A couple of days before Dublin Pride my girlfriend and I were sitting around talking about nothing in particular. Inevitably the conversation rolled around t0 Pride, who was doing what and the various debates that had spread like wildfire in the week leading up to Pride. Then she asked me what I felt about the suggestion that, through things like Pride (and college LGBT societies, and Gloria, the Emerald Warriors etc etc), we LGBTQ people purposefully segregate ourselves from the rest of society. It’s a good question. I hear it regularly enough in reasoned, thoughtful conversation and depressingly frequently in hysterical, unreasonable comment in internet comments and opinion columns.
With all due respect to those who do believe that we shouldn’t have ‘special’ clubs because we only end up ensuring our separation from the mainstream, here are my two cents.
1. Queer spaces give us space to feel normal at first, and later just to be. There is something magic about sitting down in a bar or lacing up your football boots knowing that you are in a majority. The thing that always makes you the odd one out is suddenly taken for granted. You don’t need to worry if people know, you don’t need to worry about what people would think if they found out. It’s empowering, and often a crucial point where people realise they should be able to feel like this all the time.
People who expect LGBTQ individuals to just be themselves in the workplace/college/everyday life from the get go are showing their ignorance of the difficulty many, many people still face coming out and the high levels of prejudice which still abounds in Irish society. It’s most common for straight, cis people to suggest that there is no ‘need’ for gay bars and LGBT hillwalking societies but I hear it more and more from people who are members of the LGBTQ community too.
You may be able to do that, perhaps you always have, and that’s brilliant. But just because some people are fortunate enough to have had the support (internal and external) to get to a place where they don’t need safe spaces shouldn’t mean you can close your eyes to the need of others.
2. You often don’t know you’re discriminated against until someone tells you. The mainstream isn’t going to be aware of the disadvantages you face unless you tell them, and how do you know to tell them unless you’ve been exposed to the many great organisations whose collective message can be boiled down to ‘ah here now, this isn’t on at all lads’?
I would never have compared the legalities of civil partnership and marriage and made an account of every single difference, but Marriage Equality did it for me and then shared their findings. I know vaguely that transphobia is a problem but aside from my own experiences of it and those close to me I wouldn’t really have a grasp of the greater picture without TENI’s work. Two completely random examples from the top of my head and I’m sure there are hundreds more.
It works in a less formal way, if someone has a bad experience in work or finds a really on-the-ball GP the news spreads, we are all the more informed by our interactions with one another. We learn to be outraged by behaviour that in a society where we were fully assimilated (diluted?) we would simply shrug and go ‘well that’s how it is’. Most of our organisations and groups were started by a handful of people going ‘that should not be how it is’. In all likelihood many of these people met in LGBTQ-specific spaces, or places known to be tolerant LGBTQ people (and/or feminists). In turn their work and information is, in large part, disseminated through queer spaces and networks.
The more successful these formal and informal groups are the less, perhaps, it appears that we need the gay bars and queer choirs. It’s a vicious circle. But they are the grassroots that will generate new groups and new ideas, support the existing ones and – most important at all – where someone will turn to the person they were talking to and say ‘That’s terrible, I’m sorry that happened to you. But, you know, you shouldn’t have to accept that…’