In honour of World AIDS Day on December 1st, David Monaghan sits down with activist, archivist, and journalist Tonie Walsh, whose work in the LGBTQ+ community spans over 30 years.
TONIE WALSH has been involved in LGBTQ+ activism since the early 1980s, and has been a prominent figure in developments made within and outside of the community since that time. He was foundational in the evolution of the Hirschfeld Centre, a Dublin-based meeting place for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community, and the National LGBT Federation (NXF), a non-governmental collective designed for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. Alongside Catherine Glendon, he also became one of the founding editors of GCN, Ireland’s foremost LGBTQ+ publication.
Walsh’s interest in activism was inspired and spurred on by his familial ties: “I grew up in a feminist household,” he says. “I come from three generations of feminism. My great-grandmother was the founding secretary and manager of the Gate Theatre. She campaigned for women’s franchise in 1910… Her husband, Hector Hughes, helped set up the Socialist Party of Ireland [in 1918], and would have been a contemporary of James Connolly and Jim Larkin.”
Dissatisfied with the lack of momentum of the early Labour movement in Ireland, Hughes eventually moved to London and became a Labour Party MP for Aberdeen North, a seat he held until his death in 1970. “Politics ran…through every vein of my family,” explains Walsh.
Tonie Walsh speaking as the grand marshall of Dublin’s 25th Pride Parade. Photo credit: Paula Geraghty via indymedia
There has been a history of activism in Walsh’s family, and he has had, in turn, a front row seat to the dramatic, chaotic, emotional and sometimes frustrating narrative of LGBTQ+ progression within the state. He is keen to inform that, like most, he arrived from a place of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding his sexuality. “I came out when I was 19 [in 1979]. I was studying the History of Art and French in UCD… I arrived [to the college] expecting a hot bed of radicalism and I was instantly dissuaded of that… It just seemed like it was coming out of a grim decade. There was no gay presence on campus – Gaysoc [precursor to UCD’s modern LGBTQ+ society] had been founded two years previous — winter 1976 — and it had made some noise before I arrived – but during fresher’s week, it wasn’t staffed.” Indeed, at this time the Gaysoc stand was staffed by Student Union’s Welfare Officer, Brighid Ruane, due to the homophobic environment of the campus.
I grew up in a feminist household,’ he says. ‘I come from three generations of feminism.”
During this period, Walsh was dating a French woman who would later come out as lesbian: “the blind leading the blind,” he jokes. Discovering the Hirschfeld Centre, which had opened in March 1979, became the trigger for his eventual coming out: “I had been having sex with boys all throughout high school, but I just wasn’t ‘out’… I actually did a personal ad – like the Grindr of its day – and this guy came over to my granny’s house in Rathgar. We had a bit of a snog and a fumble, and then he says, ‘do you want to go into this club?”
The club in question was the aforementioned Hirschfeld Centre, which was named for Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish-German sexologist who became one of the earliest proponents of LGBTQ+ rights in the Weimar Republic.
The club became the epicentre for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland, and sported a dance floor, a women’s group, a youth group, counselling services, and a queer cinema club. “I thought it was going to be full of freaks,” says Walsh. “[But] I arrived in the middle of a slow set. It was all just so ordinary and fabulous.”
Within six months, Walsh experienced a complete political transformation. “The lesbian and gay movement was about five years old at that stage… and the [National LGBT Federation] was a part of this second wave of activism, and it hugely appealed to young kids like me at the time.”
Despite this emerging ‘second wave,’ very few LGBTQ+ people had the strength to stand up and speak out, as Walsh elaborates: “Ireland felt like a much smaller world, for a start, and it was! Very few people were living in [Dublin] city centre, the city was derelict, [and] at this time of nascent queer liberation, very few were [fearless] enough to stand up and be counted.” Only a handful of vocal pro-gay activists emerged in this period, including Senator David Norris, and future Presidents of Ireland Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, who with their combined efforts in the 1970s established the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which sought to decriminalise homosexuality in the Republic of Ireland.
While some gay people and their allies were vocal at this time, trans rights as we know them today simply did not exist. Walsh elaborates: “back in 1979… trans identity just didn’t enter our lexicon or our conversations at the time. There was a national transvestite group running from the Hirschfeld centre, but trans identity and the concerns of our trans brothers and sisters just weren’t getting a look in.”
Walsh’s decade-long involvement in the Hirschfeld Centre would later inspire his work on the Irish Queer Archive. The IQA was established in 1997 and is a collection of historical material from Ireland’s queer past, including magazines, posters, pictures, badges and other such ephemera, with a view to providing insight into the social, political and cultural development of LGBTQ+ communities in Ireland. Walsh’s direct involvement with the movement during the decades in question provided him with tangible links to such an expansive history. “We have the administrative records of all the major lesbian and gay groups in Ireland since 1974,” he says.
The Hirschfield Centre in the 1980s. Photo credit: Seán Gilmartin via IQA
Indeed, the archive contains material from the Alternative Miss Ireland contest, the GAZE Film Festival, the Sexual Liberation Movement, the National LGBT Federation, Gay Health Action, GLEN, Dublin LGBT Pride, GCN, and more. Although it contains such a vast collection of material, very little of the IQA’s material has been digitised: “most of it is still in storage in Whitehall somewhere,” Walsh explains.
He continues: “it’s inaccessible [to all but a few, such as] bona fide historians [like] Diarmaid Ferriter… You’ll see us a few of us making noise next year, people like Mary McCauliffe and Katherine O’Donnell from Women’s Studies in UCD, myself, Elizabeth Kirwan who manages the National Photographic Archive – these are people who came together to help find a home for the archive and were responsible for its transferral [to the National Library of Ireland] in 2008. We have to make it accessible [so] people can begin the process of rebuilding, of fitting all the blocks into place that go towards building this historical structure… We only have an incomplete picture of where we are now.”
Gay liberation is the story of survival and hope… It’s the story of people, in some cases, living shitty, miserable lives, and being able to rise about the shittiness of their social and cultural environment, and find a way to better themselves, and better their world for themselves and other people”
The key to promoting LGBTQ+ awareness, Walsh claims, is to be out and vocal: “the way to be a persuader of gay liberation is to be able to stand up on TV, in the media, in the newspapers, [be] out in the streets and say, ‘this is me, this is who we are, we are your brothers and your sisters, your sons and your daughters.” This is the attitude he carried with him into his journalism career in the 1980s. He is one of the founders of GCN, the longest-running LGBTQ+ publication in Ireland, and his beginnings in the field came as a staff writer for Out, Ireland’s first commercial queer magazine, which was established in 1983.
Out folded eventually, owing to a lack of funding: “gay businesses refused to advertise in the gay press, that’s how oppressive and repressive the situation was.” A decision made by the Carlow and Leinster Times, who printed the publication, also pushed the magazine into folding: they refused to publish the penultimate issue as it featured a safer sex ad of two silhouetted men embracing. This was largely because sex between men was illegal at the time.
“There was nothing expressly pornographic about the image, but given the taboo around homosexuality and anything to do with intercourse, the fucking printers had a conniption and refused to print it. You can imagine, our brothers were dying horrible, shabby deaths, and we have a culture where condoms were still illegal, and the government [did not] engage with the reality of what was happening at the time – the Dáil first began to have conversations about AIDS five years after the first people began to die of it.”
Indeed, the first AIDS-related deaths in Ireland were reported as early as 1985, but Leinster House only had its first conversation about the crisis in 1990. “All the time people were dying. There was hysteria in Ireland [among] very worried homosexual and heterosexual people.”
Conversations about the AIDS crisis occur frequently today, but very rarely are they in the context of the European or indeed Irish experiences. Such narratives are made invisible, undoubtedly contributing to the rise of HIV in contemporary Ireland – in 2015 it was reported that there had been a jump of 25% in such diagnoses, with young people being most affected.
The work Walsh strives to do in compiling and documenting indigenous LGBTQ+ history is vitally important to understanding the current problems such communities face: “gay liberation is the story of survival and hope,” says Walsh. “It’s the story of people, in some cases, living shitty, miserable lives, and being able to rise above the shittiness of their social and cultural environment, and find a way to better themselves, and better their world for themselves and other people.”
Walsh continues: “the history of [LGBTQ+] liberation is about how we coped with awful situations: people being beaten up, people being murdered and having [no help], people being kicked out of Garda stations when they went to complain about being set upon by a group of marauding, homophobic thugs in Phoenix Park or somewhere. [It’s about] young guys who were brutally murdered, like Declan Flynn or Charles Self, the RTÉ designer who was stabbed almost 30 times in his own home, and how his murder still remains unsolved because at the time the Gardaí just simply didn’t look hard enough or look in the right places. Dreadful stories of oppression and repression, but out of it there are stories of how we survived, and I think that’s important when we come to look at the problem in our midst right now with rising levels of STIs.”
Between Wednesday November 30th and Thursday December 1st, in honour of World AIDS Day, the Media Studies department in Maynooth University will host ‘AIDS in Irish Media: Art and Activism’ for the second year in a row. On the last day of the event Walsh will launch his new project, the Dublin AIDS Memorial, which runs parallel to his work at the IQA in addressing the gaps left by the erasure of LGBTQ+ narratives in Irish society.
Walsh describes how such an erasure stemmed from blatant ignorance: “I had just turned 25 when people my age started falling ill and dying of AIDS… I stopped counting the number of people I lost at 43… When you went to visit your friends you were expected to put on rubber gloves and masks.”
Gay businesses refused to advertise in the gay press, that’s how oppressive and repressive the situation was
He continues: “the culture of engagement was just infused with hysteria and fear, and massive amounts of ignorance underpinning that fear.” A group of gay men came together in May 1985 to form Gay Health Action. It was the first group in the country to develop a tactical response to the unfolding crisis. Walsh was involved in its early development but had to step back due to other commitments.
“The GHA was responsible for producing the first leaflet on AIDS in Ireland,” he explains. “[They] got a small wedge of cash from the Department of Health, and then went for a reprint. Now remember this was the only [available leaflet on AIDS], the Department of Health hadn’t even produced information at this point, and remember that HIV was a death sentence at the time. The Department of Health balked at producing extra cash [for reprints] because the advice from the Attorney General was that, if they funded a leaflet that talked about male-on-male intercourse, it would be seen to be encouraging criminal activity.”
Tonie Walsh revealed his own HIV status in a Facebook post on December 1st 2015, to commemorate World AIDS Day. In the image he holds a sign that reads, “I’m not proud to be HIV positive, but neither am I ashamed.” He joins fellow activist and friend Rory O’Neill (drag queen Panti Bliss) and former Mr. Gay Ireland Robbie Lawlor in the increasing list of notable Irish personalities who have publicly described living with HIV, in order to help alleviate the lingering stigma of the 1980s.
“I spent what felt like a lifetime… protecting myself, and those around me, and trying to survive when so many of my best friends and lovers did not. I became positive just at the point when I could benefit from the latest developments in antiretrovirals… but I felt fraudulent that I’d become infected and was able to survive. It’s a twisted way of thinking, but unless you’ve been in a situation where you’ve lost a lot of friends and lovers, it’s difficult, and that’s why I want us to begin the process of reconciliation of that period, and that means allowing the stories of the survivors [to be heard].”
I stopped counting the number of people I lost at 43… When you went to visit your friends you were expected to put on rubber gloves and masks.
Walsh continues: “Rory [O’Neill] was one of the first people I told… I became positive ten years ago. I was actually raped.” Rape can have long-lasting physical and psychological effects, with self-blame and guilt acting as two of the most common. Walsh experienced such patterns himself: “I was hugely ashamed… Lesbian Line were doing a mental health weekend in Outhouse a couple of months ago… and they asked me to talk, and I thought, ‘I’m going to talk about the corrosive effect of guilt.’ This feeds into my rational for an AIDS memorial. Guilt, if it’s left unchecked, can hugely damage people. I have lots of scars: I’ve been attacked, knifed [across the face], I have scars on my head… And I’ve found myself in some very weird situations. My first relationship with a man was very abusive.”
Cover of the first issue of Gay Community News (GCN). Founded by Tonie Walsh and Catherine Glendon.
Walsh’s consultant in St. James’s Hospital encouraged him to seek counselling. Instead he chose to talk about it in his own way: “I just sort of blabber at everyone, and that sort of normalises it. There’s a difference between secrets and privacy… Secrets corrode. I was angry… because I was not in control. It’s the classic victimhood that rape victims and abuse victims actually display.”
Sexual and emotional violence affects every community, and LGBTQ+ communities are no exception. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States in 2010, it was revealed that lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience such violence at similar rates to their heterosexual counterparts. The problems for LGBTQ+ peoples are intensified by outside bigotry: a 2016 BuzzFeed article titled ‘This Is What Domestic Violence Is Like When You’re LGBT,’ explains that many LGBTQ+ abuse victims live in fear of being ‘outed’ by their partners, and that many hotlines are not equipped to deal with LGBTQ+ specific abuse. “I want to talk about something that’s not talked about enough,” says Walsh, “and that’s abuse in same-sex relationships.”
Walsh hopes the Irish government will fund his AIDS Memorial project and give voice to countless numbers of LGBTQ+ citizens who died during the crisis. To date there is only one AIDS memorial in display in Ireland: a monument on Buckingham Street in Dublin 1. “That [area] was ravaged by heroin addiction and, consequently AIDS,” Walsh explains, “but to the best of my knowledge it’s the only one in the country.”
‘AIDS and Irish Media: Art and Activism’ will take place on November 30th and December 1st in Maynooth University’s symposium. Tonie Walsh will launch the Irish AIDS Memorial project on the latter date at 3:30pm. The Irish Queer Archives Facebook page can be accessed at https://www.facebook.com/IQAadvisorygroup/
If you were affected by any of the issues highlighted in this article you can reach out to the following:
T: 1890 929 539 | W: www.lgbt.ie
TENI Helpline (Transgender Support)
T: 085 147 7166 | W: www.teni.ie
T: 1850 60 90 90 | W: www.samaritans.ie
T: +353 (0)1 873 3799 | W: www.hivireland.ie
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre
T: 01 661 4911 | E: email@example.com | W: www.drcc.ie/
T: 1890 303 302 | W: www.aware.ie | E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pieta House (Self-Harm/Suicide Support)
T: 01-6010000 | W: www.pieta.ie | E: email@example.com
Mental Health Ireland