By Sean Cahill
The controversy over gay participation in the Bloody Sunday Commemoration march was deeply saddening to me. Most difficult were claims that gay U.S. activists were trying to hijack this issue for a narrow, self-serving agenda. AOH President Thomas Gilligan, addressing a crowd in Derry (and in a speech reprinted as an op-ed in the Echo Feb. 2), said: "There are some who would use your pain and suffering and dilute your cause by claiming a solidarity where none has ever existed." I would like the opportunity to respond to this inaccurate, unfair and mean-spirited characterization.
I also feel the article by Anne Cadwallader on the Bloody Sunday March was incomplete. I was one of the "other gay activists" who marched in the Derry Bloody Sunday commemoration. I wish I had seen Anne that day, as we have seen each other at numerous contentious loyal order marches since we first met witnessing the state violence on Garvaghy Road in the early hours of July 5, 1997.
I respect Anne’s work and think she is an excellent and fair journalist. She is one of the main reasons I buy the Echo each week. I would have told her that we were very respectfully received by the residents of the Bogside, and that we were there to add our voices to the call for justice for the victims of the 1972 massacre as openly gay and lesbian people. We were not there to use anyone or anything.
The three "gay activists" from the U.S. who went to Derry and marched are all deeply involved in solidarity work supporting human rights activists in the north of Ireland. Eileen Clancy first got involved during the hunger strike protests, has been a leader in the Irish Parades Emergency Committee, has organized for justice for Roisin McAliskey and Rosemary Nelson, and made a video documenting the RUC attack on Ormeau residents in August 1999 that was shown to the U.S. Congress last fall.
Since the early 1990s I have worked as a journalist and activist to help free the Ballymurphy Seven, to educate people on the causes of conflict in the North, and since 1994 have worked with Peace Watch Ireland, organizing delegations, conferences in Belfast and Crossmaglen, and numerous protests in front of the British consulate in Boston. I have been a human rights monitor during contentious loyal order marches in Derry (1996), Garvaghy Road, Bellaghy, Dunloy and the Ormeau Road, all in 1997, and Garvaghy Road in 1998 and ’99. I co-wrote three reports documenting violence in Derry, Bellaghy, and Portadown. I’ve testified in front of the Parades Commission and Policing Commission in both Ireland and the U.S. Many other members of Peace Watch are lesbian or gay. Emmaia Gelman has also worked on a number of campaigns in solidarity with human rights activists in the North, and helped organize Queer Space, the first gay drop-in/community center in Belfast. All three of us have also done work on gay rights issues, both in the U.S. and in Ireland. I don’t think we are that atypical: many gay activists from the States care about human rights in Ireland and many who work on human rights issues in the North are gay.
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So it is wrong to say that there has never been solidarity between activists in the north of Ireland, straight or gay, and U.S. activists who happen to be gay. There has been, just as there has been two-way solidarity between Northern activists and Native Americans, African Americans, South Africans, Central Americans, and others seeking an end to oppression.
I got involved in Irish issues for many of the same reasons I got involved in gay rights activism. In my view both gays and Irish nationalists are oppressed communities that are often misrepresented and demonized in mainstream media and mainstream political discourse. Usually, we are not allowed to speak for ourselves. We are portrayed as aggressors and militants when in fact we are merely resisting victimization and seeking equal treatment. We suffer from discrimination, risk being attacked or murdered for who we are, and are scapegoated and used by politicians. Is there really that much difference between those who murdered Robert Hamill in Portadown, those who dragged James Byrd Jr. to death in Texas, and those who beat Matthew Shepard to death in Wyoming? All three were murdered because of different manifestations of the same pathology: hatred, intolerance, supremacy.
Despite Gilligan’s unfortunate words, I will continue to work to support those Northern Irish activists seeking peace, justice, and national liberation. I draw strength from my friends on the Garvaghy Road and elsewhere in the north who have shown such dignity and perseverance in the face of violence, whether at the hands of the state or the mob at Drumcree. I also draw strength and inspiration from the many straight activists in the U.S. who have provided support for the Irish people and who have welcomed my work in this movement as an openly gay man. I know that Thomas Gilligan does not speak for most people in the Irish solidarity movement in the U.S.
In 1994 as a journalist for a Boston gay newspaper I tried to convince gay Massachusetts voters not to re-elect Republican Gov. Bill Weld, who had a great of deal support within the gay community. One of the things I mentioned was his veto of the MacBride Principles. Many readers complained, "What does discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland have to do with gay rights in the U.S.?" My answer then was the same as it is today: everything.
(The writer is a member of Peace Watch Ireland and research director for the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.)