The Short History of Gay Cork, from the 70s to 2002
By Denis Clifford – May he RIP
Like any self-respecting port town, Cork has a long history of naval-themed sexual activity and quayside prostitution. The city’s main cruising areas were always down at the docks, although ‘cottaging’ also became popular in some other locations around the city. Apart from these murky hives of activity, however, the queer population was practically invisible for centuries. Cork remained firmly in the closet until the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Gay Rights Activism
The gay rights movement started in Ireland in the early 1970s, but there was little activity in Cork until the end of the decade. At this time, a Lesbian and Gay Collective was set up, following the establishment of similiar groups in Dublin, notably the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM). ‘Sapphire’, Cork’s first gay publication, was published in 1978, although it folded soon after. In the early 1980s, those involved in the campaign for gay rights began to use the newly established Quay Co-op restaurant as a base, along with various other alternative groups.
The decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1993 led to increased confidence within the gay community and a subsequent tailing off of gay political activity. Homophobia and anti-gay discrimination were still rife, however, as evidenced by the case of Donna McAnnellan, who was dismissed from her job in a Cork gym because she was a lesbian. However, after the story received nationwide media coverage, legislation was subsequently passed to prevent unfair dismissal on the grounds of sexual orientation.
By 2000, gay political activity in Cork was less the province of the traditional gay rights activist than the gay politician. In that year, Councillor Peter Kelly proposed a bylaw recommending that gay couples in committed relationships should be entitled to a place on the housing list, and gained the unanimous support of the council.
Another sign of increasing acceptance within official circles was the appointment of a Garda Liaison Officer. This contrasted sharply with an earlier tense relationship between the Gardaí and the gay community—when a gay man was murdered in Cork in 1982, detectives working on the case asked the IGRM to hand over their membership lists (they refused).
Numerous community initiatives were set up in the late 80s and early 90s, many operating out of The Other Place, a newly established resource centre. These included lesbian and gay helplines, a variety of support groups and social clubs. A Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society was also set up at UCC (The CIT would have to wait another decade).
The issue of gay health also came to the fore during this period. Health projects for both lesbians and gay men were established at The Other Place, reflecting a nationwide trend. In addition, AIDS Alliance (now known as The Alliance) was founded in 1987 to cater for the needs of those affected by HIV/AIDS, although it did not, of course, cater exclusively for the gay community. The whole issue of HIV/AIDS tended to be swept under the carpet, and those affected often found themselves isolated from the community. Whilst this has continued to be a problem, The Alliance has helped to combat it, and a HIV/AIDS family support group has also been set up.
As is the case in many other cities, the voices of young gay men and lesbians had traditionally shouted louder than those of others within Cork’s queer community. From the mid 90s, efforts were made to facilitate the needs of minorities within the community. Towards this end, groups were set up to cater for older gay men and women, and also transvestites, transsexuals and those with gender issues.
Attempts to establish a lesbian space in Cork gathered momentum from the late 90s. An early venture named ‘Cairde Corcaí’ didn’t last the course, but it laid the foundations for the L.Inc centre, which was established in 2000. The success of L.Inc was characteristic of the community spirit enjoyed by Cork lesbians; notably more pronounced than in other sections of the queer community. This spirit is also reflected in events such as the long-running Cork Women’s Fun Weekend and the Lesbian Fantasy Ball. The popularity of these and other events are perhaps partially a result of disaffection with the male-dominated gay scene.
The Slowly Swelling Scene
Down through the years, the gay population tended to congregate in certain pubs, the identity of which were always cloaked in secrecy. Only in very rare circumstances did the managements of these venues actively seek out a gay clientele. In more recent times, however, several bars designated themselves as being ‘gay friendly’. These venues tended to come and go with relative rapidity, as did gay friendly club nights and restaurants. Popular gay-friendly hangouts of past years include An Síol Brion, The Parliament, Mór Disco @ Zoës and Kethners restaurant.
In the early 1980s, the first openly gay venue emerged—Loafers pub on Douglas Street. Loafers established the trend whereby all gay venues in Cork are located down backstreets and alleyways, lending the scene a somewhat furtive atmosphere, and further contributing to the segregation of gay life from the mainstream. Following in this tradition came The Other Place club in the late 80s and Taboo in 2001.
Cork’s scene is still extremely small compared to English cities of similiar size such as Southampton or Nottingham, which can easily boast three times as many venues. Like most Irish cities, the scene in Cork continues to grow, but excruciatingly slowly. Strangely, Pride celebrations have yet to take off here, in contrast to almost every other sizable Irish city. A welcome development, however, was the staging of the first Alternative Miss Cork contest in 2002.
In 1993 a lesbian and gay contingent participated in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the first time. The organising committee, who included the Bishop of Cork in their number, awarded their float the prize for ‘Best Newcomers’. Despite this, and many other signs of acceptance in recent years, gay life in Cork remains a somewhat underground phenomenon. It would be perfectly possible to live in the city and be only vaguely aware that a gay community exists. Gay venues are largely hidden from view and there are few gay figures in the public eye.
This situation is not peculiar to Cork, but seems to be a reflection of the conservative nature of Irish society. Even Dublin, a more forward-thinking city than many, has to content itself with a relatively small scene. Gay Cork is at an awkward limbo stage—the worst years of isolation and discrimination are largely over, but the gay community still has some way to go before it can be said to be an integral part of life in the city.
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