Monday 20 May 2019

Growing old and proud in modern Ireland

Following the State apology, Tanya Sweeney speaks to members of the LGBT community who came out before decriminalisation and marriage equality

Gay and grey: Bill Foley says the openly LGBT community was much smaller in the 70s. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Gay and grey: Bill Foley says the openly LGBT community was much smaller in the 70s. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Tanya Sweeney

This weekend's Pride Parade - the third biggest in Europe - promises to be a riot of colour, music and revelry. Its 10,000 attendees run a long gamut from children and families to Pride veterans, but the aim is often the same: to celebrate the diversity and achievements of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community and their friends.

It hasn't always been this way. Back in the 80s, the vibe wasn't so much inclusive and celebratory as an urgent fight to be heard and accepted.

"Now it's a parade, but back then it was a march," notes activist Maura Molloy (61), originally from Mayo but living in Dublin. "We still had great parties, but there were only about 100 people in attendance."

Dubliner Bill Foley (60) recalls how, when he came out in 1975, David Norris and a handful of others would emerge from bars and clubs like Bartley Dunnes and initiate impromptu marches down Grafton Street. "He'd often be holding a banner, 'The Gays Are Revolting'," he recalls. "But in 1982, after the death of Declan Flynn (the Irish gay man attacked and killed in Fairview Park), we organised a march by calling in favours from the broad left. That march became a catalyst for the gay Pride marches that, in time, became bigger."

Molloy notes that life was "unimaginably different" for gay women in the 70s. "We were a minority within a minority," she recalls. "There were very few places to go - there was one lesbian disco on a Wednesday night. I remember 'pervert' was a label thrown at a lot of people. Gay women got it in the neck a lot, in a sort of 'just one good (man) would make you into a woman'.

"Even when decriminalisation happened, equality legislation was 15 or 20 years away so you could get fired," she adds. "Women lost their jobs and then lost their appeals. I remember talking to gay teachers at the time who felt particularly vulnerable."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Pride. Photo: Arthur Carron
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Pride. Photo: Arthur Carron

Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made an apology on behalf of the State to LGBT men and women in the past that were criminalised for their sexual identity. It was a hugely poignant and important moment for many who had experienced first-hand the challenges of life, pre-decriminlisation.

"To be honest, I was quite moved at it," says Ciaran McKinney (59), Manager of Active Citizenship at Age & Opportunity. "I understand gay men in Britain suffered far more, yet I was shocked that the convictions had been in their thousands as opposed to their hundreds. But I was saying to someone last weekend, dear god, this country has changed so much in our lifetime, between decriminalisation, the marriage equality and the Eighth Amendment referendums. I feel really proud of us."

Foley believes that having a Taoiseach who happens to be a proud gay man is a "very positive thing". "He can highlight issues internationally, especially in countries with very oppressive regimes like Russia and the Middle East," he says. "Perhaps rather than apologising though, the Government could focus on current needs by furthering legislation around things like adoption."

Adds Eddie Parsons (73), Chair of the Men's Sheds chapter in Cabra: "I'm glad that Leo Varadkar has apologised for past treatment - his words would carry more substance if any people living who were penalised would now be recompensed. It's nice to have a gay Taoiseach to meet the Pope, but on his handling of the social problems of the country, he must do a lot more."

In 2018, the men and women that started those formative marches as firebrands are now in middle age.

Their experiences of growing older in the community are the subject of a discussion being held on Friday at 3pm at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, entitled 'Gay & Grey'.

McKinney has noted that growing old is one of the last taboos in the LGBT community, and after commissioning a study on older LGBT people called Visible Lives (in partnership with GLEN), he discovered a few home truths.

"One of the key messages in Visible Lives was that many participants felt proud of being one of the first generations to be out in Ireland, and despite the pressures of living here before decriminalisation (in 1993) and the introduction of equality legislation, there was a palpable sense of resilience," he says. By McKinney's own admission, he's "some way off" that later stage in life, yet he observes that whilst almost everyone has anxiety about getting older, some members of the LGBT community have other worries.

"One of the key issues that surfaced was in terms of someone having to go back into the closet if they have to go into a care setting," he explains. "Sexuality per se disappears in care settings - even married couples end up not being in the same rooms. Or for a lot of people there's a fear that they'll have to cease being who they fought to become.

"Even if there's not overt homophobia, people think, 'I'll need to be discreet about this'. They worry how they can be sure that a home carer won't be judgemental about their lives."

Dating, notes Foley, can be a different experience as an older LGBT person, too. His partner of 35 years, Christopher Robson, died in 2013, meaning he was out of the dating scene for many years.

"Christopher and I were both activists in the gay community, so would have been in the pubs and clubs building up friendships," he says. "The pattern for some older people is they move off the scene. It's like everywhere else - pubs and clubs are full of young people, and you don't necessarily feel inclined to be bopping the night away.

"At 60 there are some groups and venues that cater to older men so I would go to them. With the dating apps, there are mixed ages on them, but there tends to be a focus on the young and the beautiful so it can be different to make contacts. I guess in some ways, the gay scene is no different to anywhere else."

McKinney adds: "If you don't embrace technology and you're an older person, the chances of meeting someone is perhaps limited. People are using bars far less for cruising - more to meet friends. I'm relatively tech-literate, which is fortunate.

"I see in some subcultures, like the leather/rubber or fetish scene, they are particularly embracing of all ages, and that intergenerationality is really something to be treasured."

Irish Independent

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