LGBTQ+ emigration stories: Then and now

Ireland has a long history of emigration. But stories of the LGBTQ+ people who felt compelled to leave in search of a more supportive climate are rarely heard.

These emigrants often headed for large cities, like London and San Francisco, where people were more tolerant and local LGBTQ communities thrived. But, sometimes, simply being anonymous in a new place far from home was enough to feel free.

These hidden stories are just starting to come to the fore. Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora is one exhibition bringing this rich history out into the open.

A 20 year transformation

Until relatively recently, Ireland wasn’t a welcoming place for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

It was slower to decriminalise homosexuality than many other western countries and changes to the law only came into force in 1993. This was much later than England and Wales, for example, which did the same in 1967.

However, things are different now. In 2015, Ireland became the first country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote – and it did so with a significant majority. That same year, Ireland also introduced ground-breaking gender recognition legislation based on a self-determination model. It was only the fourth country in the world to do this.

Ireland’s attitude toward the LGBTQ+ community has completely changed and this affects the stories told by its diaspora.

Then…

When Rory O’Neill – aka Panti Bliss – emigrated in 1990, his reasons for leaving were entwined with his identity as a gay man. In Ireland, he struggled to find other gay people and he never saw them represented in the media. So he decided to leave.

“I ran out of this country because, at that time, I strongly felt that I would never be able to make a home here. I never felt that the concept of Irishness was elastic enough to stretch around someone like me,” explains O’Neill, who features in EPIC’s exhibition.

He travelled through Hungary, Russia and China before landing in Japan where he began to perform on the Tokyo club scene. This was where he made his debut as Panti Bliss. As one half of a drag duo, she was no longer alone.

During his time in Tokyo, O’Neill dreaded bumping into Irish people. In fact, he actively avoided them. But, in 1995, when he returned home for a visit, he realised Ireland was changing and decided to stay.

“The great changes that have come to fruition over the years started in my absence,” he says. “The feeling was that the definition of Irishness was… able to stretch around someone like me.”

Upon his return, O’Neill became a vocal LGBT campaigner. He is among many members of the diaspora who paved the way for change. And, interestingly, he acknowledges the role of emigration in opening the minds of both gay and straight people.

Panti Bliss

Now…

Andrew Walsh and Trevor Weafer, who are both proud members of Sydney Queer Irish, emigrated more recently. Walsh has lived in Australia for 15 years and Weafer for nine.

Unlike Rory O’Neill, neither of them felt pushed out of Ireland because of their sexuality. Instead, they had a desire to travel and ended up enjoying the new-found freedom that came with it.

Walsh didn’t come out to his friends at college until his final year. After spending six months in London as part of his studies at NUI Galway, he felt more comfortable being open about his sexuality.

But, after graduating, he wanted to experience life in a large city where he could go gay bars, clubs and communities and just be himself. So, after backpacking around South Africa and New Zealand, he moved to Melbourne. “Ireland is a small country and you’ve only got one life,” he says.

Weafer emigrated simply because he was bored with life in Dublin. But he also enjoys the independence that comes with moving far from home. “I do feel a lot freer over here, because you don’t have that community where people knew you growing up,” he says.

He moved to Perth at first, but found it difficult to settle in and make friends. So he relocated to Sydney where he quickly felt at home.

“Sydney is a big gay city, it is very flamboyant… a lot more cosmopolitan,” he explains, pointing out that some city suburbs are known for their large LGBTQ populations.

When he first arrived in Sydney, it felt more open and accepting than Dublin. He has even met some Irish people who have come out in Sydney, but not at home. However, since the marriage equality referendum took place, he thinks Ireland is probably just as welcoming.

Weafer, who was in Dublin for the referendum, was surprised by how emotional he found the whole experience. “It was like a big weight had been taken off people’s shoulders because suddenly everyone felt accepted,” he says. “It was like the country had spoken.”

“When they voted yes, I did feel really, really good,” comments Walsh. 

He always thought that if he returned to Ireland, he’d have to live in Dublin. But, since the referendum, that’s changed. He feels he could happily live anywhere now. “If they voted no, I would have felt differently,” he adds.

As Vanessa Monaghan of the London Irish LGBT Network puts it: “It was about voting for more than equal marriage, it was about voting to ensure we were validated and that we belonged.”

Learning from these emigrant experiences

Ireland’s changing attitude to gender and sexuality means less people have to leave the country to truly be themselves. Members of the diaspora may feel more welcome too, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll return.

Both Weafer and Walsh have settled down in Sydney and are unsure what exactly the future holds. “There’s always going to be a push-pull factor,” explains Walsh.

However, Ireland has begun to welcome LGBT migrants from other countries. According to a report by the National LGBT Federation, many of them come to pursue work, education or relationships. But 10% said Ireland’s acceptance of LGBT people was behind their decision to move here.

Some of the migrants surveyed faced homophobic attitudes and sometimes even violence in their native countries. But more than half of them also feel excluded from Irish society.

Share your story

The exhibition Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora features contributions from LGBT emigrants like Rory O’Neill and Vanessa Monaghan. But anyone can share their story.

The exhibition features both physical and virtual storyboards where anyone can leave a message. These will appear online and in future versions of the exhibition. They may even become part of the display at your local embassy or consul.

EPIC’s new exhibition Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora is on display until December 1st. Entry is covered by admission to the EPIC Emigration Museum. Book your tickets or share your story online.