A major conference which aims to record and examine for the first time the history of the Irish LGBT community in the UK is taking place this week.
The event, which will celebrate both the history of the community in the UK and examine the current fight for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, is a milestone for the LGBT diaspora.
Dr Joseph Healy, 61, originally from Dublin, a voluntary worker and political activist, was speaking ahead to the Irish World ahead of the conference, titled ‘LGBT Equality and Ireland – Past and Present’, which is being held by an LGBT group in conjunction with charity Irish in Britain.
London Irish LGBT Network (LILN), who proposed the conference to Irish in Britain, were founded four years ago by Dr Healy. LILN is “not a support group for mental health issues”, he says, but a “cultural and social group which has an element of campaigning” and it was the first LGBT group outside of Ireland to secure state-funding, which came through the Emigrant Support Programme.
“Although there have been studies carried out into Irish LGBT migration, there hasn’t really been a discussion or a conference so it is the first of its kind. We’re looking at what we can learn from the past for today,” Dr Healy said.
The presence of taoiseach Leo Varadkar as an openly gay political leader was a “very positive signal”, Dr Healy said, which provided the Irish LGBT community in the UK with a newfound sense of positivity about their home country.
He hailed the visibility of Varadkar as well as Katherine Zappone, Ireland’s Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, who is lesbian.
“Whatever about his politics, the fact that you have an openly gay Taoiseach is a huge breakthrough and will it help others who want to be involved in politics to come out,” Dr Healy said. “I don’t think it would have happened without the [marriage equality referendum] and the things leading up to that.”
The historical emigration experience for the Irish LGBT community is complex, according to Dr David Shaw, who will speak at the conference about the effect that the 1980s AIDS epidemic and the DUP’s 1977 ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign in Northern Ireland had on Irish immigration into the UK.
Dr Shaw’s first encounters with the Irish LGBT experience in Britain came when he first read about the return and repatriation of the remains of Easter Rising leader Roger Casement – a known homosexual – to Ireland.
“Everyone one wanted Casement the patriot home, but nobody wanted the gay man,” he said.
When HIV arrived in Ireland, it was very much treated as a “foreign disease” that “corrupted Ireland” following decades of Irish nationalism ostracising gay men, according to Dr Shaw, who works in the Institute of Irish Studies as a lecturer in the University of Liverpool.
“Initially, there were very few support mechanisms available for anyone suffering from HIV or drug addiction. They end up leaving, going to places like London,” he said.
Both Dr Shaw and Dr Healy agree that many members of the Irish LGBT community who left for the UK in the 20th century – either as a result of a hostile atmosphere at home or for exploratory or works reasons – found themselves marginalised further.
“Emigration is not always an escape: they’ll find themselves ‘othered’ not only because they have an addiction problem, HIV, or their sexual identity, but because of their Irishness,” he said.
Dr Healy said that he left Ireland for London in 1984 due to Ireland’s maltreatment of the LGBT community, and quite soon found himself homeless and squatting.
“There was also the question of my gay identity and my Irish identity: being Irish was not easy with the bombing campaigns still ongoing, a lot of anti-Irish prejudice,” he said. “Both in the wider society but also in the LGBT subculture.”
He says that the landslide marriage equality referendum result and the status of political figures like Vardakar means that the migration experience for young LGBT Irish is “almost seamless” from urban centres but warned that attitudes in rural Ireland are slower to evolve.
Dr Healy has also called on various Irish organisations in Britain to send representatives to the conference, which takes place on November 1st at Blenheim Central Office in South London, to show support.
Dr Shaw added: “We need to constantly be talking about where we are as a society. It’s not just about people coming along to listen to the speakers, it’s about having conversations with people.”