Wednesday 20 November 2019

50 shades of gay

Look outside the gay bar and see the complicated mix of gay people all around us, writes Kirsty Blake Knox

A billboard poster promoting the Yes campaign
A billboard poster promoting the Yes campaign
Eimhin Walsh
Phillipa Ryder
Sonya Kelly in the background. Kate Ferris in the foreground
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

I HATE the term LGBT. It's achingly PC, vague and sounds more like a tax advisory company than a bold and bright social stratum.

And I'm not alone. "I personally prefer the phrase Rainbow Society to LGBT," says Tonie Walsh, founder of Ireland's Queer Archive.

"The community is a fascinating and fantastic, complicated and complex, messy and amazing mix of voices, opinions and beliefs. The name should reflect that."

For your "straight as a die" hetero, the contours of this community can be confusing to understand what with talk of twinks, bears, femmes, alphas, transsexuals and pansexuals.

Clearly, this is not a culturally monolithic group and there are a multitude of permutations and variations grouped under the LGBT banner.

While broad in its definition, the term can also seem oddly limiting for members of the community.

Playwright Sonya Kelly is wary of defining the LGBT culture as "other".

"I don't go to 'gay bars' in the same way I don't drink a 'gay cup of tea'," she said. "I don't see it like that."

"Perhaps for people who don't have a direct connection to the LGBT community, we seem to be different.

"But that's not the case, we're all made of the same stuff and have the same thoughts rolling around our heads."

As with any social group, there are plenty of tired LGBT stereotypes - gay men are promiscuous, lesbians like to "nest", transvestites love neckerchiefs and bisexuals are greedy.

"Of course, there are clichés," choreographer Donncha O'Dea says.

"At one level, I fit into a lot of gay stereotypes; I began my career as a hairdresser and now I work as an actor and a dancer but there are countless other stereotypes that don't apply.

"My sexuality defines me as much as being the baby of the family defines me; it's part of what I am - but not who I am."

Undoubtedly, what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender in Ireland has changed drastically in recent years.

There was a time when religious ideology and homosexuality were diametrically opposed but in recent months, men and women of the cloth have been open in their support of marriage equality and gay rights.

Dr Eimhin Walsh  believes Jesus himself would have cast a Yes vote - and stuck around long enough to turn water into wine at the first gay weddings.

"As far as I see it, the Christian gospel is about human flourishing," Walsh explained.

"Jesus said clearly that 'I have come that you might live life to the full'.

"How is a person's flourishing helped by social structures that suppress and inhibit them?

"I'm fairly confident that if Jesus had a vote on May 22 he would have voted Yes and he would have hung around to celebrate at the first gay weddings."

It's easy to see why the Marriage Referendum is of such importance for Ireland's gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

But its significance for Ireland's trans scene is equally profound, if slightly more complicated.

Under current legislation, a happily married transgender person must divorce their spouse in order to change their gender on their birth certificate.

"The trans community is the minority within a minority," transgender Dubliner Philippa Ryder explained.

"The T in LGBT is often silent. With the marriage referendum, it's easy to focus on sexuality but gender is just as important."

Philippa has been happily married to her partner Helen for 29 years. The couple have a 19-year-old daughter together.

Philippa legally changed gender seven years ago but is reticent to amend her birth certificate as it would force her to obtain a divorce from her wife. "In Ireland two women cannot be married, so Helen and I would have to get a divorce before I could change my gender on that piece of paper.

"I would have to live separately from my family for close to four years. Ultimately, it's a choice between my family and my birth cert and, of course, I choose my family."

Ryder believes forcing transgender individuals to go through such a difficult process is grossly unfair.

"It is difficult enough to keep a relationship together when going through such a huge change in your life, adding a divorce on top of that is completely unfair."

The issue of gender in relation to the referendum strikes a chord with members of Ireland's drag community.

Veda, the niece of RTÉ newsreader Anne Doyle, has been performing on the drag circuit for the past 16 years.

"I've been doing this since my career as a catwalk model fell through," Veda jokes.

"As a drag performer and a gay man, I have constantly been kicking against gender restrictions.

"As far as I am concerned, we obey the same laws, we pay the same taxes, why shouldn't we have the same rights?"

Veda is in a civil partnership and would considering exchanging vows again if the referendum passes.

"I didn't have a chocolate fountain at my first wedding, so I would like to have that and fill it with the tears of No voters," she said.

Yesterday, thousands of Irish men and women jumped on trains, planes and automobiles to cast their vote.

Filmmaker Claire Cunningham (27) was among the crowd.

"This is so much more than marriage," Cunningham said.

"I flew home from London because I want to be considered equal in my country and my home."

And what if the referendum doesn't pass?

As far as couple Trina Tsai and Karen McLoughlin are concerned, it could prompt them to emigrate.

"It will be difficult to stay in Ireland knowing there are people in our country who view our relationship as different and inferior," Tsai said.

Speaking at a lecture in Trinity last week, author Colm Toibin noted: "Our way of loving has the same contours and textures...We should have the right to ritualise and copper-fasten our love."

For those who have never been to The George on a Saturday night or claim to be oblivious and/or completely detached from the LGBT scene, playwright Sonya Kelly makes the point that: "Even if you are not directly connected to the LGBT community, you will have some indirect connection.

"It's like the M50, we're all linked."

Irish Independent

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