Change is difficult. The human condition is not always predisposed to change and the unknown that it creates can spur us in many different directions. The rise of Trump, the demise of the welfare state, the furthering of rights for ethnic and sexual minorities are all contemporary examples of these change-induced insecurities made real. We live in a noisy, fast-paced and demanding society where change is expected and confronted daily. Sacrosanct institutions have been moulded to fit our 21st century lifestyle, including work, child rearing, education and recently – rather controversially – marriage.
In the months leading up to the 1996 referendum, which finally introduced divorce, Irish people opposed to the introduction lead with a campaign slogan “Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy”. They feared this development would rip the seams of Irish familial life apart, and disrupt their long standing views on family which were deeply coloured by religion. The Marriage Equality movement, caused similar, though quieter, consternation for some of those fighting in favour of it. They fought for marriage because they, as Queer people, deserved the option, even if the institution may not have been for them. Marriage, for countless generations, was solely enjoyed by heterosexuals, and often housed gendered roles. Some people fighting for a Yes vote, behind closed doors, worried entering into this institution could “straighten” us out? Could Marriage Equality make us less gay?
Twenty years after the introduction of divorce by referendum, the worries of the Anti-Divorce campaign have proven to have been misplaced. Irish family life, although much transformed, still remains a bastion of love and support. For those worried about Marriage Equality’s effects on their collective uniqueness, their identity, their difference, the question now begs to be asked: will this be a case of “Hello Marriage, Goodbye Queerness?”
The passing of the Referendum last May, saw a raft of declarations of a new more inclusive Ireland. This was an Ireland where the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916 was truly being lived out through a democratic mandate of the people, where all children were being finally treated equally and other such highfalutin rhetoric. The resounding Yes and the campaign around it had a profound effect on many people, but has mainly impacted Ireland’s LGBT community. The looks on the faces of people in Dublin Castle as the result was declared and the impromptu ‘Pride’ atmosphere that arose after were not enjoyed by only those on some social justice warrior bandwagon, thumbing their faces at the Catholics and conservative Ireland. They were a genuine expression of happiness and acceptance. The people who put their hearts on their sleeves – and a badge on their lapel – and went from doorstep to doorstep in every corner of the country, they were accepted, and it felt good.
The extension of full marriage rights, coupled with the new Family and Relationships Act was an official declaration of the state of its obligation to LGBT families. Likewise, the Gender Recognition Act of the same year was the first formal piece of legislation that recognised trans people. Looking back at Ireland’s LGBT past, the expedited advances made by the community are quite startling particularly considered this is all within the timeframe of a generation.
It is just 33 years since the tragic homophobic murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park. Declan was beaten to death by a group of teenage self-styled vigilantes, who “were all part of the team to get rid of the queers from Fairview Park”. In March 1983, during the trial, Justice Sean Gannon handed down suspended sentences for manslaughter and allowed the five to walk free. “This,” he said, “could never be regarded as murder.” The effect of the decision and such outwardly homophobic comments from the judiciary had a chilling effect on the fledgling Irish LGBT movement. The protests were immediate and a coalition of groups spearheaded by the Dublin Gay Collective took to the streets.
Coincidently, in the same year, David Norris had taken the Irish state to court over the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, and the 1885 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, the legal structures which effectively criminalized homosexuality. The acts wouldn’t be repealed for another ten years, following pressure brought down on the government by both the European Court of Human rights and civil society groups. In the intervening years between 1993 and the 2015 referendum, progress unfolded steadily: there was the formation of the Equality Authority, the introduction of Civil Partnerships, the Equal Status Acts, Employment Equality Act and a slow extension of countenance on behalf of society to LGBT people.
Back to the people celebrating ‘Gay Italia 90’ in the courtyard of Dublin Castle: The smiling faces, the flags, the drag queen hand-in-hand with the Minister of Justice and the alleged one-time-leader of the IRA. Here is Ireland in her post-gay moment. The moment where being LGBT should no longer be a barrier to you participation as a full citizen to society, the moment of society’s total inclusion of queers.
What though is a ‘post-gay’ moment if we have just undergone one? And what does this mean for Ireland?
Sociologist Steven Seidman explores the phenomenon of a ‘Post-Gay’ society and how this plays out physically in our communities. He examines the social process of ‘being in the closet’, including, for example, not living one’s life openly as a homosexual and yet still engaging in homosexual sex, or a person self-identifying as ‘not straight’ but only in secret. This idea of ‘the closet’ for Seidman necessitated many of the LGBT institutions we have today, bars, clubs, bookshops and community centers. These institutions were needed for people to keep their gay identities separate and secret. These were safe spaces where people could “escape” their closet, if only fleetingly. The fear of discrimination, homophobia, violence and being “outted” solidified the importance of these spaces. Around these institutions, the gay-ghettos or ‘gayborhoods’ were born: the Castro in San Francisco, Le Marais in Paris, Soho in London, the West Village in New York and Oxford Street in Sydney.
These institutions and physical locations created safe spaces for queers. Here, they could live their lives away from the heteronormative pressures of society, away from strict gender norms and dichotomies between the masculine and the feminine, and away from the constant threat of homophobic violence. These societal structures of heteronormativity and homophobia have however been on the wane, although often in a public discourse sphere more so than lived experience. The introduction of same-sex marriage – a political and legal rubber stamp on same-sex relationships – has accelerated the erosion of heteronormative institutions and has brought the idea of same-sex relationships into the mainstream.
Stephen Meyler, editor of the Irish community magazine Gay Community News (GCN), touched upon this idea in the Irish context, in his October 2015 Last Word. He notes “here on our little island, safe spaces for LGBT have changed. The closure of the Other Place in Cork or the Dragon in Dublin are inevitably greeted as death knells of the real-world gay community, a combination of the integration we’ve wanted for so long and the advent of faster, bigger, easier online communities”. The closure of Irish establishments has been lamented by the older generation of queers yet Meyler notes how Irish LGBT people have since created more open, public and diverse queer spaces.
Amin Ghaziani’s, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, looks at the notion of post-gay in his work There Goes the Gaybourhood. He sees a changing nature in Queer spaces with a generational drift emerging among young LGBT people and how they view their relationships to this places. Gay-only institutions and gay ghettos are increasingly viewed as old-fashioned and marginal, he argues, and now young queers feel entitled to access mainstream establishments and while retaining their queer identity. In contrast, older members of the community see these queer spaces as far more important culturally and emotionally. For some they are a safe harbour from troubled experiences in those institutions that the young generation now feel so comfortable accessing. Concurrently, Ghazinani also finds that these once exclusively queer spaces are now being “polluted” by straights.
Some Queer theorists have made assimilationist arguments in dissent to gay marriage. There is an unease among those who follow a more radical Queer theory perspective that by buying into marriage the LGBT community is selling itself out. What makes the LGBT community unique and beautiful, for Queer people and theorists alike, is our difference and out outsideness of the norm. By taking part in the traditionally heteronormative and patriarchal institution that is marriage, we might lose the qualities which made us unique. Mary Bernstein, Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, has asked the question:
“Are LGBT people truly marching en masse to the suburbs where they will be enclosed behind white picket fences, sipping homonormative Kool-Aid and failing to realize that heteronormativity and homophobia are alive and well?”
Seemingly not. Bernstein has argued that by entering into marriage, and not the complete shunning of it, queers are creating a more egalitarian, less gendered society. The sharing of queer spaces and open displays of homosexuality in public places – parent-teacher meetings, sports clubs, antenatal classes, workplaces – bring straights to the coalface of gay relationships. Being confronted with this difference makes them question and evaluate their own heteronormative practices and understandings. Bernstein does not see marriage equality as an assimilation of gays into a heteronormative world. Instead, she sees the queering of the straight world, where gays are entering and reforming those archaic institutions.
Bernstein and Meyler’s arguments align. In their view, the ‘queering’ of straight spaces, be they institutional or physical, does not mean the death of what it means to be LGBT. It heralds a more fundamental shift of what relationships mean, be they private relationships between individuals, between sexual minorities and the wider society or between individuals and the state. Does this mean that the gay bars, club and separate institutions need to disappear for us to enter a “post-gay” era? Not at all. Ireland’s post-referenda landscape is one of diversity (plus, I don’t think Panti Bliss would ever allow that to happen).
Arguing if a society can ever be truly post-gay is moot. Like racism or misogyny, homophobia will not cease to exist so easily. The recent LGBTIreland Report into mental health is a stark reminder that LGBT people in Ireland, particularly the young, are still vulnerable. We have however seen a shift in Irish society through the introduction of same sex marriage. Now we must ask: are we also seeing a queering of society more so than ever before?
With the visibility and bravery of being unapologetically queer in public (and in legal institutions), LGBT people can lead the charge of making Ireland more egalitarian through opening minds to difference and firmly erasing stigma. This queering of society can be a tool to further the advancement of LGBT people in tandem as well as a the breakdown of patriarchal and heteronormative institutions. Otherwise, the achievements won in the last thirty years will not resonate: Our victories will ring hollow and be used by LGBT people to hide away in the shadows, having got their wedding cake and eating it too.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney