CORK has come a long way since the first Cork Gay Pride event took place in the city 20 years ago. Back then, says Arthur Leahy, gay activist and chairperson of the Quay Co-Op, it was a stall on Prince’s Street with about seven people handing out information leaflets.
This year, the Cork LGBT Pride Festival,will run from Jul 29 to Aug 4, culminating in the Pride Parade at 3pm next Sunday. The festival will be officially launched at Cork City Hall tonight and will include Cork Pride Family Fair, a fun day for all the family next Saturday in Fitzgerald’s Park. The festival will celebrate the 20th anniversary since homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland.
Leahy is delighted at the extent to which the Cork Pride Festival has grown. “In the early days, you would get a lot of lesbian and gay people standing on the footpath. They’d be looking at you and would give you a wink or a nod. But over the years, I’ve seen so many people come off the footpath and onto the street. For a lot of people, any kind of a march is a big thing. It’s a huge statement. People were shaking at the beginning.”
Generally speaking, Cork people’s reaction to the Cork Pride Festival has been positive. “That’s down to the good nature and common sense of Cork people. The negative reaction that we would have got from the prevailing attitude of the Church and officialdom rarely happens. But there’s always the odd person who’ll shout at us.”
Leahy says the effect of celebrities such as Graham Norton and Donal Óg Cusack coming out as gay is hugely important. “Every single person that comes out brings about two or three others with them. For Donal Óg to come out is amazing because sporting organisations like the GAA would have been traditionally difficult places in which to come out. The GAA is a predominantly male world built on rivalry on the pitch.”
Dave Roche runs the Cork Gay Project which looks after the community and health issues of gay men as well as a drop-in centre and an outreach education programme. For him, the highlight of the Cork Gay Pride Festival was the second Pride parade, seven years ago. “The whole of Patrick Street was covered with our huge rainbow flag held by hundreds of people. It was our first time doing this thing with the flag and I was a bit nervous as I was leading the parade. I remember turning off Merchant’s Quay onto Patrick Street. There was this incredible cheer from passersby looking at the spectacle. I got goose bumps; it was just amazing.”
The parade, says Roche, is in no way a protest. “It’s a celebration. It’s a bit like our St Patrick’s Day or our July 4.”
Roche points out that the people that are visible on the scene are only a tiny percentage of the actual gay population. “We see the other people in the audience with their families. These are young men and women who, years later, will tell me that attending Cork Pride was their liberating moment when they realised they weren’t alone. That is very powerful.”
Lesbian activist Helen Slattery recalls the glory days of Loafer’s Bar on Douglas Street. It was opened 30 years ago and was Ireland’s first gay bar.
“There was a backroom where a ‘women only’ gathering took place every Thursday. About 40 or 50 women would cram into this space. This was in the days before mobile phones. You didn’t have to arrange to meet someone in advance. You just turned up at Loafers and you could meet up with whoever was around. It was the place to be. Every alternative person in the city went to Loafers. I still go there.”
Slattery ‘came out’ in her native Ardfert in Co Kerry in 1981. “But there was no lesbian community there at all. There were maybe three closeted women. It didn’t suit me so I moved to Cork.”
Clive Davis is in his fourth year as chairperson of Cork Gay Pride. He says that last year, about 10,000 people took part in the parade. “It really has gone from strength to strength, from a time when people were shy and didn’t want to take part to it now being something that people are proud of. For me, it’s not about the parade but if it allows one or two people to come out to somebody, to start a conversation, then that’s great. It’s easier now, but it’s still a struggle for people who are not yet out.”
Davis adds that the parade is not just about flamboyant people donning pink feather boas. “A lot of people in our community are many other things before they’re gay, and that’s important.”
As the manager of the Other Place (Cork’s LGBT resource centre), Davis sees people “coming up the stairs with a certain amount of fear. But they finally get to tell someone they’re gay. That is still a big thing because there is some homophobia around the city.”
Toddy Hogan is the manager of LINC (Lesbians in Cork). She remembers her first festival about eight years ago. “It was in the People’s Park. There were only forty or fifty of us. There was the mix of fear about being ‘out’ and also the great sense of celebration. Now, thousands attend Cork Pride every year.