How the Irish LGBTQ Community Came Together to Fight for Abortion Rights

And why that fight serves as an important lesson for activists everywhere.
March 15, 2017, 4:00am
Irish drag queen Panti Bliss. Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

From the Compton's Cafeteria riots to decades of pride parades, drag queens have always been champions of political activism. It's hardly surprising, then, that queens were instrumental in Ireland's battle for marriage equality, helping to cinch the 2015 vote to legalize same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment. The charge was led by Panti Bliss, an Irish queen who was sued for calling anti-equality campaigners homophobic on national television and later delivered a viral speech about the reality of living with homophobia that won her international acclaim.

Bliss brought the battle for marriage equality into theaters, nightclubs, and drag shows; alongside a rising class of activist queens, drag culture played a decisive role in securing a marriage-equality victory by engaging Ireland's queer youth.

But amid criticism that old-line activist movements suffer from a lack of intersectionality, what happened to Ireland's newly politicized queer youth next should serve as a lesson to organizers around the world. Because after the LGBTQ community's stunning political victories in 2015, the political vacuum in Ireland's gay clubs has been filled by the movement to repeal the country's Eighth Amendment, which prohibits abortion.

It's a common complaint that gay and drag culture can be misogynistic and exclusionary; gay clubs are often said to disregard non-male segments of the LGBTQ umbrella, specifically women. Those criticisms are echoed in complaints about everything from our mainstream media to our dating apps—a regular reminder that gays can be as misogynistic and racist as straight men, making intersectionality within our politics sometimes feel like a distant dream.

Drag, specifically, is often criticized as an exploitative act, in which cis men don stereotypes of femininity and parody the very real oppression women face without ever being subject to it themselves. (Case in point: A Glasgow pride parade banned drag queens in 2015 for their potential to give rise to transphobia and misogyny, though the ban was later rescinded after widespread criticism.)

While some segments of the gay community are certainly worthy of that criticism, the reality on the ground in Dublin today tells a different story, where a symbiotic relationship exists between gay club culture and the politics of queer and female liberation.

Bliss, of course, has used her political mantle to play a role in the shift, expressing her vocal support of and fundraising for the campaign to repeal the Eighth. And the gay community has followed her lead in getting behind abortion rights: PrHomo and Mother, two of Dublin's largest gay club nights, held fundraisers for the movement in 2016. GCN, Ireland's national gay magazine, dedicated the September 2016 issue to it, in which many Dublin drag queens (including Bliss) posed in REPEAL shirts and wrote supportive editorials. And in a repeat of tactics that proved so successful in pushing the equality vote, the LGBTQ community is using its spaces—clubs, theaters, and other areas—to fight for women's rights, a tentative sign that the gospel of intersectionality has been heard.

As Bliss herself puts it, campaigning for an issue that's ostensibly closer to the hearts of straight people than non-straights is essential because, well, it isn't."Gay rights and women's reproductive rights boil down to the same thing: bodily autonomy," she said.

The work of "clubs and queens to help fundraise for the Repeal project came from us feeling we all had a personal obligation to use our platform in any way we could," said Dublin-based drag queen Pixie Woo. "Women—both gay, straight, cis, and trans—played a giant part in the success of the marriage equality referendum; it's vital that we show the same dedication in return."

That support has spilled out of the clubs and into the streets. While it can't be solely attributed to an increased LGBTQ presence, attendance at Dublin's annual March for Choice skyrocketed from approximately 5,000 the year before the marriage referendum to more than 20,000 the year after, undoubtedly due in part to the politicization of young gay people after the vote.

"Support from the LGBT community is making a huge difference," said Una Mullally, a prominent Irish journalist and leading activist for both marriage equality and the abortion rights movement "Not only in terms of fundraising but also in terms of solidarity. The most important thing in activism is to know that there are people there who will stand with you."

Faced with the unique prospect of having another, adjacent issue to grapple with after marriage equality, forcing us to confront our duty to women, non-binary people and trans men more directly than ever before, the Irish LGBTQ community presents a path forward for global LGBTQ politics.

The offering up of gay spaces historically criticized as hotbeds of patriarchy for use in the battle for reproductive rights is deeply symbolic. It indicates a move toward a sharing of resources and platforms between marginalized groups. When gay community leaders, magazines, and clubs take a stand for reproductive rights, they decentralize their own voices and acknowledge the struggles of women, non-binary people, and trans men, recognizing their duty to them as allies. It signifies a shift toward genuine intersectionality, and in that turn, we'll find an essential lesson: If we don't lift one another up, we won't have a leg to stand on.

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