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'Growing up, my gay pals and I were groped, harassed, screamed at and bothered at every second turn'

Karen Cogan has written a play about a fictional young lesbian in Cork for this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival.

Karen Cogan

IN SCHOOL, MY female friend and I were called “bum chums” before either of us even knew ourselves that we were not wholly heterosexual.

A girl and her pal would position themselves behind us and hiss ‘bum chums’ at us throughout maths. I couldn’t ask Google in 98, so I turned to stories to try and figure out what they meant.

I garnered that they were suggesting that we were having sex, like the men from the wonderfully salacious This Life, that was on Network 2 (The gay storyline was between men rather than women; we took what we could get!)

The bumchum hissing, though fallacious and inaccurate, got deep under my skin and made me dislike myself a little.

As we moved towards adulthood, my gay pals and I were groped, harassed, screamed at, slurred at, slapped, pushed, followed and bothered at every second turn. The weight of this settled on our shoulders as it did, and does, on the shoulders of many LGBTQ+ people.

Sharing gay stories

We fled to films and books that had queer people in them. We hid in the gay stories and then shared them under tables and outside video shops. The books and films, though scarce and often male led, were a balm. They provided a relief from feeling incongruous and illicit.

We have not completely moved past the need to run to stories to escape homophobia.

People need to see themselves represented, centre stage, so they know that they have a community, that their needs and nuances are not dangerous or weird. The larger homophobic events may be becoming rarer (in Ireland at least) but the microaggressions are regular. Uninvited spits of opinion towards LGBTQ+ people take root and cause harm, even when meant innocuously.

Drip Feed is a solo play about a woman in Cork 1998 obsessively in love with her first girlfriend. She takes us on a grubby odyssey through 90s Cork and the homophobia she encounters there.

I received so many messages from LGBTQ+ women saying what it meant to them to see a gay woman take centre stage in a story and how unusual it still feels even in 2018. Women and men stopped me (and no doubt the other makers of LGBTQ+ shows) in the streets of Edinburgh after I put on my play there, to say how rare and how good it felt to see a queer woman in a spotlight.

The play is not autobiographical but it came out of a visceral memory of that moment in Ireland.

Brenda, the protagonist of Drip Feed is wildly in love with her first and only girlfriend. Although she gets hammered on Apple Sourz in Sir Henrys and gawks on her girlfriend’s welcome mat, her love is pure.

But she is lost, having been kicked out of the family home by her sister: “Do you actually not think about anyone except yourself do ya? Mauling each other bold as brass in the middle of the day.”

Internalised homophobia

The homophobia she faces in 90s Ireland becomes internalised. She struggles to silence the echoes of “Alright dykes, can I get in between ye”, and the reminiscence of the man who hawked yellow spit at her face when he saw her kiss a girl.

She is marginalised and on full self destruct (though finding some craic on the way down!)

After Edinburgh, a woman wrote to me that when she saw a queer woman take the spotlight and tell a complex story, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders that she hadn’t known she had been carrying.

Women’s stories, in their whole spectrum of complexity, remain underrepresented on stage and screen, let alone the stories of LGBTQ+ women. Even in post Marriage Referendum Ireland, queer female stories are still so few as to be cult.

It is time to show LGBTQ+ young people that their stories are deserving of a platform, a poster, a front page, an audience.

Telling LGBTQ+ stories is a vital act, and still an act of protest in a world where a 9 year old took his own life this week having been bullied for saying he was gay. People online commented that ‘the media’ was to blame for shoving ‘gay concepts’ onto kids.

We can put LGBTQ+ lives centre stage and remove some weight from young peoples’ shoulders before it becomes too much to carry.

These stories deserve to be pulled in from the periphery and lifted up. There is still weight bearing down on the next generation and every queer story, on a stage, a page or a screen is a weight lifted off, a little bit of damage redressed

Karen Cogan’s new show Drip Feed makes its Irish premiere at Project Arts Centre (September 19 – 22) for Dublin Fringe Festival 2018. Visit the Dublin Fringe website to book tickets

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Karen Cogan

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