A Reflection on the 2021 Archive Recordings

Commentary and analysis by RRR participant and interviewer Michael McConway.

This article shines a spotlight on four of the interviews that I, as a participant on the project’s LGBTQIA+ panel, was fortunate enough to record in March and April 2021. With each person I interviewed – Stephen, Lee, John, and Emma – I spent some time researching their work and activism, reading around the period they each grew up in and tailoring a set of questions to prompt their memories.

These interviews must be set out in relation to the context of the political mood and headlines of March and April 2021. On the 15th of March, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican announced that though they had observed “positive elements” in same-sex relationships, they were still not prepared to bless same-sex unions. Pope Francis approved this dialogue, saying it was “not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite.” These comments came against the backdrop of concerns about sex and relationship lessons in Catholic schools which were delivered through the “A Fertile Heart” programme. LGBTQIA+ charity Stonewall evaluated that the programme had taught sex education which failed to respect the diversity of LGBTQIA+ pupils and over-relied on the traditional roles labelling men as “initiators” and women as “receiver-responders.” On the 20th of April, in a debate at the Stormont Assembly on the motion to bring forward legislation to ban conversion therapy, a proposed amendment by the DUP to include protections for “legitimate religious activities such as preaching, prayer and pastoral support” was defeated by 59 votes to 28.

What you will find below is a set of my own commentaries which analyse extracts from the interviews I carried out. I conducted these interviews with the hope that they will act as a time capsule, documenting how far societal attitudes have come and the potential for future integration of expression and political activism.

These interviews also aim to provide social and historical context to a period when queer voices were not given a platform, and I feel that without these memories a cross-section of lived experiences might be lost to time.

As a keen social historian and oral history practitioner, I hope that our project recordings can inspire more shared voices across generational divides in the queer community.

Stephen Birkett

Prior to our interview, Stephen forwarded an article he had written for the Strabane Chronicle analysing the events portrayed in the Channel Four drama It’s a Sin written by Russell T Davies. Stephen’s articles compared and contrasted the events of the drama to his own experiences as a secondary school teacher, an activist with the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, and his role in the origins of the Derry branch of Cara-Friend.

Stephen grew up in Lancashire and moved to Northern Ireland as a teacher in 1973. He hadn’t heard the term ‘gay’ until 1972, as a third-year student at university, and remembered during his childhood that the words which society used to describe gay men were ‘poof’ and ‘pansy’, slurs denoting effeminacy rather than acknowledging the individual as someone with agency and as a member of the repressed gay community.

Stephen’s article described the covert nature of queer relationships, with the harmful effects of double identity and separation of identity from families, remembering that ‘it was a total no-no for most people’ to talk about their identity in public. Stephen remembered that parents in the community dubbed his home as ‘a bad house’ where their children should not use humour to explain how one mother “said I was a nice man but couldn’t understand why I hadn’t got married.” When reminded that I was gay she said, “yes, I know, but it’s strange that he’s not married.” Stephen’s anecdotes about hostility in small community attitudes toward his identity are laced with humour and nostalgia, and it is important as historians to remember that this social pressure upon an individual based on his sexuality could evoke painful memories from the past.  Stephen vividly recalled that copies of his mail-ordered Gay Times were stolen and that personal attacks were frequent, but this did not stymie his desire to socialize and express himself around other gay men, both in urban and rural settings.

In recalling the difference in attitudes between cities and rural towns, Stephen notes that The Troubles discouraged young people from going to bars and nightclubs, and so the gay community in Belfast could have “the run of the city”, socializing in areas which tentatively encouraged a covert gay presence, from the Royal Avenue Hotel to the Casanova Restaurant. However, Stephen notes that calling into the Whip and Saddle Bar at the Europa “wearing a red ribbon or campaign badge” precipitated his swift exit from the bar and that landlords were keen to throw out any men who were vocally and visually part of the gay community. Stephen has a great fondness for Derry/Londonderry, for he helped to establish their first branch of Cara-Friend in Bookworm in 1979, yet he recalls a rumour that a priest from St. Columb’s College was sent to ensure that none of their boys were attending the drop-in meetings.

As a young historian, I can see that attitudes to the gay community were based in the roots of fear and denial. Rather than interact with the community, concerned leaders of religious groups would simply ensure there was no social mixing between their groups and these perceived sexual dissenters.

Reflecting on his experiences as an educator in the community, Stephen’s introduction to Northern Irish culture was through Unionism; he taught at a staunchly traditional grammar school with “pictures of the Queen on the walls” and socialized with a group of young Unionist men who introduced him to Unionist Orange Halls and lounge bars. It took a year for Stephen to settle in the community, and he began to make Nationalist friends. Without any prompting, Stephen expressed his opinion that they were more accepting of his gay identity. Group homophobia was endemic, and Stephen related a poignant story that one of his former close friends contacted him unexpectedly to apologize for the homophobic attitudes he had exhibited in less enlightened times as a young man.

Stephen proposes that the LGBT community was one of the few social interfaces where young men and women from the Catholic and Protestant traditions could socially mix. Despite the conservative and fundamentalist Christian backgrounds of many of his colleagues and the principals Stephen served with, he recalls his time as a teacher with fondness, fostering relationships with many pupils and colleagues as a liberal-minded mentor and proponent of openness about orientation and gender diversity.

When describing the tabloid coverage of the AIDS crisis in the eighties, Stephen introduced the term ’anti-gay hysteria. He recounts first-hand experience of disseminating information at gay events in Derry to gay men, some of whom rejected information about the disease, “saying we had no business in telling them what to do.” Stephen recalls this period as a dark time and refutes the proposition that the Troubles heightened the repression of queer identity. Stephen sees the root cause of the problem in religious fundamentalism, which led to the anti-queer hysteria of the AIDS crisis and fuelled the violent conflict of the Troubles. The identification of fundamentalism as a key factor in both social and political conflict in Northern Ireland was a point reinforced by current Head of Youth Services at Cara-Friend Lee Cullen.

In 1999, Stephen authored a short novel published by the Gay Men’s Press called Ulster Alien, a fictionalized account of the gay experience in Northern Ireland and Holland during the 1970s which drew on his lived experience. He has written five further books exploring his recollections of queer expression in the past. These books are a valuable living document charting the social development of attitudes towards the queer community and are key texts for historians of the period. Stephen submitted the first two of these novels, Ulster Alien and Ulster Gay, to the Linen Hall Library archive in the weeks after our interview. Stephen’s interview offers a unique insight into the formative years of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Movement and Cara-Friend, offering up a personal account of coming out in the early 1970s and the impact of queer identity on community and career integration in the past.

Lee Cullen

Lee Cullen, Head of Youth Services at Cara-Friend, began the interview by emphasizing the shifting lexicon in the community. For example, the term ‘queer’ is now being used as a positive expression of young people’s lived experiences in the recent past. Similarly, words like ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ are being reclaimed from the negative connotations that were imposed upon them by societal attitudes in the nineties and noughties. When I questioned Lee about the ‘exhaustion’ experienced by several of our interviewees in terms of the constant cycle of coming out to new friends and work colleagues, Lee provided elegant context. He argued that that “in the nineties we were given a very sanitized version of being gay and coming out, an Americanized and very general idea of coming out at secondary school or in university, becoming a caricature for the rest of your life.” Disclosing self-identified gender preferences is a longer process, Lee insists, with ‘coming out’ as a journey rather than a defining moment. Lee also feels there is not enough support for young people coming out who are afraid of the emotional consequences of disclosing their sexual preferences to family and friends despite the background of a more accepting society. It is important that for the future we provide more support for young people who may defer their openness about sexuality due to personal and societal inhibition.

When asked about the lack of support for queer expression at school, Lee quoted research conducted by Cara-Friend in 2017 which suggested that 84% of young people received little or no support in their education about sexuality in school, something which Lee links to the structural biases toward secularism in teacher training colleges in Northern Ireland. Lee once again argued that religious and political education is not totally at fault, but the true problem lies within fundamentalism within which there is no opportunity “for negotiation, no adaptation, and no change.”

Lee feels that members of the wider LGBTQ+ community from rural or remote areas are cut off from accessing urban queer centres because of resources, lack of public transport being one such vital resource for social mixing that leads to acceptance, normalization and the expression of queer identity. This produces an echo chamber effect in the formation of opinions within rural and remote settings. With the advent of social media, information is more easily accessed online, with young people in urban settings now less likely to seek out information from in person workshops than those in rural areas. This testimony addresses the hypothesis of the Oral History Project that in urban areas young people who self-identify as queer are more confident to express their identity in public than those from remote or rural backgrounds.

Lee emphasized that Cara-Friend has been a positive source of queer expression from an early age, from workshop participant as a youngster to current Head of Youth Services. Charting the history of Cara-Friend as one of the oldest youth organizations in the UK and the oldest queer rights organization in Northern Ireland, Lee speculated on how Cara-Friend will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024. He was interested in documenting the voices of those who consulted Cara-Friend in the past, linking inter-generational dialogues to the queer community so that older people in the community do not feel left behind by recent forms of activism and expression.

In narrating the history of Cara-Friend, Lee refers to the case that Jeffrey Dudgeon brought against the European Court of Human Rights to change the legislation in Northern Ireland criminal law which criminalized homosexuality. This, he argued, breached Article 8 of the UN Convention on Human Rights. The legacy of Dudgeon’s success in the case was the Homosexual Offences (NI) Order 1982 which brought the law in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. Active in the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, Dudgeon was instrumental in setting up the origins of the Cara-Friend network with a discrete helpline for gay people. After his EU court case prompted decriminalization, Dudgeon continued with his political career and served as an Ulster Unionist Party councillor for Belfast City Council from 2014 to 2019.

John O’Doherty

John O’Doherty is the Director of the Rainbow Project. He began his interview by proposing that the major change in attitudes toward the queer community since the beginnings of the Rainbow Project in 1994 can be explained in terms of visibility. He credits the Civil Partnership Act of 2005 as a significant societal game-changer, the point at which gay people no longer feared expressing their relationships and identity in public settings such as in the workplace. The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 and moves toward Civil Partnerships did not precipitate the end of discrimination and hate crime directed toward the community. Instead they removed the invisibility factor which continued to stifle the voices of the queer community, long after decriminalization in Northern Ireland in 1982.

John proposes that the terms ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ are still used with intended negative connotations in societal discourse. However, he stresses that acceptance of queer expression has enabled the growth of a rich culture in which the queer community can reclaim these terms and interpret them as inclusive labels for community action and in discourse.

John also highlighted historical significance of the Rainbow Project as a network distributing resources and information to gay and bisexual men about AIDS in the 1980s. Then, in the late 1990s, the project widened its network to include the wider queer community and offer counselling services. By the time that John joined in 2007, the project initiated research into the prevalence of hate crime directed towards members of the queer community, offering guidance, support and advocacy. This took the form of encouraging reporting of hate crimes and lobbying the relevant government bodies when appropriate.. John stresses that it was only work with partner organizations that enabled the Rainbow Project to expand its services to women and trans people within the queer community, and the “process of transition was not done overnight.” These comments tie in with those of Stephen Birkett, an active member of the queer community in the eighties who reacted with shock when he met a trans person for the first time. This opens up the theme of inclusiveness as something we can adapt and learn as a society, rather than something we should entrench ourselves against. The queer community is constantly evolving and we hope that these oral history interviews will be able to portray that, both in the discussion of the past and as a time capsule for young historians and members of the queer community in the future.

Reflecting on his work in delivering advocacy, counselling, and information for the victims of homophobic hate crime, John stresses that the educational and community context in which perpetrators are raised are contributing factors to their intolerant behavior.It will take structural change as well as restorative justice. John feels that the responsibility of the Rainbow Project in the past has been to put pressure on political parties as well as fostering relationships with individual politicians who are willing to lobby alongside the community. However, he concedes that parties have been slow on the uptake, and that trade unions are more willing to become active and committed to endorsing change in societal attitudes toward queer expression.

Emma Campbell

Emma Campbell is an artist with Array Collective who employs archive images, documentary film, found images, street art and collage in her practice. Her collage, “When they put their hands out like scales – Woman on Waves” is currently on display in the Ulster Museum. Women on Waves was a support network that departed the Netherlands in June 2001 for Ireland to offer support to Irish women who had issues with accessing advice and support on sexual abuse, rape, unwanted pregnancies and political refugee status.

Emma reflects that the evolution of attitudes towards the queer community are apparent in the current context of ‘coming out’ and the ability of members of the community to express their political views in public platforms. She feels that in her generation, young people were unable to come out in their early teenage years due to societal stigma, particularly within the classroom. Emma acknowledges that this may be still the case in some communities and educational environments.

Emma also proposes that in her own youth, queer activists and political campaigners were operating on the fringe of the political sphere, whereas today they have been able to bring their lobbying power and voice to the ranks of several political parties in Northern Ireland.

In the evolution of societal attitudes towards queer expression in theatre and art, Emma points toward the staging of political pieces which confront prejudice against queer identity such as Abomination: A DUP Opera, which is based on the homophobic comments made by Iris Robinson and other members of the DUP. This piece of theatre uses dialogue taken from interviews and comments made following physical attacks on young members of the queer community. The opera, laced with a cabaret drag act, premiered at the Lyric Theatre and launched the 13th Annual Outburst Queer Arts Festival. To quantify changing attitudes to LGBT rights issues, Emma points out that alongside the desire for legislative reform in the political sphere, it was the attitudes of people in Northern Ireland who pressurized the Executive into recognizing same-sex marriage. In the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey of 2018, 68% of respondents thought that same-sex relationships should be recognized by the law as valid.

Emma recalls that the terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ were slurs used against teenage girls who were accused of being “frigid” or being uninterested in the attention of boys. Emma feels that the reclamation of similar taboo words by groups such as Dykes on Bikes is an important process to show that these terms are being reclaimed and related to community identity. Emma states that the new vocabularies of the next generation are yet to be explored and suggests that personal pronouns are the latest terms we must adapt to. This interview will serve as a record of the terms acceptable in 2021 and will be useful for historians to revisit when studying the evolution of language in the queer community. Emma testifies that in the past, a diaspora of individuals from the Northern Irish LGBTQIA+ community migrated to England to explore their identity. This allowed them to escape the constrictions of expressing queer identity in Northern Ireland. Emma shared her lived experiences of meeting and understanding such individuals whilst living in England. Emma also reflects on the proportional absence of social spaces for lesbian members of the queer communities in London and Belfast during her formative teenage years., and points toward However, University Student Unions and the Belfast Trans Resource Centre acted as powerful social spaces where liberal attitudes toward all the diverse groups in the queer community were fostered via advocacy, activism and social mixing.

Emma’s interview offers an insight into the network of queer arts groups and artists/performers who have been empowered to explore their queer identity through the expression of their artwork. Emma charts the history of social mixing in the queer arts movement, with The 343 as an example of a queer arts space which emerged from a traditional community in East Belfast. Describing the artists that inspire her work, Emma explores acts of political collage and drag acts, linking the expression of queer art at the Outburst Arts Festival to the community work of campaigning artists.