We talk to Rita Wild, former co-ordinator of L.Inc, about the role of the centre and the issues faced by lesbians and bisexual women in Cork.
Rita Wild took up her position as co-ordinator of L.Inc, Ireland’s only lesbian centre, in early 2002. Originally from the North, she lived in East Cork whilst in L.Inc.
Friendly and articulate in conversation, her commitment to ensuring equality for all is ever-apparent. This, after all, is the woman who was instrumental in persuading Cork Corporation to officially recognize that at least 10% of Cork’s population is gay (as they do in the City Development Plan, 2001–2011), and to put in place measures to facilitate queers to participate fully in the life of their city.
It was there certainly before L.Inc, I think L.Inc is a product of it. So, for example, the Cork Women’s Fun Weekend, which is primarily a lesbian festival, although it’s open to all women, has been running since 1984. That’s the longest-running lesbian event in the world.
I think if you really look back historically, like the Fun Weekend and the women’s movement, and the kinda lesbian movement, would have begun at the Quay Co-op. There was a women’s space in the Quay Co-op. So because of the people involved with the Quay Co-op, the men and women involved with the Quay Co-op at the time were visionary enough to understand that for a lesbian community to develop, we had to provide a women’s space for that to happen, for that process to begin. They did that and out of that grew, really, the lesbian community in Cork, over twenty years. So L.Inc is a product of that, as opposed to starting it off itself.
And the lesbian history in Cork is only phenomenal. We’ve been organizing as a community for over 20 years. Originally the lesbians worked with the gay men in The Other Place, so that was kind of Cork’s gay project. But, you know, like the rest of the world, men and women found it difficult to work together, because their needs and priorities were different, and the resources were allocated different. So the lesbians seperated from The Other Place, Cairde Corcaí was the result of that, and then L.Inc grew out of Cairde Corcaí. So it was quite a painful separation. That now is history, and both organizations workly really closely, and do really well together.
So I’d that’s why, when you look at Cork compared to somewhere else, there are no lesbian organizations really, anywhere else in the country.
I guess it’s about different kinds of needs, really. What women want, and what men want are often very different. And there are quite often similarities in some ways. But mostly what we want is quite different. So women want the opportunity to hang out, to make friends and establish connections, in the way that women in the world generally do, so lesbians are no different. So, men want space to dance or drink or, you know, get a shag. So, I’d say that’s why it’s different, it’s not that one community is more skilled than the other community. They’re going with their own needs.
The Department of Justice made an amount of money available to women’s organizations, and organizations generally. L.Inc saw this as a very good opportunity to access funding. We were coming from an anti-homophobia, as opposed to anti-sexism base. So, we were successful in that application, and were awarded funding of €150, 000, over three years. That funding covers two salaries, but also programme costs.
The evolution of the groups would be an example of the approach we would take to community development. We tend to run seminars for specific groups and often those involved decide to carry on as an independent support group. For example, we ran a series of facilitated sessions for older lesbians, looking at health issues, family issues, retirement and pensions, facilitated by a lovely woman, Mary Lawlor. After the six facilitated sessions the group decided to carry on as an independent support group. So we provided space for them to meet, and we provided really anything they’d want. So, if they wanted to do assertiveness training, we’d get a trainer for them, but essentially, they’re a self-help group. Similiarly, the parents’ group, which is very active, was established by having a series of six seminars looking at lesbian parenting, and then the group decided to establish themselves as an independent group.
So that’s how we work, really. We don’t see ourselves in a maternalistic role, “Oh, look at the poor old lesbians, we give them what they need.” What we’re about is developing a community, where women can meet their own needs, so if L.Inc fell apart tomorrow, if there was no L.Inc anymore, these women would still be able to carry on supporting each other, so that’s kind of where we’re coming from. So we’re not building a powerbase, as much as trying to grow a community.
The Lesbian Line actually ran down during 2001, and it was left for one woman to carry, which is just impossible. So when I came into the post in February 2002, there wasn’t a lesbian line operating. So L.Inc prioritized the establishment of a lesbian line. So we trained 13 fabulous volunteers, who now operate a fairly successful lesbian line. There’s a rota, with two volunteers each week. So, they do it maybe once a month, every six weeks. They have a once a month meeting, where they draw up the rota, and discuss any business, and analyse kinds of calls, which they then feed back to L.Inc, so that we’re aware what the needs out there are, as opposed to what we think they are.
What we’re finding, which is interesting, is that an awful lot of calls are from older women, who are either very, very closeted, or still in heterosexual relationships. Now, this isn’t what we anticipated, we were thinking that more younger women would be using the service, because that’s what historically you would have seen. So it seems that younger women are accessing the community through social outlets, through pubs, through the website—we’ve an awful lot of young women who use the website—but the people who need that confidential listening service are older women, who are isolated.
Ah, the website! The website’s brilliant, because it makes us look great! When L.Inc was operating out of two cardboard boxes, we had a fabulous website! So the world thought that L.Inc was this amazing organization, but it was really six women, a couple of wains and two cardboard boxes. That’s a real positive aspect of the website, because it’s a very cost-effective way to raise the profile of the organization, and allow hundreds of women access to information, and to each other, without you having to pay rent.
The website was the brainchild of a number of women, but spearheaded by Petra Stone, who’s a graphic designer. She worked with a number of women, and put the website together. Petra now runs it on a voluntary basis. Now, that can be a bit ad hoc, because if she’s really busy with her other work, our website can stagnate a bit. It’s an issue for us, because, it’s like, do we need a paid worker? Because the website is so popular, and it’d be awful if it wasn’t there.
Yeah, a significant number of people for a couple of reasons. Some younger women can’t come to the centre, because they’re not out to their parents. If you’re fifteen, you need an excuse to go into town at night. You can’t say “Mammy and Daddy, I’m going to the lesbian centre!”, y’know? Well, you could, but they might not be crazy about the idea…
That also has issues for us with child protection. Y’know, is this a suitable environment for a fifteen-year-old? That’s a question which we would ask, and no, it isn’t always, because quite often, it’s an adult environment. Without being patronizing, children need different things than adults, and they don’t need to be in an environment that’s highly sexualized, alcolhol-related, and that kind of thing, so that is an issue for us. It’s an area we don’t do terribly well on, but that’s because of resources again. We don’t have the resources to do it properly, so rather than do it badly, and potentially damage the young people, we don’t do it at all. So, that would be one reason why website users don’t use the centre.
Another reason would be location, because a lot of our users are from outside of Cork. And another one would be fear. It can take an enormous amount of courage to walk into a lesbian centre. But again, we don’t feel it would be right for us to hide ourselves up a back alley, in order to accommodate that, because that has an impact then on women who are out. They may feel more marginalized than they already are. So again, that’s a choice that we made very consciously, that we’d have a street-front, ground-floor, visible premises. And that’s difficult for some women.
Again, that’s one of the fabulous things that makes us look good. The magazine was produced from two cardboard boxes by sex lesbians and two wains. But because we had two graphic designers on board at that stage, it just looked fabulous. The thinking behind it was to provide a forum for discussion within the lesbian community. And also to just provide positive images and editorial around being a lesbian. And that was really because the mainstream gay press, again, is very male-orientated, and can be quite sexually explicit, so if you’re a lesbian parent, for example, you’re not really going to want to have the GCN lying around on the coffee table, for your six-year-old to go “Mammy, what’s that man doing?!” So there was a need there for some sort of publication that was more representative of what lesbian life looks like, so you know lentils and open-toed sandals and that kind of thing [laughs].
There’s a magazine group, with a total of maybe 12 active volunteers, and they split themselves into two, so it’s six women at a time that produce each issue. And within those groups, there’d be different skills. We’d have typesetting, layout skills, the graphic skills. We have one woman who’d get it ready for the printers, which really reduces the costs of producing it. And a significant amount of it is done through email, and the website, so getting the articles in and all that kind of stuff. So the electronic media that we have is very important.
We print 500 copies, which are distributed through our mailing list, which is a voluntary mailiing list, there’s about 350 women on it. And it’s also distributed through Loafers, The Other Place, The Quay Co-op and in L.Inc itself. Somebody said to me recently that it’s the only publication that the lesbians in Cork actually read from cover to cover. Which is quite amazing, really, every little bit gets read. And for each issue, we always have too much material. And other voluntary community magazines would always say that material is always a problem. But it’s never a problem for us, there’s always more than enough.
That’s a really interesting question, because we don’t actually have the figures, and again because lesbian parents are particularly invisible. So quite often, they’re living out their lives, waiting for their children to grow, so they can then come out. They may not be out to their families and the wider community, and they’re choosing not to be out, in order to protect their children. They’re making those choices because they feel it might be too difficult for their children if they were an out lesbian. If they’re living in, like, rural East Cork, that could be tricky enough for the kids, because they could be exposed to bullying and prejudice. So it’s a very difficult one to deal with.
What I can tell you is the L.Inc parents’ group, there’s about 25 of them, and if you look at our membership, which is about 350 people on our mailing list, then that’s less than 10%. But all the rest, including myself—I’ve got a 20-year-old daughter—so I don’t go to the parents’ group, but I’m still a lesbian parent. And there’s loads of other women who have grown-up kids. And there’s loads of women who haven’t come out before their kids were grown up. So I would hazard a guess and say it’s probably about 45%.
That’s really interesting, I mean that would be my own story, like I was completely out and bringing up a child, and I chose to send her to an independent school, because I could be out as a parent, and I felt that was important.
There’s a couple of issues, there’d be partnership rights. For example, I was away in England on a training course, and my daughter fell and cut her chin, and my partner, who was co-parenting, took her to the hospital, and she needed an anaesthetic. But my partner couldn’t give permission for that, because she wasn’t her biological parent, and she wasn’t related to the child by blood. So, that’s a real problem, because it endangers the children, that a parent can’t make decisions like that in an emergency situation. Parental rights should follow from partnership rights. Parental rights for non-biological parents is a major issue.
The second major issue would be education, and homophobia within the school system, so it’s a constant battle to get the school to take on board that you’re a real family. This isn’t a pretend family, this isn’t a one-parent family, this is a real and legitimate family—it’s just different from heterosexual families. So that’s a major and ongoing problem.
The third problem would be around health, and around the child’s health. There would be a view that a lesbian family is not a healthy family, which is of course, a pile of bollocks. You’re up against that with the health profession, so are you out? So if, for example, your child bangs its head off the wall, and you’re a lesbian parent, you’re less likely to take the child for psychiatric services, because you could be seen as the cause of the problem, which of course is a load of crap. The only cause of that would be a bad parent, and a bad parent could be a lesbian or a straight person.
This would also be held up by research. A child psychologist followed a number of families over 25 years from insemination, heterosexual and lesbian families. In the end he found that the children raised in the lesbian families were all-round higher achievers than the children from the straight families, were all-round more socially aware, were all-round more emotionally balanced, and generally were happier, healthier individuals.
That’s a really interesting question, and again I can only answer it anecdotally, because there aren’t the statistics to back it up. The experience of lesbians generally would be that at some point in their lives they would suffer from depression. That wouldn’t be the experience of the mainstream community in general. Now, it’s also not a bit of wonder they suffer depression, you know, you’d want to be super-human to be a lesbian in the world, and not have enormous battles on your hands, and have enormous stresses in your life which cause depression, similiarly to gay men. And I’d say gay men and lesbians would probably have similiar levels of depression. They wouldn’t have the same level of suicide as gay men, but again in the mainstream population, more men commit suicide than women anyway, so I think we just reflect society generally.
Homophobia generally in society affects women a wee bit more strongly than men. Lesbians are less visible than gay men, for example, and the reason for that is because it’s much more difficult for a woman in our society to be an independant actor in the world. Men are supposed to be independent actors in the world. It’s more difficult for a man to get the emotional support he might need because he’s pushed the other way, you know. So, for a woman, the whole process of being out can be excruciating. It means that she’s not a mother, necessarily, that she doesn’t adhere to the standards of femininity that have been socialized into her, that maybe she looks different. It’s harder, really, to be a lesbian living in this world than it is to be a gay man. Now it’s hard to be a gay man too, but it’s just that harder for lesbians because of society’s structure.
Depression would certainly be something we would see as a major problem, because it’s very often unreported because a lesbian isn’t going to go to a doctor and say “I’m depressed because the world thinks I’m a pervert”. She may go to be treated for depression, but the reason for it will never be explicit, and if it was explicit, it wouldn’t necessarily be recognized by the doctor as a legitimate cause of depression. I’d love to see more research done, so we could speak about it from a more educated point or view, but certainly anecdotally, yes, it’s a problem, and it’s not being tackled.
I think isolation would be a major conflict, and that could be isolation within your own family, or isolation geographically from the lesbian community. I would say that family would be the major cause of depression for lesbians. Particularly for a women, it can be extremely hurtful to be rejected from your family network, your birth family, because we’re socialized as girls and women to be very much involved in that family structure. Young men are socialized to kind of go out from that more; women are socialized to replicate that. So to be cut off from that, or to be rejected by that can be particularly difficult for a woman.
However, the lesbian community kind of balances that a wee bit, because it provides women with the opportunity to have a family of choice, as opposed to a family of birth, that’s extremely supportive. A feature of lesbians would be that they’re very supportive of each other. Of course, there’s always begrudgers, but generally speaking they’d be extraordinarily supportive of each other’s endeavours. That’s a great medicine for depression.
Oh, that’s a really interesting question. Career-wise, most women wouldn’t be out at work, so they live very compartmentalized lives—this is also a cause of depression—and that would be the case pretty much across the board. So Cork wouldn’t be somewhere where it’s OK to be out at work, generally, it’d be easier in an area like Dublin. However, that’s changing.
In terms of being a lesbian about town, socially, Cork’s probably one of the easiest places to be a lesbian in Ireland. Cork is a city of blow-ins, it’s used to having a lot of people who aren’t from Cork, and that’s because it’s a port. There’s been a Jewish community in Cork for hundreds of years. It has a history of having a cosmopolitan flavour to it. You know yourself, walking around Cork, you see all sorts of people, and that’s normal. Whereas I was in Waterford recently, and everybody was going around with the best clothes on. I was wearing jeans and a big wooly jumper, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. So that’s another thing, people who look different are commonplace in Cork, regardless of your sexual orientation, so that makes it easier for lesbians, who generally look different to straight women—not all of the time, but generally.
Socially, probably the best place in the country to be a lesbian is Cork, there’s an awful lot of social activity. There’s Loafers, which has always had a space for women. That’s unusual, most gay bars cater for the big spenders, who are gay men, and they don’t cater for the lesbians. It looks more like a lesbian pub depending on which night you go in there, you know if you go in there on a Thursday night, flipping hell, if you’re a gay man it must be dreadful, you know?! And, we’re the only lesbian community resource centre in the country. Because of all these things, you’re less likely to encounter discrimination in Cork than elsewhere in the country.
Yes, poverty is a problem for lesbians, and again it reflects mainstream society. Poverty is a problem for women generally. And if you’re a lesbian parent, you’re one of the poorest members of society. Children are expensive wee buggers, so the vast bulk of your income goes into looking after your child. Any single parent will suffer from poverty. Lesbian single parents suffer a wee bit more because they are often isolated from their extended families, and from extended social networks, so they’re more marginalized. And if they don’t have an organization that can support them, they’re extremely marginalized.
The other factors for poverty amongst lesbians would be low educational attainment. That would be because many lesbians, including me, were or are aware of their sexual orientation at a young age, and feel isolated in the school environment. So school wasn’t a happy experience for me, because I felt different, and so I left early. I then returned to education as a mature student, but that was because I was fortunate enough to have a supportive family, who I was out to. But if you don’t have that, then the chances of you returning to education are slim. So, subsequently the kind of jobs you can get are limited, because a lot of jobs would want a minimum Leaving Cert, whereas a lot of lesbians would have left school prior to that.
The other factor would be the kind of jobs you can now do. Because if you’re out, there are certain places you just can’t go into, such as schools. Y’know, church schools arguing that homosexuality is contrary to their ethos. Childcare is another area, because there’s a potential for somebody saying you’re a pervert. So women can limit the fields they will enter, and that leads to poverty. Also, isolation from the extended family can result in poverty.
Lesbians with children can suffer marginalization, because again, without an organization like ours, their only social outlet would be pub/club culture, which often doesn’t suit them, with the issues of childcare and so on. So, lesbian parents can feel quite isolated, without resources like L.Inc.
Bisexual women—there’d still be a lot of biphobia in the community, so what we find is that bisexual women won’t come out as bisexual. They participate fully in the community, but they kinda keep quiet about being bisexual, because they don’t feel safe. They expect to be marginalized, and they expect to be discriminated against. The same way as a lesbian in a straight women’s organization might well be fully involved, but not out as a lesbian, for fear of discrimination. So we’re hoping to do something about that at L.Inc, we’re going to run a programme for bisexual women, to look at their needs.
Absolutely. There’d be a couple of reasons why. It can be very difficult to not fit in, and lesbian culture is distinct from heterosexual women’s culture. We look different, we sound different, we do different things, and quite often, all a woman wants is to fit in. She’s not interested in politics, she’s not interested in equality, she just wants to live her life. So she could find the lesbian community quite alienating, because there’s a perception that you have to be a certain way.
Now that of course is a pile of bollocks, you don’t have to be any way at all, and the diversity that exists at L.Inc, like everyone’s here, there’s just such a diversity, from the one end your very femme lipstick lesbian to your very butch lesbian, and they’re all having a good time, so it’s more perception. But fundamentally, it comes down to homophobia, and it’s internalized homophobia, so some women don’t wish to identify with the lesbian community because they’ve bought all the crap about lesbians: they’ve no sense of humour, they’re all vegetarians [laughs]. And essentially they’ve bought into that, they’re suffering from internalized homophobia, god love them.
World domination! The ultimate plan is world domination, we’re going to take over the world, and run it on an equal basis! Actually, the plan would be to consolidate the resource that’s here. We need to secure funding, and we need a bigger centre. We also want to really work harder on the links with the gay men’s community in Cork. And to meet the emerging needs, society has changed so much that we can’t anticipate what the needs of lesbians will be in the future. So we need to build an organization that will respond to the future needs of lesbians as opposed to what we anticipate those needs will be.
The overall vision would be to improve the quality of life for lesbians and their families.
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