Out in the World: New Exhibition at the GLBT Historical Society Museum Traces Irish LGBTQ Diaspora

For centuries, Ireland has traditionally been a source of emigration, due to poverty, economic problems, British repression and disasters such as the devastating Great Famine of 1845 to 1849, during which nearly a quarter of the country’s population died or fled. And Ireland’s vast global diaspora has often been a queer one. From American transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman’s Limerick-born lover Peter Doyle, to Stonewall Riots participant John O’Brien, to healthcare pioneer and trans man Michael Dillon, across the generations, Irish LGBTQ people have emigrated and found opportunities to live and love abroad.

In June 2021, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in partnership with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, presented the exhibition Out in the World to document the country’s surprising LGBTQ diaspora. Across six themes – exclusion, community, love, defiance, solidarity and return – Out in the World highlights 12 discrete queer diaspora stories from the vast history of Ireland’s LGBTQ diaspora. The exhibition is now touring select locations around the world, and the GLBT Historical Society is proud to inaugurate its run in the United States at the GLBT Historical Society Museum, where it opened in the Community Gallery on April 28.

We sat down for an interview with Out in the World’s curator, Maurice Casey.

It’s a bit ironic that you developed this exhibition, which is about journeys and emigration, during the COVID pandemic when movement was so severely restricted. What was the process like?

MC: I researched this entire exhibition during lockdown, and all the collaboration and the support that I received from researchers and members of the community abroad, who shared documents and information, was remarkable. I usually travel quite a bit to do research, and despite not being able to do that this time I’ve never had such a strong sense of collaboration and teamwork. I’m keen for people who visit the exhibition to share their stories. “What is your diaspora story?” is not just an Irish question or a queer question: these days it’s possible to be part of multiple diasporas, and I’m interested in the ways people combine their diaspora cocktails, as it were!

This exhibition was first on display in Ireland, and now, in a sense, it is replicating Irish emigration by departing for the United States. How do you think people will respond to it abroad?

MC: I’m looking forward to the reactions of queer Irish emigrants in San Francisco who haven’t had the chance to go back to Ireland, people who haven’t returned since the start of the pandemic, and people who haven’t returned in many years. The show is really about movements in many directions – not just from Ireland to abroad, but people who came back to Ireland as well. And it’ll be interesting to see what those in the U.S. take away from it, how they have perceived Ireland’s own recent political and cultural transformations regarding LGBTQ people. They’ll have the chance to juxtapose those against the development of LGBTQ issues in the U.S.

Do any of the 12 stories in the show particularly stand out for you?

MC: It’s hard to pick a favourite, of course, but the one that surprised me the most was that of Bridget and Chris Morrissey, under the “exclusion” rubric. They fell in love in the 1970s as nuns in a convent in the United States, and much of their activist life together was spent in Pinochet’s Chile. Religious institutions abroad and repressive authoritarian states are not places where one might have expected to find a lesbian love story! The courage and determination that they showed in being the activists that they were, and are, is remarkable. So much of people’s perceptions of what “Ireland” is remains wrapped up in the age-old story of “Catholic Ireland,” and yet even inside that history it turns out that Catholic Ireland has a queer history.

Dr. Maurice J. Casey curated the exhibition Out in the World: during his time as Historian in Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. He is currently a Research Fellow on the Queer Northern Ireland project at Queen’s University Belfast.

Article originally published on GLBT Historical Society website.