BeLonG To is the Irish national organisation for LGBT people aged 14-23. In conjunction with this year’s LGBT Pride, the organisation are curating an exhibition which opens on 20 June at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar, named Belonging: Irish Queer Youth. The exhibition will document Pride events, advocacy, campaigns to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools, and portraits of LGBT youth since the organisation’s founding in 2003 by Michael Barron. Totally Dublin talked to exhibition curator and artist Kevin Gaffney about the project.
The Irish Queer Archive exists already in the National Library, but there wasn’t a specific archive focusing on Irish LGBT youth. This, argues Gaffney, is a vital aspect of LGBT society to adopt as part of a national dialogue, as part of an archive of Irish national history. Huge changes have been made in legislation, and also in terms of prevailing attitudes to the LGBT community, more still is set to be addressed with the gay marriage referendum in 2015, perhaps it is time for that to be recognised. This exhibition is a celebration of how much positive change has happened for Irish LGBT young people over the past decade.
In Ireland, things appear to be changing. BeLonG To’s national Stand Up! Don’t Stand for Homophobic or Transphobic Bullying campaign, which has been running for five years is now co-sponsored by the Department of Education and is Ireland’s largest schools based anti-bullying campaign. BeLonG To’s work with the Department of Education means that every school in Ireland – primary and secondary – must now legally have policies to combat homophobic bullying and support LGBT young people.
While the image of LGBT youth has changed enormously over the last decade, with LGBT groups for young people set up not just in Dublin but in smaller cities and towns across the country, there remains a certain level of distance. Gaffney suggests that there is still a lot to achieve, both in urban and rural areas: “We still need to move from mere tolerance to genuine acceptance.”
LGBT rights have always been a contentious issue in the media. Gaffney predicts that with the 2015 referendum will come not only positive dialogues, but also an outpouring of homophobic and transphobic opinion. He sees the exhibition – the visual representation of LGBT young people – as a “positive, open, exploration of people”, and as a powerful tool in targeting negative perceptions of marginalised groups in the media. There is a section of the exhibition dedicated to portraiture, allowing young LGBT people to truly express themselves on their own terms, to portray themselves entirely how they wish to be seen. Images documenting young people participating in Pride also promote such celebratory self-expression, a confidence that attitudes toward the LGBT community have improved exponentially, and will continue to improve. Gaffney expresses the hope that the exhibition will highlight the context of this progression, and also encourages viewers to connect personally with the images.
The exhibition also explores young LGBT society and culture from a political angle. Some images address the political progression of gay rights, such as former Irish President Mary McAleese meeting with LGBT youth groups, Gaffney explains how he looked for moments of significance that would show the changes in perception. The willingness of the government to engage in dialogue about these issues is a positive sign of progression. Gaffney says, “We hope it is now becoming a more visible topic, when I was growing up, young LGBT people may as well just not have existed”. There is a clear desire in the exhibition to portray both personal representation, and more national, media-based images.
The images from the exhibition will subsequently become part of the National Photographic Archive. Now LGBT young people will join this database of Irish Social history, documents of a national museum, and enter an educational context alongside the Irish Queer Archives.
We finished on the topical note of last week’s Eurovision Song Contest, in which Austria’s contestant Conchita Wurst won by a significant margin. This would not be news, if Wurst were not a bearded drag performer christened Thomas Neuwirth. Eurovision is hardly The Hague, yet such a display of liberalism in the wake of recent restrictions placed on the LGBT community in many European countries is an encouraging precedent for progress and tolerance. Gaffney notes Europe’s role in the progression of specifically Irish LGBT rights, in terms of pushing for legislative change on civil partnership. Perhaps it is a positive premonition of future progression. We close on a positive reflection; even if people are utterly baffled by the appearance of a bearded drag queen on national primetime TV, at least they are asking questions and opening a conversation. With each step, the LGBT community becomes less invisible.
Please see the BeLonG To website for more information.
Words: Laura Francis