We talk to Dave Roche, community development manager with the Cork Gay Project.
Dave Roche is a man with a mission. Since stepping into his shoes as the Community Development Manager down at the Cork Gay Project, he has made it his business to fight anti-gay discrimination.
“If I had to describe my job in one phrase, it would be ‘combatting homophobia’” says the affable Roche. “Most of my work is actually not with the gay community, but with the mainstream community.” This work includes liaising with Cork Corporation, educational groups and others in a bid to raise awareness of gay issues.
According to Roche, we are still living in a society that is fundamentally homophobic. “When straight people say to me ‘What’s Pride for? What are you marching for, you have your rights. How can you be proud to be gay, if you’re telling me you didn’t choose to be?’ I say, ‘I’m actually not proud to be gay, I’m really proud to survive being gay in this country.’”
Originally from Kanturk, Roche now lives near Macroom. Having studied Social Science in UCC, he worked in the restaurant industry for a number of years before getting involved with community development.
He is pragmatic when speaking of the reputation of the project amongst Cork’s gay community. “I’m aware that most of the people in Taboo and in Loafers would see us as irrelevant, really. They think they’re sorted and they don’t need a project, ‘What the fuck do they do, anyway, it’s all boring, political types.’ That sense of apathy is something that we have to tackle.”
How is the project organized?
The Cork Gay Project—the official title of which is the Cork Gay Community Development Co. Ltd.—is an umbrella company, and within that we have two distinct companies, one is the Community Development Project; the other is the Southern Gay Men’s Health Project. The Southern Gay Health Project is funded entirely almost by the Southern Health Board, and the main company is sponsored by the Department of Social Community Welfare, FÁS by and large, through a social economy scheme, which allows us to employ up to five people a year.
And we set up what’s called the Social Economy Enterprise, which is a community doing it for itself type thing. It’s the third way, between total socialism and collectivism and the state handing you everything and total capitalism, it’s somewhere in the middle, it’s kind of doing it for yourself.
Apart from the full-time staff, we have a very solid volunteer base, which has been one of the changes since we took position in October 2001, the increase in the solidness of the volunteer corps, y’know, because there’s no structure for them to plug into.
A number of social and support groups operate under the project. What are they?
We have an addictions group, which is highly successful, called Live and Let Live, and that’s largely autonomous from the project. We facilitate it. Ideally from a community-development point of view, these groups should be facilitated to the point where they can be autonomous, and work away themselves, then I’ve done my job. And that was one that was already there, and easy to work with, I can take no credit for it, that was just a self-growing animal.
We started the Theatre Group, the Self-Development Group, and there’s a Gay Men’s Literature Discussion group and the Film Club. That’s something that I’m really passionate about, the arts, that side of it. I had a concept last year of introducing the Cork Gay Award, it will be a national prize, €1000, a trophy, plus automatic entry to the film festival for a film under 30 minutes with gay content. We can start doing workshops around video-making, and that kind of stuff, and draw youngfellas in as well for the actual productions of the films, actors, backstage, that kind of thing.
We’re starting a thing called the Rural Gay Men’s Network, and that is firstly for people who don’t have any contact with the scene in Cork, that may be because they don’t want any contact with the scene in Cork, or because they don’t have the resources, in other words they’re 17 and they can’t get up to the city on the weekend, what with explaining to their parents, being isolated, or transport is an issue, the last bus runs at 11: there are numerous reasons why people can’t get to a city or an established scene. So what we’ve decided to do is set up this group.
How do these groups emerge?
How we do it is, we identify a need through people coming to us, so we’re in the project Monday to Friday, 10 to 6, we get x amount of phone calls. For example, there was a huge interest in TVs, there was a big number of enquiries about a TV group. We set up a TV group, the TVs come in, you support them, you facilitate them, and then they get to a stage where they no longer need the group. These groups are all needs-identified. we don’t decide “this is what they need”. This is something we get from a response on the phones, on the net, by mail, anecdotally from other people, so that’s how all our groups emerge, you know, they’re largely driven by the community. The contradiction is, a lot of the community don’t even know what we do, where we are, y’know?
Do you find that’s a problem?
I find that’s a slight problem, in that people assume that because they’re in the bars and the clubs and they’re out, that that’s it, that’s what being gay is about. And often they don’t realize, because they’re damaged, we’re all damaged, if you’re gay in Ireland, you’re not undamaged. You kinda grow up in a society that told you since you were this height, that there’s something wrong with you, and not absorb some of it. We all have absorbed some of it. And no amount of self-development is going to get rid of that in a 10-week course, you know? There’ll be residues of it, internalized homophobia.
So people find the scene at 17 or 18, like we all did, I did it, and you assume that’s what being gay is about. And all of a sudden, that sense of what being gay is about, ie the scene, becomes an inordinately large part of your life. And often, the self gets left behind. You latch onto that for a sense of identity, because you need to belong to something, but what happens often is that the damage that needs to be addressed isn’t addressed at the appropriate time, and we get the people coming back later, d’you know?. They’ll do the scene, and often only come to the project after being on the scene for quite some while.
Or else, some of the other ones are coming through the net, the net has been a huge sort of source for us there. D’you know, even the other day, I had two 17-year-old schoolboys, and their teachers had told them to go looking for us on the net. So that’s working as well.
So you think too many people equate ‘gay’ with ‘scene’?
Yes, that sense of scene can be a problem. And I know a lot of people would resist that notion, but the experience does show, and it manifests itself in many ways. You often get inappropriate behaviour from 40-year-old men who’ve just come out, and they go through what we refer to unofficially as their ‘second puberty’. All of a sudden, they’re out, they belong, they’re accepted, and they often behave quite irrationally.
And there is evidence to suggest it’s a large sort of problem with alcohol and recreational drugs on the gay scene, and I think that’s largely because our scene is based around pubs and clubs, and sex. And there’s more to being gay than pubs, clubs and sex. Even though I know a lot of the people in Taboo and in Loafers would see us as old fogeys, “Ah, what the fuck are they on about?”, you know? But that’s the reality.
How did the theatre group come about?
That arose through our involvement with Outlook, the film festival. And the reason we got involved with Outlook was that there was a lack of positive images or portrayals of gay life in any form of art. If you ever see a documentary called The Celluloid Closet, it’s about portrayals of gays and lesbians through cinema history, but invariably they die. And there was some kind of a moral tale there, and that goes right up to even Philadelphia. Some of them were positive, but a lot of them were quite negative. So we got involved, and we tried to source films from around Ireland, and around the world that would show positive portrayals of gay life.
Out of that, a group of lads decided, “wouldn’t it be nice if we had a gay theatre group?” The key people behind it were definitely Tony Doherty, David Gordon and myself, by and large. One or two people decided, let’s give it a bash, and put on one show, and see how it goes. We started off with Tony Walsh, and Bridie and all that set, and put together one panto. It was such a success. The drama itself was very good, and the acting was excellent, but that was almost secondary to the sense of having your own theatre group, and your own mini-theatre space, and that whole sense again of belonging, and it’s OK, if we want to skit at ourself, that’s fine. We’re actually talking about doing a serious series of plays, and taking them out into the Granary, the Cork Arts Theatre, and going outside of the project.
How does your counselling service operate?
There’s a counsellor, Martin. But we also refer people to counsellors, we have a list of counsellors. But we do have a counsellor service ourselves, for people who only want to come to us, and then we’ll work with them until such time as they’re ready to move on. We do befriending, in other words, if you contact us, we will go and meet you somewhere. Since we launched our website (www.gayprojectcork.com), we’re getting a lot of contacts through the Internet, school lads particularly, isolated rural men.
The project works with the families of gay men. Is family rejection a widespread problem faced by gay men?
Given the evidence that we would have from dealing with people, families are incredibly accepting at the end of the day. We have quite a few parents contacting the project, and their attitudes vary from “How will we cure him?” to “What can I do to facilitate this being easier for him?” And the vast majority fall in the latter half—most parents will ring up with positive statements and ask “Look, what can I do to make it easier for him to tell me? I know he’s gay, I know what he’s doing, I want to make it OK for him.” And that’s lovely to hear. So I believe that the vast majority of families will be accepting eventually.
There’s still a lot of evidence to say that a lot of young gay men are homeless, because they’re thrown out of the family home, or because there’s a perceived threat at home of a negative reaction from the parents, they leave anyway, and probably fall into other ways of life like prostitution. You’d probably see it more in larger cities like Dublin, I know there’s a problem with it in Derry at the moment.
In my opinion, the family ultimately will be accepting, by and large, you’ll always get exceptions, of course. But the evidence would still suggest that a lot of young people don’t even go that far, they’re expecting a negative reaction, so they just go off, leave home, move city. I mean, gay migration is a huge thing. Very few gay men stay in the town they’re born.
You cater for groups which are virtually invisible on the scene. What’s life like for married gay men in Cork?
OK, first of all, we have married men who are separated and living with their gay partners. That’s one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is the married man who’s ringing the helpline once a week crying, and the only connection he has to a gay scene is that phone call once a week. In the middle are largely the people who come to the group, and these are the married men who haven’t told their wives they’re gay, by and large, a small percentage have, and are investigating if it’s possible to beyond their current existence with their wife and children. It seems to be a lot more difficult for married men with children, because they have all this negativity—it’s understandable—about how people are going to react to their sexuality.
A lot of these men are rural, they would have grown up in certain areas where there would be expectations on them to marry and have children. One of the most common things you hear on the phone is “I don’t want to lose all this”. When you break that down, they really mean they don’t want to lose that sense of security, belonging in their local community, the house, the wife, the kids, the car, the job. And there’s an assumption there that you can’t have all of this if you’re gay.
It’s easy for me saying with hindsight, well of course you can have the house, the car, even the kids, as a gay man, because I’ve done my journey, but for a lot of these men they’re just becoming to come out. And they range in age from early 20s right into the 60s. It’s very difficult to explain to a 60-year-old man who’s discovered he’s gay, how he’s going to have a life, when the scene won’t accept him as it is, because of the ageism on the scene.
Gay men do seem to become invisible when they reach a certain age. Why is this?
That’s the whole concept of gay and grey. If you look at the way the scene is, it’s largely based around clubbing, socializing, sex and drink. And not every gay man over a certain age is comfortable being crushed into a bar, having the Eurovision blared at him by all these little twinkies in clingy tops—attractive as they are [laughs].
Also, when you get to a certain age in life, other things become interesting to you, you might discover that gardening is OK, or other pursuits, so that the scene doesn’t become that important. And hopefully your self-development has come on at such a stage, if you‘re out that long, you don’t need to be constantly linked in to a bar or club to feel you belong. You’ll also have built up a very strong network of friends, and you’ll find your needs are met elsewhere, not necessarily by the pubs and clubs.
Now, that’s the positive reasons why people don’t go, because they’re comfortable and they can move away. The negative reason is that the scene isn’t a very welcoming place if you’re above a certain age. It’s notoriously bad for body fascism, ageism. And if you’re looking at porn on the net, all of a sudden, older men are a fetish. To find an older man attractive is a fetish, which I think is hilarious. I thought a fetish was if you tied someone up and burned them with cigarettes, but no, apparently older men are a fetish!
Different generations of gay men tend to have little contact with each other.
Yes, if you’re growing up in any other society, if you’re in the GAA, if that’s your community of interest, or rugby, or if you’re a traveller, or if you’re black, you will have older men and women who you will learn from, there’ll be a certain amount of education passed down, you don’t get that on the gay scene. Groups form and re-form constantly, and there’s no sense of connection to what has gone before. And I think there’s a price to pay for that.
We’re constantly re-inventing the wheel. You have people ringing up and saying “Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we did this?”, and we’re saying, “We have that, we do that, you just never asked.” So there’s that constant sense of re-inventing the wheel, and there’s very little connection with the generation of gay men that have gone before you. I think that’s breaking down slightly now, but that’s largely because of the project. We’re becoming more visible. But I’m aware that most people on the scene would see us as irrelevant, really.
Do you think there are any other marginalized groups within the gay community?
Well something we haven’t even begun to look at here in Ireland is ethnic minorities within the gay community. I think it’s largely because the scene is numerically small when you compare it to San Francisco, Holland, London, or even Dublin to a large degree. But there’s no obvious ethnic minorites in the gay scene in Cork, like you’d see in Dublin. And I also think there’s a tendency for marginalized groups to want to marginalize groups.
There’s a very good book called How the Irish Became White. When the Irish were at the bottom of the barrel in the States, it was very easy for them to put all the negativity on the newly-released, ex-slave black population—“Well, at least we’re white, lads”. So they stepped up one rung on the ladder, but they had to step on the freed slave population to get to that stage on the ladder. So there’s that concept of, like you’d see it I’m sure in London to a large degree, how the Asian community of gay men tend to mix largely with the Asian gay community. And you’ve derogatory terms like ‘rice queens’.
So, I think there’s a tendency when you’re marginalized or hurt to want to hurt, or to seem other, or better, yourself. It’s not justifiable, of course, but it’s also very understandable when you’ve been at the bottom of the barrel so long. It must be comforting to think that there’s somebody slightly worse off than yourself. So I think that’s an issue that’s going to have to be raised very shortly in Europe generally. We’re so busy trying to find inclusion for ourselves, that we often don’t inclusion-proof ourselves, we don’t say “Look, are we excluding anybody?”
The same could be said for disability. There’s no obvious large disability community in Cork, the one or two that are there are only notable because they’re the exception. And we’re obviously doing something wrong, we’re obviously missing something, and I know it’s a debate in Europe at the moment, but I don’t know how to answer that.
Do you think coming out is easier for young men today than in the past?
First of all, you’ve got to define what’s ‘coming out’. I think it’s often one of the most misused phrases. Some people argue that coming out is telling your friends and family, and society generally, that you’re gay. I think that’s the latter end of the process, I think you’re already out by then. I think coming out often involves the very slow and painful process of telling yourself.
I think telling other people is probably less difficult than telling yourself initally, even though a lot of gay men would deny that they had trouble telling themselves, because they’re so caught up in the rush to be out, that they often forget the negative things, the negative part of telling yourself, you know, because despite how out you are, or how positive you are, and I’m as out as bejesus, and for as long as bejesus, I still rememberthe little bits of me that did say on occasion, “Christ, wouldn’t it be much easier if I was straight?” And I think if you haven’t said that to yourself, then you’ve really missed something, you’ve just really skipped something.
Having said that, if I had to choose a time to come out, it would be now, at the start of the 21st century, because you have legal structures in place to protect you. We’ve had decriminalization 10 years ago now. A lot of people when you ask them now, 17-, 18-year-olds, don’t even realize it was criminalized, which I find absolutely fascinating. I think that’s a deeper issue there, and I think that’s another reason we have a problem with community development often, in a community of interest, as opposed to a geographical community, is that if you’re growing up in a geographical community, or another kind of minority, for instance if you’re in the North and you’re a Protestant or a Catholic, or you’re a traveller, you’ll have cultural references all the time to your group, you’ll have ballads around you struggle, you’ll have ballads around your history, your great heroes, the same with the travellers, the same with Africans or Asians. But when you’re gay, you’ve no references, you’re growing up in a house that’s primarily straight. Who was it said once, “We all live in the house of straight”?
So when you come out, you join a community, you join the scene, as it were, and that’s your reference then all of a sudden, and you’re in, you’re fine. But the 13-year-old who’s still at home, in school, and doesn’t know that you exist at all, has no references, so there’s all that kind of struggle. Every single gay man that comes out has to nearly re-invent himself, because there are no cultural references, and that’s a large part of our work, actually giving people a sense of reference, being visible, being out there in the media, being on the radio, being in the newspaper saying “Look, there are gay men in the city, there are approximately 12,000 in the county.” So, getting back to your original question, yes, it is much easier to come out now.
Do you think gay culture alienates some people?
Again, we’re going to have to decide what’s gay culture. Is it the slightly sanitized, heterosexualized attempt at gay culture we’re getting at the moment, GI, those kind of magazines, which is basically straight culture, but just being sold with a gender bias. Or is gay culture the opposite extreme, chaining yourself to railings, looking for gay rights? Or is it somewhere in between? I think there has been a tendency in a lot of modern media to sanitize gay culture in a lot of ways, if it needed sanitizing, or to basically take heterosexual culture, and just give it a slight bent. Glossy magazines like GQ or Hello! or IT, GI tends to be like that.
So, you’ve to first of all decide what the gay culture is, and if it’s bopping away in a bar all night, and drinking Smirnoff Ice, then yes, it alienates me, for example. If it’s political flag-waving all the time, and being boring, and only eating brown rice and having intellectual dinner parties, then that alienates me as well [laughs]! I think that there’s a blend in the middle somewhere. If it’s all darkrooms and S&M clubs, that kind of stuff, then it would alienate me and other groups, and so on. I don’t think that there is a gay culture, there needs to be some kind of definition around it. There’s a plurality of gay men out there, the same as there is of any other men.
Career-wise, is discrimination a problem for gay men in Cork?
Yes. Although there’s legislation in place to protect gay men in the workplace, it doesn’t always have the desired effect, because of internalized homophobia and a broader sense of homophobia in the workplace. Gay men who don’t come out at work will invariably do very well, if they’re talented. In other words, they’ll reach the top of their profession because they haven’t come out. If they come out, invariably they won’t reach the top of their profession. Unless they’re in certain professions, if you’re in largely service-based professions such as hotels, catering, hairdressing, that kind of stuff where sexuality really isn’t an issue, you can do reasonably well. But there are certain profession—banking, insurance—where the evidence would suggest that by being an out gay man, or a lesbian, you will be discriminated against.
So there’s still a price to pay for being out in the workplace?
We do a joint workshop with L.Inc, training for professionals, and a large part of the workshop is giving identities to those participating. We’ll have an Asian woman, a fifteen-year-old gay man, a married gay man, an out gay man, a non-out gay man, a lesbian, a wheelchair user, a heterosexual white, middle-class man, all kinds of different identities. We stand them at the end of a big room and we ask them a list of questions, such as “Would it be easy to bring your partner to your school, or workplace Christmas dinner?”, “Would it be easy for you to run for public office?”, “Would it be easy to reach the top of your profession?” They take one step forward for each positive answer.
And invariably, there’s only two who will ever make it to the top. People start dropping off along the way, the travelling man would find it very difficult to socialize in a pub, or he’d find it difficult to be accepted in other situations, so all the questions are designed to knock you back, for instance the wheelchair-user would have difficulty getting into most nightclubs in the city. So the only two people who invariably make it to the top of the room are the middle-class, white, straight man and the gay man who’s not out. His actual sexuality wouldn’t be the barrier, it’s people knowing his sexuality is the barrier. That highlights to me very much how there is still a price to pay for being an out gay man.
Has the Equality Act and other such legislation made any difference?
The reason that the legislation isn’t kicking in is because people need to be facilitated to get to a stage where they’ve dealt with their own internalized homophobia and they’re confident enough to challenge the system. The work the travellers’ visibility group has been doing, and the work that the traveller community have been doing, have facilitated the travellers, and they’re actually now quite capable of getting up and using the discrimination laws, almost ad nauseum at the moment, but the number of gay men and lesbians taking up court cases is miniscule, and that’s largely internalized homophobia.
Is poverty prevalent within the gay community?
This is something that bugs the living shit out of me. I spent the last two days racing at Mallow, being very affluent, and being up in the box, and looking down with my binoculars and having lunch, it was all very civilized, and I got into a conversation with some people, and they were saying “But sure all gay men are comfortable, all gay men have homes and cars and jobs, beautiful interior decoration, and you’re always so neat”, and y’know, all this thing.
And there’s this perception in mainstream society that because gay men don’t have spouses or children that their disposable income is higher, that they’re much more affluent, etc, and that’s true for the minority who do reach the pinnacle of their professions, of course. There are professional gay men out there who do have a lot of money, and do have second homes, and drive beautiful cars, and have beautiful apartments.
But the vast majority of gay men are not the ones you see at racecourses or at the dinners or at the auctions in the gallery or up in Jury’s Ball. They’ll be the ones who are taking low-paid jobs, usually the black market. They’ll be in hairdressing jobs where they’ll have to train at abusive wages for 4 or 5 years. They’ll have to take jobs where their sexuality won’t be an issue at all, where it won’t even come up, so that usually means like, way out of third-level education, often out of even second-level education—they leave early because there’s a perceived threat of homophobia in school, so they fall into low-paid jobs.
The tip of the iceberg that we see, the politicos, the social gay men that we see are, of course, very comfortable, but there’s a huge poverty, and that’s only financial poverty, because poverty goes deeper than finances.
There’s cultural poverty—the lack of connection to any deep sense of culture. This total isolation that a lot of men feel. Traditional ways of measuring culture in this country are the indices—do you have a fridge, do you have one car, two cars, etc. They’re very systematic, the government use them, but that’s not really what poverty is all about. Poverty is about quality of life, it’s not always about money or finances, and that cultural poverty, that sense of not belonging, and of falling into low-paid jobs because you left school early, you left home early, you can’t go into certain professions because you perceive there will be blockages.
So there is a huge level of poverty within the gay community, but we often don’t see it. The people who can afford to go into The George and pay, what, €6 for a bottle of Bud, that’s only one section of the gay community, there’s so much more happening below, and for a lot of gay men, I know from listening to them on the phone with the helpline, the cost of spending one night on the scene in Cork is beyond their means. It’s horrendously expensive if you’re not from Cork, you’ve got to come up, pay for accommodation, pay the prices in the pubs and the clubs, it all becomes quite expensive.
Do you think depression is a problem amongst gay men?
There’s no doubt about that. There is evidence to suggest that suicide figures, for instance, would be largely influenced by gay men’s deaths. Even the suicide figures in this country are false, they’re tweaked. There’s that denial in Ireland, again it’s a leftover, a kickback to the Church, of suicide. So often suicides don’t even get reported as suicides, so the figures are completely unrealistic, I think. The real figures need to be reported.
Is this depression related directly to homophobia?
Internalized homophobia. You can understand how people could be negative, or pick up negative vibes. If you’re watching television any night, from 5 o’clock until 11 o’clock at night, you’re constantly being fed straight, straight, straight. Open your newspaper, straight, look at every advertisement, straight. Everything around you, all the subtle hints, is straight, and you’re taking all this in, constantly.
So it’s impossible not to develop some kind of a self-hatred, now that’s the extreme end of it, but some kind of negative feelings about your sexuality. And unless you’re constantly aware of that, and you development is at such a stage where you can take it in, deal with it and dismiss it, it could become a very serious mental issue.
Often, if you look at the inappropriate lifestyles of a lot of young gay men, a lot of that can be linked back to low self-esteem. If you need to exist for two nights at the weekend out of your head, and if that is your life, and if that is what you perceive what being gay is about, then you obviously would have self-image issues, I would consider. I would actually say, quite clearly, there are self-esteem issues there. And I only know because I did it, it’s not as if I didn’t. I was the recreational drug user, we all go through that phase, that’s fine, but you need to stop at some stage and say “Why am i doing this?”
Do you think gay men in Cork are well-informed with regard to health issues?
I suppose one thing that is needed above anything else, is an awareness within the community of what health is all about, and what being gay is all about, and not focusing on illness. We need to stop focusing on health as being about illness, and concentrate on health being about wellness. We need to take a much more holistic approach. It’s not just about your physicality, it’s about your spirituality, how you feel. It’s largely about how you feel about yourself, because once that’s right, everything else just falls into place, your behaviour changes, your whole thing changes. But it’s not an easy place to get to, I’m making it sound very easy, to get to like yourself is quite a difficult fucking journey. I’ve met people who are older than me, more experienced than me, who think they have it all sorted, but they haven’t.
When you think you have it all sorted, you really need to go back to the start again, because you’ve missed something. That awareness needs to come from the community itself, and I don’t mean professionally, and I don’t know how you’d facilitate this in any way, except maybe through peer groups, they need to start questioning “Why am I doing this? Why is my life two weekend nights that I can’t remember?” When I was 16 or 17, it was Slicks, and I did exactly that. Slicks was one of the gay bars.
It’s almost like the people that are out there in Taboo and Loafers and the club are halfways there already, they don’t really need much, it’ll come to them anyway naturally. It’s Johnny and Mary who are fucking living in Turrelton, he‘s playing GAA, he’s drinking too much at the weekend, he’s unhappy, he doesn’t know why, he doesn’t even know he’s gay but he is, they are the people I really want to get at. It’s the people that are out there in marriages, living halfway up mountains, playing GAA, drinking too much, being miserably unhappy, not knowing why they’re unhappy, they are the people I really think need to be targeted, and that’s this Rural Gay Men’s Network, I hope, is going to be a success.
Do you think there are adequate health resources for the gay community in Cork?
No, there’s not enough. Again, you need to take a definition. By health, I’m saying everything, emotional, spiritual, I’m taking a real holistic approach to health, I’m not defining it down to antibiotics and drugs. Basically, before I begin to scratch the surface of health care and health prevention. A lot of the health prevention stuff that we take as given, like the Cork Gay Project, HIV Strategies in Dublin, the Gay Men’s Health Project in Dublin, they’re all crisis-driven. They arose directly out of the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. So they’re illness-orientated.
What health strategies have been doing up to now has been focusing in on behaviour problems, in other words, put on a condom, don’t drink too much, cut down on your Es. They’ve all been totally behaviour-focused. But the argument is that your behaviour comes directly out of your image of self, and that this is where we should be focusing. That’s where we’re starting to focus, but up to now, most health prevention, because it was crisis-driven, didn’t have time to say “OK, let’s tackle that. But if you do that, you effectively cut off an entire generation, and they’re lost, I’m not putting any effort into them, we need to tackle the next generation coming up. And that’s largely what we do in the project, I try to get into education, change school policies, that’s largely my job, it’s political, it’s not scene at all. So that’s where my job pays off.
How are you going about changing school policies?
Well, when we go into schools we’re only ever let go near the staff, we’re never let go near the pupils. We try to get them to challenge their homophobia. Progressive schools will invite you in, or youth workers or social workers will invite you in. I got a phone call the end of last year to know would I go out and talk to the Southside Education Network, a network made up of principals, vice-principals, chaplains, career-guidance counsellors, youth workers and social workers for the southside of the city. They meet on a regular basis to discuss issues that might be affecting education in their schools.
And I did this talk to the South Net, and they were looking at me as if I had two heads. First of all, how dare this gay man come in and lecture us professionals—forget the fact that I’m a professional myself, and I had as much academic qualifications, if not more, than most of them in the room, but I was a gay man, so I shouldn’t be lecturing them, there was a really bad resistance, and particularly from some of the older women, I found. So I was getting nowhere, and I was wasting my time with them for the whole afternoon, and I said “Ah, this is a total fucking waste of time”. And they just weren’t buying into the fact that homophobia was a big thing in their school. Again, there’s this huge denial thing, they don’t want to deal with it, they’re afraid to deal with it.
How do you deal with this denial?
Well, at South Net I was losing them, we’d got up and had coffee, we were having a break, and of course it was a school, so we got scones and cakes, and I turned around and at the top of my voice, I shouted “NIGGER!” across the whole room. And outrage, how dare I, I couln’t use that word. So as soon as I got their attention, I said “Now, what’s the difference between that and ‘faggot’ or ‘queer’? How come you’ll react so violently if I shouted that across your schoolroom, or your schoolyard, but you’ll allow me say faggot or queer?” And then I had half of them in my pocket, the other half still didn’t get there.
But once we started talking about it, they did admit to me that it is used constantly in the schoolyard, that they’re afraid to challenge it, they can’t talk about it because the parents would come into them. One teacher told me that when she suggested having somebody from a gay project come in and describe what they do to sixth-years—these are young adults who are probably sexually active anyway—one parent said if you did that, he would pull his son out of school, he didn’t want his son to be taught to be a fucking queer. If you’re dealing with that level of negativity all the time, and I am when I go out to these places, the teachers are afraid to deal with it. The teachers that have tried to be progressive are labelled as being gay or lesbian themselves.
Doesn‘t the equality legislation force schools to tackle homophobia?
Schools have to take it on board, the Gay Project is at an inter-agency, you have the City Council, FÁS, Rapid, the VEC, Department of Health, and a few others, and we’re doing what’s called ‘equality-proofing’. We’re going into these agencies and the City Council is asking them “This is the law, this is the equality legislation, now what are you doing?” And if they don’t come up with adequate answers, they’re going to have to re-address their policies, and they’re going to have to come back, and we’ll be brought in at that stage then to help them with policy-forming.
There’s also the City Development Plan [2001–2011; a plan which puts in place measures to facilitate queers to participate fully in the life of their city], and it’s the first time it will happen in Ireland, in England, or anywhere like that. It’s quite a phenomenal piece of work, if we can keep going with it, with the resources we have. But the City are taking it on board now, at least. We will be in the schools. We’ve done Ashton, obviously, already, Midleton, more progressive schools. But I can’t see myself being up in Pres or Christians for quite a while.
How widespread is homophobic bullying in schools?
Homophobic bullying is THE most prevalent form of bullying in schools, this is something that often shocks people, but it’s true. There’s a group called the Concerned Parents Against Bullying, set up by a group of parents, one of them lost a son who wasn’t gay, but he was perceived to be gay because he was a very gentle, soft, quiet lad, and he killed himself at 15. So this group set up, and 20% of their callers would experience racial abuse, 10% would experience size abuse, but 100% of the boys that called the line had been called ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ or ‘big girl’s blouse’. Not 99%, one hundred per cent. Now, it’s inconceivable that 100% of the lads ringing the line were gay, probably 10 or 12% of them were.
But getting back to the bullying, even if you take that half of them were gay, the figure is still shocking, that it’s the most commonly-used bullying tactic in schools. If you ask the small kids, 8 or 9, who are using “Shut up, ya queer“, ”Shut up, ya fag”, if you ask them what it is, they don‘t actually know, but they know that they’re dirty words. And I think that that’s really scary, so there‘s a negativity attached just to the word, before they ever realize what they’re talking about. We all do it, I often say still, if I’m not watching myself, “Shut up, ya girl”, and if you don’t challenge it at certain levels, it’s going to be problematic.
Is discrimination a problem in third-level education?
Third-level is notoriously homophobic. I did social science, and you’d expect there they’d be quite liberal. I was the only gay man in a class of 140. And I was there largely because I was a gay man, it was tokenistic, there was one lesbian there as well, it was very funny [laughs].
I did a thing at UCC for the LGB Society recently, a stand in the Boole Basement, it was part of their Pride thing, and I was a bit disturbed by their concept of LGB Pride. It was like, meetings half-eight, west wing, top-floor, it was very hidden, it wasn’t Pride at all to me. When I walked around the campus, there was no sign anywhere saying it was Gay Pride week, there was no flag, there was nothing to indicate it was Gay Pride week. There was a huge thing about Mícheál Martin and the smoking debate, that seemed to be huge, or there was some boat race for the rugby team that night in the Western Star, but nothing about Pride.
So, I did the stand anyway, and I took the Boole Basement, and I set it up there with a big, huge sign reading ‘Cork Gay Project’, like an almost-neon sign saying ‘Queer’. So I sat there for the day, and as you know, every 50 minutes the basement fills, they all sort of regurgitate out of the lecture rooms, and then they’re all gone again two minutes later. And nobody approached the stand, except two or three who thought I was part of the anti-war thing, so they wanted to sign a petition and two straight guys because I was giving out free condoms, and they were quite clear “We’re only here for the condoms”, and I told them “you’re quite welcome, take them”.
Not one person from the LGB Society came up to me. So I went for lunch in the main restaurant, and I met the entire LGB Society around one table, so I joined them obviously, and I said “Lads, a bit of support wouldn’t have gone astray, while I was on a coffee break, someone to mind the stand while I was gone to the loo”. And they almost unanimously told me that they couldn’t be out within college. And I found that very disturbing. They’re out in Loafers, they’re out in Taboo, but that’s not necessarily what being out is about. I didn’t blame any of them, because there would be negative consequences, I‘m sure, there are always negative consequences when you decide to do something which people perceive as other, or different. And you need to be prepared for that.
Compared to other Irish cities, do you think Cork is a good place to be gay?
In my opinion, it’s probably one of the best places to be gay. As well as having a reasonably active commercial scene, there’s an awful lot more subculture structures going on than there is in Dublin. For instance, there’s a much stronger sense of community in Cork than there is in Dublin. You often have more options outside of a commercial scene in Cork than you would in Dublin even. L.Inc is extraordinary in its concept. We’re the only two really in the country [gay community development centres], there’s a place in Dundalk called Outcomers, but they’re at the stage where we were 20 years ago, where they meet once a month in someone’s sitting room.
Where’s the project headed in the future?
In an ideal world, and this is totally aspirational, I’d like to see that I’d be out of a job in 5 years. Nobody ever needs to do this work again. Social workers should be working toward their own death, it’s not something you’re doing for a job. You need to be quite clear that it is your job, and not take it home, or else you’d fucking just lose it. So that’s an aspiration, that’s not going to happen of course, grand.
But what I would like to see in the next five years—I’d consider that long-term—I want partnership rights sorted out, and I want to be involved in that. But I’m quite clear that it’s not a gay issue. It’s a single person’s issue, it’s not just about gay people. Partnership rights are one of the battles we need to fight, in conjunction with the others. And with partnership rights automatically comes the adoption thing, but I’m not going to go into that, because that is so emotive, as soon as you start going into that, you get negativity into your face all the time. And that’s another thing about our job, you often have to be quite strategic. So that’s the long-term.
In the medium-term, in the next two years, is my dream of a fully-resourced community centre. My dream come true before I leave this job—and it will come true—would be to have a dedicated building, which would just be a community centre. It’ll be an accessible, properly resourced community centre, which would be very public and city centre, and it’ll be self-financing and viable. And there will be a cinema space, theatre space, art space, meeting space, coffee shop. It’ll have everything a community centre has, well probably more, because gay men can obviously do it slightly better!
I think we also need to build up a much larger sense of culture. By culture I mean gay art, gay drama, gay cinema, gay lifestyles, gay sexuality, everything. Gay men need to realize that there is a gay art out there, and it’s not all Tom of Finland, y’know? Now, Tom of Finland is great, I’m a great admirer of his, but it’s not all Tom of Finland, there‘s other aspects of gay art. There’s gay theatre, gay cinema, etc, etc. The planned new centre is a large part of that.
And in the short term?
In the short-term, I think the biggest problem is the lack of connection that the project has with the out community. We’re of huge importance and influence on the non-out, most marginalized community, because they’re the people that use the project. Young gay men who are out don’t see the reason for the project. You could walk into Taboo tonight and ask them “Was it easy to come out?” They’ll all say yeah, or they’ll all have reasonably positive things to say, they don’t see what the project has to offer them.
Because they’ve been so marginalized for so long, there’s a sense of powerlessness, “Sure why would I get involved in politics, we can do nothing.” And that’s not the case. There are people who have been working in the political arena for quite some time, and getting stuff done. Ireland went from being really bad on law to being one of the most progressive, on paper, in Europe. That sense of apathy, that needs to be gotten over, and people need to interact more with the project, and direct the project more. Come in and say “Look, I really think there’s a need for a left-legged, black, transvestite group.” Well, great, I can do that, but they need to come in and demand it.