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The LGBT community's quest for respectability in Ireland is leaving so many trans activists behind

Pride and LGBTQ movements are being ruined by a descent into conformity and a fear of all things political, argues Leighanna Rose Walsh.

Leighanna Rose Walsh

A FEW WEEKS ago, I jumped on a table in the chambers of Cork’s City Hall to protest the presence of respectability and the sanitised history of Pride. I spoke up for trans women like myself, for women of colour, for sex workers, for poor and “unrespectable” queers like me, like so many others.

To some, this seemed like an extreme act. “Wait your turn.” “This is not the place.” “We need to know your place in the events.” These were things said to me by two other LGBT activists. I had sat through an hour of people patting themselves on the back over marriage equality, a cause I also worked towards, with no mention of the Gender Recognition Act that our trans community fought so hard for so many years over, or the serious issues still affecting the community, merely commenting that we still had “work to do”.

“Oh well they didn’t name us outright, but I mean, in spirit,” one of my fellow trans folk told me. But when we get into the spirit of things, you’ll find that that what I did was much more in the “spirit” of Pride than the majority of events we have nowadays. In many cases worldwide, Pride and LGBTQ movements in general have become deeply commercialised, respectable, sanitised. Apolitical.

The woman who runs my trans group seems to have a deep fear of the political, of the unrespectable. One expressed a fear of reversing the work done with conservative politicians, who seem to be more important to her than an activist like myself. I’ve since been cut off from support by my own community, when my position is pretty bog standard for trans activists these days.

Tight control

Pride, the modern LGBTQ rights movement came out as a result of the Stonewall riots. Stonewall was not started by respectable, cisgender white people. The respectable, cisgender white people at Stonewall were the police. And in many ways that hasn’t changed – white, wealthy or otherwise influential gay men still control our movement. Not the butch, biracial lesbians, the bisexual community activists, the black & latina trans sex workers, the political, working class queers, for example.

That’s not to say that white gay men and boys, even middle class ones aren’t still persecuted. Many still end up on the streets due to their parents rejecting them. Many have trouble getting jobs, especially if they’re gender nonconforming. But this isn’t even what we talk about at Pride anymore. Even the Yes Equality campaign, behind the scenes, was full of frightening stories of silencing and erasure, keeping a tight control on who said what. Bisexual, trans people and queer people of colour were all but invisible. To appeal to a “Middle Ireland” that no longer exists.

LGBT Heritage A plaque marking the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York Source: AP/Press Association Images

Ireland has become an increasingly multicultural and diverse society. I say this is good for us. Many will look to blame immigrants from more conservative countries and other religions for certain issues, but in reality their presence has forced us to step out of our cultural hidey holes, examine ourselves. Many of these issues are tied together. One historical institution I like to bring up is “Polari”, a language used by the Queer community in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The word “Drag” is thought to come from the word Indraka, meaning skirt or dress in Romanes. I work closely with the Roma community in Cork. In the wake of the Yes Equality campaign, a Garda task force set up partly at the behest of the Cork Business Association, set out to prosecute people for begging – mostly vulnerable Roma mothers. Punishment for being poor.

One of my friends is already in jail, her welfare cut off and no money for her children, their mother torn away from them by a racist, classist institution. Another woman I work with, a disabled Roma woman with one leg and a new baby, who had their welfare cut off until she gets a birth cert for her child, is served with a fine she can’t pay (why would she be begging otherwise?).

For some Roma – especially didikai (half Roma) who can be cut off both from our support net and the Roma community – being LGBTQ is particularly difficult and almost unheard of. When I hear of these experiences, and the Gardai targeting and profiling these people, it reminds me a lot of what used to happen to us before the queer liberation movement. But where is their Stonewall? And where is the support for queer Muslims, asylum seekers who often face rejection by their own communities? Or just Muslims and asylum seekers in general?

What it means to be queer

How can we preach equality while ignoring the effects of class & race? We ignore intersectionality, which covers up a lot of the reality of what it means to be queer. I myself am transfeminine and autistic, which gives people two reasons not to listen to or believe me. Even my own community often doesn’t believe in me, or offer an opportunity for me to speak. I’m treated like a broken or bold child.

And I’m not the only one. Recently – and this was partly my inspiration – a trans Latina activist called Jennicet Gutiérrez spoke up at an LGBT gala Barack Obama was hosting. She was hushed, told “this isn’t for you!” while Obama made some quite smug remarks about this being “his house”. Here, respectability was endlessly more important than the fact that her people were dying, being sexually abused in ICE detainment.

Turkey Trans Pride Parade An activist pictured at a Trans Pride parade in Istanbul, Turkey, in June Source: AP/Press Association Images

Suggest someone has done something homophobic, ableist, transphobic, racist or the like and they take it personally. The issue is no longer about these institutions that for example put vulnerable Roma women, queer sex workers and the like out on the streets. It’s about someone’s self image being challenged, feeling they may not be quite as nice a person as they thought. With all this nonsense about political correctness, far too often it goes precisely the opposite way, with terms like “PC gone mad” and “Social justice warrior” being used to shut down marginalised voices.

When there’s an epidemic of violence and murder against transgender women (especially of colour) in the US – counting about 20 this year at this stage, and that’s just reported – we need to not be silenced. When Frances Fitzgerald wants to enact legislation recommended by Magdalene order-funded organisations to make sex work – something my people traditionally rely on – more rather than less dangerous, we need to not be silenced.

When people are being locked up for being poor, brown or homeless – or just plain unrespectable – we need to not be silenced. We need to loudly shout these names, trans activists and Stonewall veterans all – Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, Miss Major, Brenda Howard. This is to those left behind by our “equality” movement.

Leighanna Rose Walsh is a queer autistic trans woman living in Cork. She is a writer, musician and activist focusing mostly on Trans/Queer and immigrant issues. She works closely with the Cork Roma Women’s group, as well as volunteering with Cork Feminista. You can read some of her essays here and listen to her recent talk on autism and sexuality here.

Read: “A historic moment” – Oireachtas signs off on gender recognition bill

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Leighanna Rose Walsh

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