Orla Egan has been actively involved in the Cork LGBT community since the 1980s. She has over 20 years experience working in the Equality, Education, Social Inclusion and Community Development fields in Ireland. She is currently working on developing a Cork LGBT Digital Archive to highlight and share the history of the vibrant LGBT community in Cork. She recently returned to college to improve her digital skills for this project and is a tutor and PhD student in Digital Arts and Humanities in University College Cork. She juggles all this work with full-time parenting of the fabulous 9 year old, Jacob. You can read more about how she juggles being a PhD student and a single parent in her interview on The Thesis Whisper.
Thanks to Accelerate.LGBT heading to Dublin, Ireland I was able to connect with Orla to learn more about her passion for documenting LGBT history and her longtime involvement in the LGBT movement. Before we begin, thank you for the hard work you’ve done over so many years!
What does your organization do?
The Cork LGBT Archive Project aims to gather, preserve and share information in relation to the rich history of the Cork LGBT communities through the development of an openly accessible community digital archive. You can read more about it here as well.
What inspired you to get involved in your organization?
I have been actively involved with the Cork LGBT community since the 1980s.
Cork has a long and rich history of lesbian and gay activism and community formation and development. Since at least the 1970s lesbians and gays in Cork have forged communities, established organisations, set up services and reached out to others. As well as campaigning for lesbian and gay rights and providing services and supports to LGBT people, the lesbian and gay community has played a vital role in movements for social justice and political change in Cork.
Yet this community, like many other LGBT communities worldwide, has been largely invisible in historical accounts and its contribution to social and political change and developments largely unacknowledged. I am committed to sharing this important history in a digital archive that will be widely accessible. This motivated me to set up this project and to work on it full time despite no funding. I am also doing a PhD in Digital Arts and Humanities in UCC to provide me with digital skills and guidance as I develop this project. I am delighted that a broad range of LGBT community groups and activists, as well as UCC and digital humanists have come on board and are working with me as part of the Cork LGBT Archive Advisory Group.
How has the climate around LGBT issues changed since gay marriage was legalized in Ireland?
The climate around LGBT issues in Ireland has been changing for some time, through the combined efforts of LGBT activists over at least the last four decades. It is important to remember and acknowledge this work rather than just focusing on one campaign or a few high profile activists.
Legalising same-sex marriage was important in removing a glaring inequality in Irish society and this is important for LGBT people in Ireland. However many inequalities and challenges still remain, for example the high levels of bullying still experienced by LGBT young people in schools and the misunderstanding and discrimination experienced by the transgender community.
In order to gain broad based support for marriage equality there was an emphasis put on the respectable image of the LGBT community and on how all love is the same – effectively a sanitising of the LGBT image. This was alienating for some members of the LGBT community who have no desire to be seen as ‘respectable’ and ‘the same as’ the straight community. One of the strengths of the LGBT community has always been how we have challenged traditional notions of how we love, how we form relationships and family and that we find new and exciting and often unconventional ways of doing this. Some LGBT people felt marginalised and silenced within the debate about marriage equality.
As a lesbian parent I found it difficult to listen to the rhetoric of the No campaign – those who campaigned against marriage equality. The NO campaign focused on the ‘family’ – or at least their version of the family i.e. married, heterosexual with children. They vilified me and my family – they told us we were lesser and not worthy of respect or protection. I felt it as a personal attack. It was personal. They talked about protecting the children – but it was impossible for me to protect my child from the impact of their campaign. Every day as he walked to school he had to pass posters telling him that he and his family were lesser, that there were people out there who did not respect or value us. ‘Why mammy?” he would ask me, ‘Why do they say those things about us?’ How could I explain? In this context a resounding YES vote was important – I could look my son in the eye and say “Yes our family is respected in Ireland”.
For the full story, you can read her post on this historic moment.
What are the biggest roadblocks facing LGBT organizations in Ireland?
Lack of funding is a huge challenge for all Irish LGBT organisations who struggle to provide services and do good work with limited or no budget. There is no lack of good ideas and skills but work is often hindered by lack of funds. My project is a good example of this as it is completely unfunded at the moment with all the work being done on a voluntary basis.
The continuing influence of the churches on education in Ireland hinders efforts to proper sex education and understanding of, and respect for, the diversity of gender identities and sexual orientations and of different families. Bullying in schools remains a huge problem.
Lack of understanding of our past, of our history means that many young LGBT people in Ireland have no knowledge of the history of activism and achievement of the Irish LGBT community. As the British Lesbian History group puts it “knowledge of our history gives us a context in which to place ourselves in the world and a basis for our efforts to change things”. Hence the importance of LGBT history.
How has the LGBT community in Ireland impacted you? How would you like to impact it?
I have been lucky to be part of a vibrant LGBT community in Cork since the 1980s. This community has provided me with huge support, friends and fun as well as political activism.
I have been involved with various LGBT groups over the years, including working in the Cork Women’s Place and in the Other Place LGBT Community Centre. I was one of the people who organised the first ever LGBT float in a Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland – in Cork in 1992. This was largely in response to the exclusion of Irish LGBT organisations from marching in the Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston – if we could march in Cork it showed how ridiculous it was to exclude LGBT groups in the USA. It was also an opportunity for visibility for the Cork community. We had a bright celebratory float and even won the prize for the Best New Entry that year!
I have long been committed to the acknowledgement of the rich history of the Cork community and have published a number of articles about the History of the Cork Lesbian Community. I was also involved in the production of Out and About – a film which provides a historical walking tour of LGBT Cork.
Why are you excited about this event?
I’m excited about the opportunity to improve my digital skills and to improve on the websites / blogs I am developing. I am also excited about the opportunity to do this at an event which is focusing specifically on the LGBT community. Too often I am a lone queer voice at Digital Humanities events and conferences and it will be great to be a queer digital training event. I am also looking forward to the opportunity to network and to share ideas, skills and enthusiasm.
Who/what inspires you on a daily basis?
I am inspired by the early LGBT activists – those who created communities despite huge discrimination and inequalities and who created the space for fun, love and kinship for LGBT people and paved the way for the changes we have seen over the decades.
Follow Orla on twitter and make sure to check out her organization’s site to learn about LGBT history in Cork! If you live in Ireland, you can also meet her in person on September 17th at our Dublin Event.
Photo taken by Donncha Ó Caoimh