Yesterday I paid a visit to see the ‘Pathfinders’ exhibition at Dublin Castle. On display in the Coach House until 29th August, it is a black and white photography exhibition by Paul Connell. It shows some of the founders of the gay liberation movement in Ireland. All the subjects are captured against the same backdrop giving a nice flow to the display. It was impressive. I recognised many of the faces – David Norris; Ailbhe Smyth; Suzy Byrne; Tonie Walsh; Phyllis Stein among others. I wish the names of all the subjects could have been included so I could put names to the faces. I wondered how many of the images were of people outside of Dublin. Precious few I thought cynically to myself. Sadly, but understandably the LGBT movement in Ireland was – and remains – centred in the capital. Unfortunately some of the efforts of the community outside of Dublin are forgotten to history.
In large part I think this is because the LGBT newspaper in Ireland – G.C.N. – is a paper by, and for people in Dublin. I was made aware of this in 2016 when the Limerick Writers’ Centre published a book called ‘It’s a Queer City all the same: an anthology of LGBT writing from Limerick.’ G.C.N. were informed about the book and its launch in Limerick (as it may have been of interest to its readership. Neither was mentioned in subsequent issues. This showed a disappointing insularity in the publication.
I picked up a copy of the magazine at Pathfinders for later reading. Many years ago I would read the magazine religiously. I would travel from Tallaght – where I resided at the time – to pick up a copy in Books Upstairs when it was still located on Dame Street. This was before the interwebs. G.C.N. was the bible for gay life in Dublin in 1996.
In recent years I have not been as diligent in my perusal of said paper- since it became a lifestyle magazine. I’ll pick it up if I see it, but I won’t seek it out.
Anyway last night over my evening repast of Chinese fishballs and noodles I started reading this month’s edition. What immediately struck me was the frequency of use of the word ‘queer’ in its pages. Page after page featured this word.
Any gay person is aware that the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by some members of the LGBT community. They have taken a word of dark abuse and hatred, and redefined it as a ‘Fuck you’ to a homophobic world. This has been the case for a long time – I remember reading a book called ‘Queer in America’ by Michelangelo Signorile in the late 1990s. I personally have no issue with the word, although it’s not a word I’d use as a personal identity; or one that I would use to describe myself. Strangely very few people I know use it either. I wouldn’t use it to describe someone else unless I knew that they were OK with it. The word remains problematic for many people, too steeped in hatred. They associate it with the words they heard when the boot made contact with their head. I remember Brian Finnegan – the previous editor of G.C.N. saying at a lecture during the Dublin Literature Festival – saying that the paper would receive regular complaints when the word ‘queer’ was used in its pages. Some people have issues with the word.
Perhaps it is a generational thing. Maybe the younger generation don’t share the same negative connotations with the word. If people wish to use it then it’s their own business. The use of the word queer perhaps has parallels with the ‘N word’ – only Black people are allowed to use that word, and those that do, do so on the understanding that many other Black people oppose its use. I thought that there was a similar understanding among the LGBT community towards the word ‘queer’.
Clearly I am behind the times.
As a quick experiment I took out my felt tip pen and started circling descriptors for our community in the pages of the September 2019 issue of G.C.N – the paper that positions itself as the voice of gay Ireland. I separated the use of these descriptors from the Community Listings pages at the back – the names used by community groups are not decided by the editor of G.C.N., but rather the groups themselves.
Excluding the community listings pages, I counted 171 uses of words identifying our community or specific sections of it. The word ‘queer’ was used 88 times (51.4% coverage). ‘LGBT’ – or LGBT+ or other variations – was used in 55 instances (32.1%) coverage. ‘Gay’ was used 12 times (7%); ‘non-binary’ was used 5 times; ‘trans’ was used 4 times; ‘bisexual’ was used 3 times; ‘straight’ was used 3 times. The word ‘lesbian’ features on one solitary occasion, on page 6 (0.4% coverage).
The community listings pages are from page 40 to 43 of the publication, listing the community groups and centres throughout the land. The runaway winner in the descriptor stakes here was ‘LGBT’ (or a variation on that) which was used 61 times out of a total of 127 (48%). Other descriptors here are ‘gay’ used 26 times; ‘trans’ used 19 times; ‘lesbian’ used 10 times. In the community listings pages the word ‘queer’ features 4 time (or in 3% of the community groups).
The conclusion I am drawing here (from my felt-tip pen analysis) is that G.C.N. (now edited by Lisa Connell) has decided that ‘queer’ is how our community shall be defined in the pages of the Dublin paper that claims to represent LGBT Ireland. This is at odds with how our community actually defines ourself – which seems to be ‘LGBT’.
This is all very tinfoil-hat of me maybe. But perhaps Lisa Connell can explain the consultation process with the community, that decided that ‘queer’ was the word that describes us?