“Despite marriage equality, this young woman still felt that London offered something that Ireland did not for LGBT people in terms of being open about who they are.”
With his online project telling the stories of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people who left Ireland, and a proposal to the Government to include LGBTs in its Diaspora Policy, Chicago-based Paul Dowling tells John Clarke that people are still leaving Ireland for places where they can live their sexual and gender identities openly.
Although Paul Dowling didn’t fully realise it at the time, when he emigrated to America in his 20s, a large part of the move was about coming to terms with his sexual orientation. Having grown up one of seven children in rural Ireland, he’d gone on to do a Masters in social work, and by the time he left college, he wasn’t out, not even to himself.
“It took me a long time to put down a framework for even considering being gay,” he says. “There were times as a teenager that it started to cross my mind as a reality, but I wasn’t willing to deal with it. What it took for me to come to terms with myself was going away.”
“Looking back, I think leaving was like getting out from under the weight of my own life in Ireland, from the expectations of home. Ireland was better then than it had been 20 years previously, but it still wasn’t a very openly gay place. There wasn’t a lot of visibility in a positive way. So, it was about removing myself from all of that, going far away on my own so I could learn
to be myself.”
Dowling cites leaving because of being LGBT as a common experience among a group of Irish emigrants over the decades, and although Ireland may be considered to be a much more accepting place nowadays, he says it’s still an issue.
“There was piece in the Irish Times last year, written by young woman in her early 20s who had moved to London because she still felt that it was a safe haven for LGBT people to be more open about themselves. She confirmed something for me that I suspected, but had no real way proving. There’s this idea that marriage equality is the pinnacle of equality itself in Ireland, which I think is an exaggeration. Despite marriage equality, this young woman still felt that London offered something that Ireland did not for LGBT people in terms of being open about who they are.”
The story inspired Dowling to create an online project called At Home Abroad, providing a space where Irish LGBT emigrants could tell their stories.
“I like stories,” he says. “I believe they’re a great way of building empathy and creating change. I read something about reclaimed stories, stories that you didn’t feel comfortable about or weren’t able to talk about at the
time. I think a lot of gay people have had that experience, so it’s the idea of being able to go back and reclaim those stories, those feelings.”
With his job in an Irish immigration centre in Chicago, Dowling interacts with members of the diaspora every day, and he believes the experience of LGBTs leaving Ireland has had particular differences and dif cuties.
“Up until the ’80s and ’90s the Irish created these strong communities overseas, which people really tapped into for social, emotional and nancial support. A lot of the Irish communities overseas have been either not welcoming or actively hostile towards gay immigrants, so historically LGBT people couldn’t or didn’t avail of those supports, they didn’t have the same networks or structures. They still struggled even after they left.”
“A man who did some training around LGBT inclusion at the place where I work said something very interesting to me, that the Irish identity and the LGBT identity are seen as mutually exclusive, that you could be one or the other, but not both.”
With this in mind, as the At Home Abroad project began to come together, Dowling’s focus shifted onto the Irish government’s Diaspora Policy.
“The policy was published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in March 2015 and it was the first time ever the government put in writing a policy gathering together their thoughts about how they wanted to engage with the diaspora,” he explains. “It came about at the height of the marriage equality debate, and I think that was a very stark contrast in terms of inclusion. In one respect all the country and the government were talking about the LGBT community and what they should or shouldn’t have, and then if you look at this other area of policy, which was published simultaneously, there is no mention at all of LGBT people.
“They make several references to the diversity and inclusion in the policy, but don’t go too far down any of those roads. It’s important for a country like Ireland, where emigration and leaving are so ingrained in our national DNA, to recognise all the groups that pertains to, and it’s also important to recognise the reasons for leaving, which weren’t always economic. I imagine there are all sorts of minority groups out there, not just LGBT, who left Ireland because it wasn’t a comfortable place to be.”
As an emigrant himself, Dowling recognises the symbolic importance of including LGBT people in the policy. “It would mean something to me that the government of Ireland were putting something in place to recognise people who left because of their sexuality, even in words. In terms of services and supports there is still work that could be done in terms of visibility, and it’s also a way that the Irish community and the Irish government can reach out to extend the hand a little bit further to other Irish populations that typically have not have been comfortable or included under that umbrella of Irishness.”
The policy is up for review this year, and Dowling is seeking endorsement from LGBT organisations in Ireland and abroad for his written submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which calls for the next version of Global Irish to explicitly recognise the many LGBT individuals who left Ireland.
“They must be counted amongst the other valuable components of the Irish diaspora,” the submission says. “Furthermore, recognition must be given to the additional challenges they faced as emigrants.”
It also calls on the Department to support the creation of Irish LGBT social and support networks throughout the world.
“Our experiences as Irish LGBT people, whatever that has meant, all those stories need to be captured too, because it’s part of who we are as a nation,” says Dowling. “It’s about creating a sense of belonging for a vast number of people who haven’t always had that.”