The struggles and experiences of gay men in an Ireland which criminalised and vilified them for generations is chronicled and remembered in a new multi-media collection of artworks which opened in Cork on Monday.
“Before the Rainbow ... and After” saw 10 men of differing ages, nationalities and ethnicities participate in a nine-week collaboration process of shared conversation and exchange with UK artist Mark Storor and creative producer Claire Ryan to bring their stories to life.
The collaboration was commissioned by Gay Project in Cork and co-ordinator Ailsa Spindler said the work was about providing a voice for the somewhat “lost generation” of older gay men who have lived through challenging periods of personal and social change.
Spindler said the online exhibition, with its focus on “coming out”, was particularly timely and socially significant given that next year marks the 30th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.
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“Coming out is a phrase often heard in the LGBTQI+ world, but it means many, different things. At its simplest, it involves telling someone that you are gay or queer. Coming out can also involve revealing one’s innermost feelings ... which takes strength, courage, and resolve.”
“The men who have participated in Before The Rainbow ... and After have demonstrated their strength, their courage, and their resolve to show how it feels to be an older gay man living in Ireland in 2022.
“The result is a celebration of their lives, which acknowledges the struggles they faced growing up in a society which demonised and vilified them and shows how they have flourished as Irish society has become more accepting and inclusive. We salute these men, and thousands like them,” said Spindler, adding that for the men who participated in the project “it has been a transformative experience for many of them”.
Spindler said that they hoped the project would have a resonance for thousands of other men who identify with the issues and experiences that it explores and that it will open up new ways for all those others to express their own experiences.
Among those to feature in the project is David McCarthy, a retired An Post worker, who has been an active member of the gay community in Cork since the 1980s, but was not openly gay until he took part in the project. “I thought I’d be hiding everything for the rest of my life but now I’m not afraid to express myself ... It was like being reborn, I’ve opened up to the world now and I feel very happy in myself. I’m wide open, I am in flames,” he said.
Another participant, Will Kennedy (65), who has been a gay rights activist since 1994 and has been living with HIV since 2007, told how when he joined the Defence Forces in 1988, it was still illegal to be gay in the army. However, when this changed in 1999, he came out and from 1999 until 2011 when he left the army due to a cancer diagnosis, he was the only “open and out queer man” in Collins Barracks in Cork. After completing a BA at University College Cork, he now works for a nationwide LGBT helpline. He said that something of particular concern to him is that some the negative issues and problems he encountered throughout his lifetime, such as issues around body image within the queer community, still exist for younger gay men today.
DJ Lindley Walsh said his experience of the project was extremely positive as there was no pressure to get involved with anything he didn’t want to while he also found it very engaging as it brought everyone together as a group as they discussed their politics, experiences and the gay movement.
“I think older gay like me are slightly overlooked so it’s great that the focus was on this group, and it would be great to have another art project or forum going forward that brings the older and younger generations together and looks at the history of the gay movement.
“The younger generations of gay men are definitely benefiting from the heavy lifting of older gay activists but there’s still a lot of work to be done and the younger generation certainly shouldn’t rest on their laurels.
“They need to be aware of the counter-gay movements and sections of society but having an organisation like Gay Project is a huge asset in Cork, it helps keep you connected to the community, offers support and keeps you involved.” Before The Rainbow . . . and After is available to view online at GayProject