an open minded police commissioner following a gay bashing and the resulting demand for remedial action.
Lowther also noted that right-wing fundamentalism in Ireland is rare and is confined to fringe groups for the most part. Physical violence against gays is rare. This comment reassured me a bit especially; earlier in the day as I was checking e-mail in a Dublin Internet café I overheard some obviously non-gay surfers, four guys in their young twenties, react with “that’s sick” when they came across a site about ex-ex gays. Irish prejudice is ever present even in ‘liberated’ Dublin.
(2) Cork City
We arrived in Cork on a late afternoon entering the city along the Lee River lined with warehouses, dockyards, and a power plant that give way to an older city downtown with its modern opera house, Victorian office buildings and countless cozy pubs.
Arriving at Roman House B&B there was little question that we were in a gay B&B; with red plaid carpeting and a hall poster of Joan Crawford, Roman House B&B is a playful mix of kitsch and comfort. Owned by Richard and Kevin for six years the place danced with lighthearted colors on the walls, in the bed sheets and bedspreads. The furniture was casual and a de rigeur relief of a Romanesque male nude hung on the wall of our room. Located just a block from the river our rainbow room was also furnished with that universal ‘instrumentali sexualis’—a condom with lubricant and a brochure about safe sex.
After a chat with Richard about places to eat we strolled along trendy Paul Street with its hearty restaurants and cafes (as well as an Internet shop) and made our way to the gay Taboo bar for a drink and a chat. It’s located on a narrow lane off the main Patrick Street. Inside is an easy ambience, not ‘decorated’ but not dark and brooding; casual, cheerfully lit, with a bulletin board full of photos of local friends from the Pride event in August. (The next bash was an End-of-Summer costume party a week later.) Taboo also offers karaoke every Wednesday night. Sitting around little bar tables were friends in pairs and small groups gossiping, laughing or pondering serious issues with furrowed brows.
I struck up a conversation with one patron, a hotel manager named Colm who was originally from Kilkenny. He easily slipped into conversation and seemed eager to explain the easy life that lesbigays have in Cork. Colm thought that Cork was easy going and more accepting than Dublin perhaps because it has only half the population (about 400.000) and gay people tend to know each other more. Also, Cork is mostly a working class city with few pretensions and seemingly devoid of the “body fascism and fashion fascism” found among the gay urban trendy crowds of Dublin (somewhat) or London (definitely).
His accuracy may be debatable, but Colm was more assured when I asked him about the present influence of the Catholic Church. For years, I had believed the cliché that Ireland was a sexually uptight country living tightly within the puritan grip of religious Roman dogma. Colm, however, described how the Church has squandered its once powerful influence especially in the past twenty years.
“Before any of the present scandal about abusive priests and children there was a major scandal in which a Catholic bishop had affair with a woman which resulted in a child. Although the affair lasted only a week, years afterward, having moved to Canada, she wrote a book about the liaison dangereux partly out of anger. Her son had sought reconciliation with his father but was instead shunned by him.”
The book had a devastating effect, which of course she intended. In today’s secular world the Church, at best, is described as having only a modest influence on the culture. Coincidentally, a week after our talk the results of a national poll on Catholic church attendance was published on the front page of the Irish Times: fewer than 45% of Catholics attend services regularly on any given Sunday. There was no mention of how many Protestants attended Church of Ireland services regularly.
Colm has lived and worked in Cork for three years. He said he never had any doubts or fears of police or homophobic bullies. “People are very tolerant here; a strong attitude of live and let live. “Colm seemed satisfied with his present circumstances as a professional and as a gay man. Not currently with a partner, he is more interested in having good friends and a secure job than having a mate, although he is not turning a blind eye to a handsome white knight who might come riding through.
Cork is Ireland’s second largest city. (Belfast is bigger than Cork but it is in British controlled Northern Ireland.) It has a powerful history of independent thinking and willful thinkers. Michael Collins, the first ‘chief’ of the new Irish Free State is a big hero for many here. Unfortunately (depending on whom you ask) just after he signed the historic Easter Sunday agreement to partition Ireland in 1922 he was gunned down as he toured this area. Many local Black and Tan party roughnecks were vehemently opposed to independence, insisting that all of Ireland be free of British control.
Rural Gay Farmers
Over breakfast at Roman House B&B the next morning we chatted with another male couple—Tom and Mark– who lived near Limerick (about 50 miles away) and were in Cork for a few days holiday. Not surprisingly, since these were not ‘city guys’, the talk was devoid of gay references at first.
They were farmers with about a hundred acres and fifty beef cattle out in the green rural flatlands of the county. We talked about the skyrocketing real estate prices in Ireland and about families who purchased property with lifetime mortgages of several hundred thousand Euros. (1 Euro = 1 US$) These buyers don’t expect to pay off the loan in their lifetimes; the plan is to have their children carry the mortgage and hopefully pay it off. Even rural farmland, Tom said, was going for about a pricey thousand Euros an acre.
Tom said Ireland’s economy was very keyed to the USA economy especially regarding the three C’s: Coca-Cola, computers and chemicals. Ireland offers foreign companies a significantly lower rate of tax so many USA companies take advantage of this—including Pfizer who manufactures most of its Viagra here.
Hesitantly but nevertheless curious, I asked about living as gay people in a rural environment. It was obvious from the drop in casual chattiness that they were not at ease on this subject. Mark especially was reticent and offered little comment about their private or social life. Tom was a little more forthcoming with some details. They had been together for three years. Gay ‘life’ is non-existent in such Irish hamlets as theirs. A few scattered friends on occasion make for socializing. But because Ireland is such a small country, it is common for rural gays to drive for a couple of hours and be in a city where there are clubs, bars, discos or saunas for letting down their guard for a day or two.
Their hesitancy in sharing these few bits of Irish queer farm life disinclined me from further pursuit.
Later, after Tom and Mark had finished breakfast and left, our host Richard commented that even under the cover of a ‘big’ city like Cork it was unlikely that the rural guys ‘indulge’ in the gay scene other than fringe spectators having a few beers and enjoying the music. “It’s very different ‘out there’. You just don’t want the neighbors to know. And a lot of these guys have never been into the scene so they are not really comfortable when they do come here. But they like to go. It’s like a show for them. Tony and Mike have been here several times this year.”
Richard continued, “clubs and pubs in Cork have theme nights like ‘fetish’ night or costume night or karaoke night. But these country guys are unlikely to participate; it would be too wild for them. They’d feel uncomfortable taking part but they like to watch and see the city queers be a little crazy.”
Gay Life in Cork
Richard and his 19-year partner James have operated Roman House guesthouse for six years. Before Cork, where they were raised, they lived in Dublin for four years then Amsterdam for ten years so their view and experience stretches further than provincial Ireland. Having sown a few wild oats in the big cities, they felt it was time to set a calmer pace and build a financial base for their retirement. Both men are in their forties. Having made Roman House a viable business, they plan to sell it next year and move to Brighton, England where Richard will again take up his brushes and pencils to continue his artwork. He feels he is not living at his best potential frying breakfast sausage and flipping eggs. Looking at his paintings hung around the dining room, I agreed.
Their life here in Cork has been fairly comfortable and without discrimination. Cork is big enough to support a reasonable number of gay venues, organizations and many circles of friends. This year, 2002, has seen the city’s first Pride Festival that lasted over a summer weekend and featured parties, shows and performances—but no parade. In addition to gay events, the city hosts events such as the annual jazz festival, which brings a lot of visitors to Cork including many gay folks.
According to him, the recent Day of Diversity (which invited the gay and lesbian community) was mostly aimed at racial minorities especially blacks who have arrived in large numbers in Ireland in the past five years. Ireland has become one of the most attractive destinations for Africans and Romanian gypsies who are given food, shelter, some money and health care when they arrive as their immigrant status in examined (which can take a year). Many of them are having babies and the newborns are given Irish citizenship thus making the decision to repatriate the parents much more difficult. There has been a degree of resentment toward such policies and what appears to some as “unwarranted privileges”. The issue is obviously controversial and divisive among traditionalists who want to keep Ireland ‘green’ and progressives who see Ireland as a land of opportunity for all including immigrants who come to work–especially in the lower tier jobs that nouveau-middle-class Irish no longer want to perform; it’s an issue now common in propserous western countries.
Richard is one of eight children, two of whom are gay: his brother Steve is gay and lives in Dublin. Richard offered that some mothers secretly like having gay sons because such offspring often continue to pay attention to their mothers when straight siblings are off and gone to attend to their wives and children. Raised in a Catholic family he, like many other gay and lesbian people, has pretty much dropped the church out of his life.
For native gay sons and lesbian daughters, Irish life has been mostly free of discrimination, harassment and violence in recent years. Richard also thought that the enmity of the Catholic and Protestant churches no longer have such a powerful sting. Homophobic violence is rare. Spiritual venom from the pulpit is minimal since federal legal protections have been in place for more than a decade. Religious hate speech is not legal in the Emerald Isle.
Richard’s assessment of the Dublin gay scene was that it had been seduced by the ‘pink Euro’ into being too commercial and overpriced. He said the prices for drinks automatically are bumped up after midnight in the gay bars and pubs like George. In Cork, there is much more familiarity among the LGBT community. Locals mainly support the gay venues so there is not this rip-off attitude among the bar owners. When Richard did some renovations on his B&B, he readily knew a gay carpenter, gay electrician and a gay kitchen installer.
So it seems that gay life in Cork is active but contained. As long as one doesn’t expect more visibility, more flamboyance, more public space, LGBT people can live well amid the busy city. What else can the community want—marriage, adoption? Given the progress of change in Ireland (and the EU), even they don’t seem farfetched now.
A visitor to Cork soon finds out that one of the most successful lesbigay organizations is Linc—Lesbian in Cork. It’s a community resource center “primarily for women who identify as lesbian, bisexual—this includes transgender people or those in transition–who identify as lesbian or bisexual.”
At its new offices in downtown Cork, Linc offers a web site (www.linc.ie). a drop-in-and-chat time several times a week, a film club, a help phone line, numerous activity groups such as a hiking (Bootwomen), an annual Irish Women’s Summer Camp, a Fantasy Ball, an upcoming Mural Project and a well-presented quarterly magazine ‘Linc’. There are also activist groups that do outreach education and political lobbying. Linc also marches in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Supported mainly by local private contributions Linc also receives funding from the federal government via the Health Board as well as the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. It has also received support form the Cork City Partnership to help train phone line volunteers.
The July ’02 issue of ‘Linc’ featured an insightful series of testimonies about Irish lesbians who have moved to other countries or back to Ireland. One very interesting narrative points out that, according to one study on Irish gays and lesbians in 1995, almost 60% of respondents had emigrated at some point in their lives and that sexual orientation was a key factor in their decision.
However, since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 a dramatic shift has occurred. As Irish laws and attitudes have changed significantly in the ensuing decade, many Irish émigrés who had moved abroad now find, ironically, that Ireland offers more liberal laws regarding homosexuality. Consequently there is evidence that the migration has now shifted back toward Ireland.
The Other Place
The other major Cork lesbigay organization is The Other Place. Located just off the central North Main Street, the Place is Cork’s LGBT community center offering diverse services and events for the entire community. It has a café, bar, a bookshop, social meetings as well as the city’s office of the national Gay Men’s Health Project, which offers advice and support for STDs and HIV.
In addition to The Other Place, the directory of venues and services listed in GCN newspaper under Cork offers more than twenty locations and organizations.
According to the gay Ireland web site and the opinions of some people in Cork—including the two gay farmers we met—there is supposedly no gay life in this town.
But a couple of questions asked at an Internet café were cheerfully responded to by a pretty shorthaired blonde attendant. “Oh yes,” she said without delay, “there is gay club called Yum Yum just two blocks down this street; and there’s a gay restaurant on the next turning right.” She was quite sure of herself so I followed her directions and found myself two blocks later with no visible pub and no discernable restaurant.
The White House ‘restaurant’ turned out to be a straight pub where I asked two women chatting up each other if they knew whether this pub was a mixed place. “I think it used to be several years ago but not any more,” she offered with a pleasant smile. From the bar tender I heard that the Yum Yum was a Friday-only club at the hotel around the corner.
Sure enough, at the Glentworth Hotel from 11:30 PM till about two in the morning every Friday night was lesbigay night. The cheerful desk clerk also offered that another club occurs at a disco upstairs from the Savoy cinema every Sunday late night.
In addition to getting oriented, I was impressed by the casual and non-judgmental attitudes of these straight locals who appeared quite friendly and willing to help me out–a far cry from the stereotype myth of sexually uptight Ireland.
So there is some gay life in Limerick—of course. In a city of 52,000 there are surely some pink folks around, but how many are brave or willing to show up in public is another matter. Not surprisingly, the younger gen-x and gen-y guys and girls go for it, for the music, the beat and the comradeship. Before I left the non-gay White House pub, the same pleasant straight woman told me my best bet was to call the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard. So apparently that service is well know in the city, another good sign of a rainbow pulse in downtown Limerick.
Checking the directory in GCN, I saw thirteen venues and services for gay Limerick, including the Gay Switchboard Limerick and the Lesbian Line Limerick. There are two gay university groups. Other support groups are for transsexuals and for youth; another group is the fortnightly Dining Club. OutFun is a social gathering for ‘alternatives to the scene’. Of importance are the Limerick AIDS Helpline as well as the Red Ribbon Project. The choices for party/disco venues are limited (according to GCN) to the monthly Glentworth party, the Savoy disco and a third bash called Cosmo held at the Vintage Club.
Main Street, Limerick
Along the main drag of O’Connell Street after 7PM young people (straight? gay? in-between?) start to invade the fast food eateries, ice cream shops, and sidewalks in their sloppy outfits of baggy jeans, oversize sweatshirts with wrinkled T-shirts hanging out and wearing clunky black shoes. It seemed their dress code was anti-style. Many of them were loud and acted goofy. The boys sported the popular haircut that’s shaved around the edge with a longer saucer of hair on top. Some of them looked as if they had done it at home in a mirror and the result was less than flattering.
Across the main street from the King George Hotel disco was St Augustine’s RC church. It was September 11, 2002, which occasioned a commemorative service. Inside the place was packed. A large hand-sewn American flag hung on one wall behind a tall wooden cross-hung with a white drape. Below the cross there were hundreds of smaller Styrofoam crosses pegged into an earthen mound. High on another wall was a large white cloth dove silhouetted against a blood red background.
On the other side of the main aisle, hundreds of votive candles flickered in red white and blue glasses. An adjacent TV monitor displayed a slide show with hundreds of faces (Irish or Irish descent?) of people killed in the terrorist attack. The congregation sang hymns like Amazing Grace; homilies were intoned asking to relieve humanity of its prejudices. More prayers were offered into the trust of Mary or Jesus. In front on the altar were clergy, police and firemen in their uniforms facing the congregation. It was a touching and unexpected ceremony. I had forgotten how strongly the Irish felt toward the USA. Considering how many millions of families had immigrated to America over the past hundred and seventy years—including the ancestors of three US Presidents–I should not have been surprised.
It didn’t take long to find signs of gay life in Galway. I stopped to buy a copy of the Irish Times at a downtown news stand and close by were recent issues of Attitude magazine and Gay Times (both from London), Out (from USA) as well as Gay Ireland magazine (Gi). Checking the listings in GCN newspaper, there were sixteen gay and lesbian venues, groups and services in town, two bars, three cafes, help phone lines, support groups and HIV care groups. A popular after hours club was called Bubblelove. As we discovered over the next couple of days, eight of the venues were lesbian focused or lesbian owned.
One evening we stopped by one of the lesbian-owned bar for men, Zulu, and talked with one of the bartenders named John. It turned out that, without knowing he worked at Zulu, I had called him earlier in the day requesting a room. As we spoke at Zulu he said he had been the manager of the Rainbow GuestHouse which had closed recently because he lost the lease. He said he intended to reopen again somewhere else after he returned from a vacation in the Canary Islands.
Zulu bar is smallish place with cozy but unimaginative interior; colored lights on ceiling, seating for a dozen; the atmosphere is casual, quiet, friendly and definitely local. Meeting people was easy—you just start talking and they cheerfully talk back, especially when they hear a foreign accent.
I chatted with a man named Phil about this year’s Gay Pride weekend in Galway. It was a small parade, some parties, flags and lots of drinking of course. It came through town to the neighborhood near the queer bars Zulu and Strano a couple of blocks away (both are owned by lesbians). He thought Galway was friendlier than Cork and much friendlier than Dublin, although he had met his boyfriend at Taboo in Cork.
Walking from Zulu to Strano we stopped at the non-gay Monroe’s historic pub. The sound of music and the smell of pizza coming from the kitchen attracted us. The place was packed with men and women, some children—and lots of beer flowing. The music was provided by a quartet of red-cheeked middle-aged men with guitars, banjos, a flute, tambourine, hand drum and four hearty Irish tenor voices. The sound of Irish folk music is irresistibly engaging and we were happily captured for an hour. We also chatted with a handsome Japanese student who was in Galway for three months learning English. The crowd was very cheerful–laughing, talking and drinking. But the only dancing happened with two women who could not resist the engaging rhythms.
Strano was much quieter. It’s Galway’s most popular lesbian bar, a homey watering hole for the locals. From the outside, it appears that style is not important here but community is, as nearly everyone inside was huddled in groups with friends busily chattering away. As the only men in the place for a while, we felt welcomed by some smiles but we left shortly afterwards.
The highlight of our visit to Galway was a visit with the two women who own and operate the Side by Side B&B, a women-only place in Rahoon district of Galway.Located along a tidy street of houses with hedges, flower beds and manicured lawns Side by Side is a two story white house with six guest bedrooms. We met with the owners Berni and Sally. Both were cheerful, energetic and welcoming to us as we ‘invaded’ their feminine territory. Over tea and crumpets I queried them about their lives in Galway.
RAA: I am told that lesbians are the major gay business entrepreneurs in Galway. This is the opposite of most cities. Why is this so in Galway?
Berni & Sally: For several reasons:
(1) lesbians saw early on (ten or more years ago) the value of the pink pound and moved to capitalize on it in a way the men did not; they just did not seem visibly motivated toward business enterprise. There were no places for women to gather whereas the men had, then, a bar and they had the cruising grounds by the sea. So we had to start our own.
(2) Women were sincerely moved by caring for their sisters to take the risk to create new venues and in turn, now, run the two lesbigay bars Zulu and Strano, as well as Bubblelove Club. Also, I think the women were not as avaricious in that they did not envision making a large profit as they supported a women’s business venue; men seem to be more profit–minded, more commercially defined and women not as much.
(3) Historically lesbian women have earned less money and tended to go local for their holidays whereas gay guys were better paid and could afford to go off to Dublin or London. So Galway has both of Ireland’s women-only B&B’s, Malaya and Side by Side. People come here because it’s a beautiful area with the West Coast and Connemara wilderness.
RAA: So Galway’s gay history goes back quite a few years?
B&S: Oh, yes. There have been known gays in Galway for generations—in all of Ireland for all of history I suppose. But the major break came in the early 90’s when homosex was decriminalized and protective laws were enacted. Since then there has been a constant flow of energy in the form or organizations, clubs, early pubs such as Neachtain. It’s the oldest gay (male) place (about 20 years) which is still extant; it’s patronized by the older crowd.
And we’ve had a Gay Pride festival for about 10 years which goes right through the center of the busiest pedestrian street and in front of all the mainstream shops with all the mummies and kids shopping. New venues and events keep appearing such as Club Outrageous which happens once a month and is very popular with young people, gay and straight because it is an ‘alternative’ happening with an ‘anything goes’ attitude; There are lots of bizarre costumes at these events. Bubblelove is new. So now people feel they don’t feel they have to go out of town to have fun.
RAA: What’s it like to come out as a lesbian in modern Ireland?
Berni: It’s very different now since I came out about eight years ago. I was in my late twenties and was hesitant—it was not the easiest thing for me to do then. Now I see girls come out younger, especially in the cities. I think its still true that women in the rural west tend to come out later than in the cities.
RAA: Why is coming out easier now?
Sally: For one, the church has lost its power over virtue. There is so much more support now as well as more publicity about homosexuality. Women are more empowered partly because they earn more money now, and the younger ones are more courageous and daring and defiant of tradition than I was. Ireland used to be so Catholic and superficially virtuous and now it’s more secular with much fewer pretensions. Galway is not much for attitude and posing—if you are gay, well that’s the way it is and so get on with it. It doesn’t have to be loud or political.
RAA: I understand you are married and you are going to a lesbian wedding this week.
Berni: Yes, we had a ceremony of commitment three years ago with all our friends. Sally dressed up in a tux and I wore a white formal dress. We were the first lesbian couple to get married in Galway.
RAA: Do the guys have such weddings?
Sally: This coming October there will be the first gay men’s wedding–and I can tell you they are really fussing over their outfits to make the occasion perfect. We’re especially happy to see this because there’s an impression that gay Irish couples don’t last very long. Perhaps because so many visible gay guys are young and are just getting around, or perhaps they are students and not into settling down. Homophobia was strong in the past and older guys didn’t’ even think about marriage or ceremonies.
Our chat ended just as the heating oil truck arrived and sally went out to talk with the driver, a burly guy, about furnace things and fuel prices. With hugs and smiles from the girls we departed from the comfort and comforting atmosphere of their busy B&B home.
A note about Irish B&Bs
As we drove around the country staying at non-gay B&Bs our hosts were very amicable and accommodating to us as a male couple. At none of these homes—some nestled in little villages with red, green, yellow, orange or blue storefronts; others sitting elegantly on a hill overlooking an ancient abbey or a sweeping vista of the ocean–at none of these places did the hosts show the slightest hesitation of our sharing a double bed. Several hosts actually asked us if we preferred a twin or double-bedded room. Either they were oblivious or have seen so many tourists on their doorsteps that such arrangements are common and hardly worth the wonder. I’d like to think it was, arguably, social progress.
Each night was followed in the morning by a gut-packing Irish breakfast: juice, 2 bacon strips, 2 sausages, eggs, grilled tomato, black pudding, toast, cereal, coffee or tea and fruit. When you’re finished with that you need a good slog on the bogs!
Some of these home-stays and small hotels are located in historical places . One calm moonlit night we nested in the Beach Hotel at Mullaghmore harbor on the coast west of Galway. In front of the hotel was the picturesque marina where years ago Lord Louis Montbatten, the last Viceroy of India, berthed his motor boat. He was uncle to the current Prince Phillip and great uncle to Prince Charles. Montbatten had survived many military campaigns and oversaw the upheavals of India’s independence in 1948 and the terrible religious civil war that followed.
In 1974, Montbatten was out on a peaceful fishing expedition with his crew and friends when an IRA bomb exploded aboard and killed nearly everyone. They were only a short distance from the harbor and rescue boats rushed out from here but to little avail.
Nearby to our hotel can be seen Lord Louis’ castle Cassieford, which came into his family through his wife Edwina. The tall stone edifice can still be seen easily from a distance like a Disney fairy tale mirage on the nearby hill. A businessman now privately owns it.
On the outskirts of the city of Sligo there’s another comfy B&B with colored shutters not far from the grave of W.B.Yeats, the Nobel Prize Irish poet. The graveyard (left) surrounds the church in Drumcliffe where Yeats’ grandfather was pastor. It sits in a lovely grove of tall evergreen trees in view of the looming Ben Bulben Mountain where Yeats loved to wander.
(5) Derry, Northern Ireland: Two Young Men’s Journeys through War and Bigotry.
“At fourteen I was told by my (Catholic) school teacher that homosexuality was a satanic evil that dwells within—but if such a person was not consciously aware of his condition he was, instead, mentally ill.” This curse, Seamus told me, haunted him for years as he squirmed to come out as a gay young man in Derry, Northern Ireland. “I still feel angry that any young person should be damaged like that, but it shows you how strong the religion was here and how cruel it was.”
Seamus, is a handsome man of 22 with short dark hair, intense blue eyes, a boyish round face and ‘daVinci lips’. He speaks with a subdued intensity about his young life that was battered not only by the shells of harsh religious dogma but by the live ammunition of warring enemies as Irish Catholic ‘freedom’ fighters (wanting union with the Republic of Ireland) aimed bullets and bombs at British Protestant forces insisting that Northern Ireland remain a province of the UK under London’s rule. “I thought this was how life was. I grew up with it and didn’t know anything else.”
Once, desperately seeking a safe healing place for his gay soul, he confessed his anguish to a priest. The reply provided no relief: “We all have our cross to bear. Confession will bring you forgiveness for your sexuality but if you continue to be active you will live in sin.”
Breaking a deeply embedded belief, he no longer goes to church as he has matured and seen the church’s hypocrisy in forgiving the sexual behavior of repentant priests while condemning gays and lesbians. “The church is the most sexually confused place I can image,” he now says with a sardonic laugh.
Seamus and his partner Paul became lovers in Derry in 2000. I met them when I arrived at Foyle Friend, the LGBT center in Derry. Seamus was 20 and Paul 23. The quality of their freedom, independence, legal status and social acceptance which they feel each sunrise day appears unremarkable and indifferently casual. But in fact their now peaceful and harmonious life as a modern gay couple seems nothing short of a marvel as I listened to the difficult struggle each had endured to come to their present togetherness.
Seamus grew up in Derry (Londonderry), the very site of the 1974 Bloody Sunday massacre of 14 Catholic protesters by British soldiers. His entire early life was punctuated by war. His father was incarcerated for no particular reason and held without trial by the British. He was taught to hate the Protestants (loyal to England) and his school was surrounded with razor wire and window cages.
At fourteen he knew he was gay; at 17 he was experimenting with the scary joy of gay sex. “But the last thing I could think about was coming out. There was so much other trouble.” At 19 he was a student for a year in America and felt safe enough to come out to himself. His emotional war with himself came to an end about the same time as the political war in Northern Ireland subsided. (The shaky but tenable Good Friday agreement of 1998 is seen as the beginning of the end of the ‘Troubles’)
One evening as I walked with Seamus and Paul on the old walls of Derry, Seamus led us to a point that overlooked the ‘Fountain’, a walled-in district where citizens fiercely defend their loyalty to England. Over the soccer field the British Union Jack fluttered in the wind as some kids did a kick-about. “We shouldn’t stand here too long,” Seamus warned, “if they see us they will start yelling at us and calling us names.”
Then looking in another direction Seamus pointed out the Catholic IRA Sinn Fein-controlled district where the Irish tri-color flies. Some here also fly the Palestinian flag as protest against Britain’s occupation of Northern Ireland. Not surprisingly, some residents of the Protestant Fountain fly the flag of Israel.
Like many survivors of war, he still feels a simmering regret that “all these people,”—sweeping a hand toward the Fountain—”are my fellow Irish. We share the same culture, language, heritage—and we’ve been divided by hatred.”
Today, Seamus has for the most part been able to break free of the conditioned anger of his community. This has come about, he claims, for three reasons. The first is being able to see the prison that hatred creates in the mind. “If you can’t see beyond that, you are condemned, I think. I always felt that our common humanity was somehow bigger than the Troubles.”
Another peace-making force in his life has been his homosexuality. “The homosexual community did not become divided between Protestant and Catholic, loyalist or republican the way many others did. There was never any trouble in our community that way. We saw each other as a group outside the conflict. We were not welcome by either side of the Troubles. It’s probably the only thing they could agree on, but it helped me to see how wrong both sides were.”
A third assist has been the presence of Paul for almost two years. They walked into each other’s lives at a club one night. Initially both felt that tug of sexual appeal but quickly found a deeper feeling. Seamus sensed that Paul’s calm demeanor had a soothing effect of him—not to mention that at the time, Seamus was unsettled with no fixed address so he literally came to Paul’s place with suitcase in hand. They’ve been together ever since.
Ten years ago Paul lived in a rural town of 1500 in Galway County, Ireland swamped in a conservative Catholic family. He had scores of Catholic relatives for whom homosexuality was a distant sin somewhere beyond the bogs in the big cities. Isolated in his emerging sexual imaginings, frightened by his own impulses to admire other boys and captive to an oppressive mantel of religious morality, his emotional life was fraught with anxiety and confusion.
“I felt devoid of an identity—not a ‘normal’ son (he has three brothers) who wondered about girls. I felt I was not a good Catholic who could be cured of sin by confession because it was not something I did but something I was. I was trapped and depressed. My most important feelings had to be kept a secret from everyone, which separated me from everyone I loved. It was so confusing and painful.”
Today his relationship with Seamus is more than a love affair spiced with sexual pleasure. For both of these young modern Irish Catholic men, falling in love has become a slow healing process from the ravages of war—inward and outward.
Their mutual presence help steel them against the lingering specter of sectarian hate, the insidious fear of rejection and the flow of venom from self-righteous pulpits.
For his part, Seamus has helped Paul to develop a strong edge in proclaiming his viable manhood—his gay manhood. His self-confidence reached a peak recently when he agreed to write his coming out story for the local Derry newspaper, which he knew his family and many relatives would see.
In that article, he defiantly proclaimed, “One of the Church’s strong beliefs is that it is OK to be homosexual because that is the way God made you but that you daren’t practice it. That is a test of your moral will. Well, call me queer but even in writing the sheer hypocrisy shines through—not to mention the whole morality issue that everyone is born equal and made in the image and likeness of God. People often question why homosexuals turn away from the Church but if you look closely at these teachings you find that it is the Church who has turned her back on homosexuals.”
Paul’s strength is continuously tested by his father’s refusal to Paul about anything to do with his homosexuality. (Seamus’ mother went off to pray at the shrine of Fatima in Spain for his cure.) But these two men are committed to their ‘recovery’ from the toxins of their past. They live together; they share each other’s deeper thoughts and weave their feelings together into an intimate net of security in a newly emerging ‘post-war’ city (Derry) and state (Northern Ireland). Ulster has a tenuous peace now and these two men have found a secret garden that they hope can nurture them—as much as love can protect anyone from the harsh barbarities of homophobia.
Currently Paul volunteers and Seamus works at Foyle Friend where they encounter further support and friends. Foyle Friend (named after the River Foyle that flows through the city) is Derry’s (if not Northern Ireland’s) premier lesbigay community center. The day I arrived the action was bustling, varied and welcoming as Paul showed me around. It was founded in 1980 and is currently directed by Sean Morrin who sees the need to offer isolated and lonely gay youth an open arm. Today it’s a lively place with a drop in coffee house (youth, over 25’s and women each have separate times), counseling services, a web site (http://www.foylefriend.org), housing project, phone help line, support groups of all kinds including HIV, a library and internet access.
(Unfortunately, Foyle Friend closed in 2003 for lack of funding.)
Derry Rainbow Project
After Paul showed me around Foyle Friend, he and Seamus and Michael and I went out for lunch at a local trendy café for a delicious nosh. They told me I must visit Derry’s other major gay organization, the Derry Rainbow Project whose offices were only a block away from Foyle Friend.
I could feel the energy of the Rainbow Project even before I entered their offices. Plastered around the hall and doorway were photo displays of Rainbow’s recent participation in this year’s Belfast’s Pride Parade and festival. Staff members and clients showed up in colorful outfits and outrageous costumes during the daylong celebration. They were definitely there and queer.
I was happily greeted by David McCartney, the Program Coordinator for RP (center in photo) who was only too pleased to give me the details for each photo. As a political statement, gay participants wore rainbow colored sashes instead of the usual orange ones of the other marchers. The reaction? “A lot of people just looked at us—probably because they didn’t get it—and some people cheered for us. There was not a single boo, which is progress here.”
The Rainbow Project, with offices in Derry and Belfast, was started in 1994 after the death of activist Jim McShane whose friends saw the stark need for an AIDS organization. They got funding from well established HIV groups in UK such as the Terrence Higgins Trust to support, advise and make medical referrals for individuals effected by STDs and HIV.
Today the caseload is about 30 clients (in Derry) with AIDS and more with HIV. David said there is only one reliable and knowledgeable doctor in Derry whom the Project refers to initially. Further follow-up and treatment is referred to the Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital; they have an HIV unit. But even there, he said, the services can be slow; it takes ten days to get the results for an HIV test.
As we spoke, David lit up a cigarette, which evoked a wry comment from me. He said there is a high percentage of HIV people who smoke, “These cheap cigarettes in Europe are more addictive than the ones from the USA. They’re also cheaper so the rate of addiction is higher and stronger.”
Rainbow is kept busy with outreach services to organizations, companies, and universities who want informed and up-to-date information on HIV as well as prevention strategies. Last year Rainbow distributed over 52,000 condom packs, which also include health educational materials.
The most exciting news in RP’s history was the recent grant of an enormous donation of 300,00 UK pounds (about $450,000) from the Princess Diana Foundation for education and health related support services. David was very thrilled, as was the entire staff; it is the largest award ever made by the Foundation to any group. RP intends to increase their staff and widen their scope of services throughout Northern Ireland.
After David and I had talked for a while, Dennis Cassidy-Martyn, (left in photo above) a Church of Ireland minister, AIDS client and volunteer counselor dropped in. Affable and warm, he sat down as I asked what effect the Troubles had on gay people in Northern Ireland. Dennis said, “inside the gay community there was never any hostility. I know Catholic and Protestant couples. We mixed as if there were no fighting going on. Of course if you were gay you kept it a secret, and if you were a Catholic dating a Protestant guy, well, that could’ve been really dangerous in the wrong neighborhood. So you kept very quiet about that.”
Added David (the addicted smoker), “I’d say there was an effect of the Troubles on our community: drug abuse. My experience with others is that prescription drug use was much higher during that time–drugs for anxiety and depression. For those of us who could not afford to move away to the rural areas (where the hostility was much less or absent), the anxiety and apprehension were awful. People were killed at random without any notice. The possibility of being killed at any moment makes you very nervous; it kept me on alert all the time.
It must be mentioned that amid the bloody violence perpetrated by both British and IRA forces in the past, a most unexpected irony stands out: the political leadership of the IRA, the Sinn Fein party headed by Jerry Adams has always advocated gay rights, equality and protections. Despite the media’s stigmatizing Sinn Fein for its intransigent and brutal policies, this rebellious party has been the most progressive for gays of any party in Northern Ireland for many years.
(6) Belfast, Northern Ireland
Our final stop on our round-the-country drive was Belfast, a huge working class city of half a million souls with about 70% Protestant and 30% Catholic. At one of the trendy city center restaurants, housed in the old Whig Newspaper Building, we chatted with David Speer, an out government social worker and his friends Steven and Darien and Ciara. Decorated with big communist statues from Poland, the warehouse-sized place buzzed with early evening weekend people out for food and drink.
Amidst the din of voices, Stephen made some salient points about today’s Belfast scene: (1) he reaffirmed that the ‘notorious’ Sinn Fein political arm of the IRA has the most progressive policies toward LGBT; they’re socialist minded and strong on human right-equality for everyone—Catholics and Protestants, men and women, gay and straight.
(2) the current sporadic violence is not religious or political but rather local paramilitary gangs shooting each other for turf and control of drug traffic. But still they do threaten to undo the peace accord because the British government demands they be disarmed. Defiantly they refuse saying it is the British who must disarm and leave Northern Ireland to govern itself.
(3) Belfast as a gay community of strength, visibility, political influence is “10 years behind Dublin, 20 years behind London and light years from West Hollywood.” The generally conservative straight culture is quietly tolerant of gays but lacks understanding of homosexuality as a viable and natural way of life. There is still a lot of reluctance to rock the boat of those conservative politics and religious attitudes.
(4) Northern Ireland’s culture is changing a lot now that peace has come. It is more lawful and gays are less afraid to start showing up in public. Surprisingly, Belfast has had 11 annual gay pride marches although it has minimal social or political effect here; the festival is very localized and doesn’t command nearly the influence it does in London.
(5) Some rare violence happens against gays; in August 2002 a gay man was killed in a dark cruising area on the outskirts of town by three guys, one of whom was only 14. A sad case of a horny queer in the wrong place at the wrong time mixed with low class, boozed-up hooligans. The police have apprehended the killers.
(6) Most of the killing, from ’68-’98, were in the neighborhood outskirts of west Belfast where many colorful and dramatic wall murals and defiant billboards can be seen depicting one sect over the other—loyalist Protestants against republican Catholics. In the city center, however, it was much calmer and in the cafes, clubs and restaurants there was always a friendly mix of people –such as this evening in the Whig bar. Protestant or Catholic, unionist (pro UK) or republican (pro-Ireland) hardly mattered to younger educated middle class citizens downtown. Many inter-married and were not concerned with such “irrelevant” matters as remaining loyal to UK or to Eire. Employment and happiness were more important.
Belfast Gay Places
A quick look in GCN news reveals a list of only 15 LGBT venues and services in Belfast. For a city of almost 300,000 it is not a large offering. There are only three for four gay bars/disco clubs: Kremlin, Parliament, Custom House and gay friendly White’s Tavern. Another four listings are for HIV and health assistance and support including Rainbow Project and the AIDS phone Help Line (http://www.aidshelpline.org.uk/) . The rest of the offerings are support groups and meetings for lesbians or TV/TS or Naturists. In the Cathedral Offices, directly across from St Anne’s Cathedral, are offices which house a sort of LGBT center called Cara Friend. Here is home to a phone help line, a gay rights advocacy group, and an LGBT support group called Queerspace (http://www.queerspace.org.uk/).
The Belfast Rainbow Project (http://www.rainbow-project.com/) office is also downtown among the supermarkets, department stores and sidewalk cafes. It’s menu of AIDS/HIV services are the same as in Derry but with a larger caseload of course. Unfortunately when I stopped by their offices they were closed to the public while the Rainbow Board of Directors met to plan their enhanced future powerfully assisted by the large grant from the Princess Diana Foundation.
Later I stopped by The Custom House pub. It tends to be straight until about 10 PM packed with middle-aged matrons and mates singing woefully off-tune along to karaoke music while a few gays watch from the side tables. It’s very different scene than Kremlin. Here there is a lot of gray hair—until 10 when the folksy stuff gives way to a bit more camp and the sounds become disco as it morphs into a queer bar. The energy picks up as friends pack in for Guinness, Bud and Heineken It’s a small place with little room for movement except for the tiny dance area. Of course smoke fills the air, the heat rises–and it’s time for me to leave. Custom House is very much like other Belfast Saturday late night pubs for many who do a six-day work week.
The Kremlin (http://www.kremlin-belfast.com/ )
The premier gay venue in Belfast (indeed, in all of Ireland, I think) is the Kremlin bar/disco two blocks away from the magnificent St. Anne’s Protestant cathedral downtown. The antithesis between these two places is obvious in the larger-than-life sized bronzed statue of Lenin, his famous right arm stretched out to the future of Soviet Russia, which lords above the front entry.
The manager, Gavin. showed me around and said Kremlin opened in 1999. The Russian theme was chosen for no particular reason. The dynamic and vibrant interior is predominantly red—of course. As the crowds pick up after 10:30 PM, the colored lights awaken as a smoke machine sends ‘fog’ into the main bar area and into the big dance room called Red Square. Backdrop to the Red Square stage is a large color image of the real Kremlin. Soviet style statues and busts overlook the dance floor action. Every night a live DJ spins volcanic sounds for the deaf-defying youthful dancers writhing to the beat until 3:30 AM on weekends.
The place is jammed late at night starting about 11:30. There is a separate DJ in the front bar area where the lounge banquette seating is red leatherette upholstering with red lights bathing the walls. Gavin said there has never been a problem with the police with whom they have friendly relations. Kremlin staff check ID’s for over 18 and care is taken to keep the crowds at least 50% gay since the place is now popular also with straight kids who don’t care about sexual persuasions. (How do you tell the difference between gay and straight youth?)
Kremlin also has the first simultaneous unisex bathroom I’ve ever seen; perhaps wisely, it’s monitored by staff to assure appropriate behavior—gay, bi or straight!
Upstairs is a (sort of) quiet room with seats arranged around a balcony overlooking the entry. In the center is a big double brass chandelier. The place exudes lively and modern energy—a positive place for young gays to come out and feel they don’t have to hide in a dark or secretive place. It’s vibrant and upbeat with an ambience unlike other more traditional and quieter pub style bars such as the Custom House or Parliament bar.
Belfast’s Feminine Pulse
As in Dublin, some of the forces for advocating LGBT rights and dignity are not very public and not present in the popcorn night life. But insistent and thoughtful people are indeed at work in Belfast—owing, not surprisingly, in large measure to the lesbian community.
In March 2002, the Lesbian Advocacy Services Initiative (LASI) (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) published the results of a landmark wide-ranging survey “on the needs of lesbians and bisexual women in Northern Ireland.” It was appropriately titled ‘A Mighty Silence’ and was funded by both local and state agencies including the Northern Ireland First Minister’s office as well as the Equality Commission Northern Ireland.
The forty page report defines and clarifies how inequality, discrimination and social exclusion effect the everyday lives of lesbians and their families. This not to suggest that gay men are free of such abuse, but it is generally acknowledged that lesbians are more vulnerable for several reasons including physical strength, weaker economic power, the presence of an often hostile male spouse, having children as well as being victims to a diffuse social conditioning that demands women be submissive and tolerant of hardship.
Based on more than 200 live interviews with women, organizations and some gay men, the LASI report lays bare the unsettling reality that, despite legal changes since 1993 regarding homosexuality, “the experience of work, leisure, family and education for many lesbians is a story of vilification, isolation, ostracism and abuse.” Homophobia, in short, is alive and well in Northern Ireland (the report does not cover Ireland south.)
The most relevant recommendation by LASI is a significant increase in oversight support services, which in turn can help educate women to create local agencies—lesbian organizations. Such groups serve to meet such personal needs as trusted sharing, confidence building, support in coming out as well as a need to feel protected by local authorities against all forms of homophobia. Developing services at all levels, from national to village would serve to increase inclusion and decrease exclusion among disenfranchised lesbians–single, married or parenting.
The study also analyzed various inhibitors to developing such services. These include fear of violence, homophobic discrimination, low self-confidence, anguish in coming out, fear of ostracism at work, job loss and, very importantly, a strong dread of being separated from their children.
The impressive and moving report is more detailed than this simple summary. In an e-mail from the dedicated coordinator of the study, Marie Quiery, she stated: “Its major accomplishment has been to provide a necessary and realistic tool for developing street-wise goals and policies at the state level. With such an instrument in hand, the Belfast women’s community is now lobbying for specific changes in social and legal programs and legislation. We hope the future for lesbian women here will now be more defined, more hopeful.”
As with any foreign place, the experience of being in Belfast–indeed all of Ireland–was very different from the generalized and simplified image portrayed in the media and press. Belfast is worn but it’s not a combat zone. Walking the streets of this rough and picturesque city, seeing the dockyards where the Titanic was built, passing freely through the once-closed steel gates between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, admiring the enormous and magnificent neo-classical city hall, walking around the campus of Victoria University, attending the opera house, talking with gay and lesbian Northerners enjoying the current economic prosperity and peace—all these true-life sights and sounds are the real Belfast.
It’s a phoenix city, a vibrant place where LGBT people are growing in strength and gaining confidence to celebrate their Pride with a Festival, seasonal theme parties, warm friendships and a well-funded Rainbow Project. This is modern Belfast in the northern part of the Emerald Isle—a real jewel of a land.