Written by Orla Egan
The first ever Irish National Gay Conference was held in Cork on 15-17 May 1981. The Cork Gay Collective, the Cork IGRM, the UCC GaySoc, as well as a number of individuals, came together to organise the conference, brining together lesbian and gay activists and organisations from throughout Ireland, with a number of British and American activists also attending. The basic aim of the conference was “to fulfil an accepted need for a general assessment of the progress of the gay movement in Ireland to date and to consider fresh initiatives for the future.” (Report from Oliver P. J. Cogan, Chairperson, Organising Committee of the Conference – part of a general report on the conference.)
Over 200 people attended the conference, participating in workshops on a wide range of topics. Workshops were held on the following topics:
Gay Identity; Gays and Partition; Gay Archives; Gays and Religion; Young Gays; Gays and the Left; Women’s Workshops; Structures for Development; Gay Rights/Human Rights; Gays in the Media; Gays and the Medical Profession; Gays and the Law; Gays in Isolation; Gay Activism; Gays and the Women’s Movement; Gays and the Trade Union Movement; Disabled Gays and Gays in Education. (!981 National Gay Conference Report.)
Forty-nine motions were passed by the conference. Kieran Rose comments that these motions “set the agenda for the lesbian and gay movement for more than a decade.” (Kieran Rose, Diverse Communities: The Evolution of Lesbian and Gay Politics in Ireland: Undercurrents Series, Cork University Press, Cork, 1994. p. 17)
On the Saturday night a Gala Dance for gays and friends was held in Connolly Hall. This was seen as an important event in its own right. “It was a wonderful night of fun…..It was a unique experience to see hundreds of mixed couples dancing together in a public building. For us this dace was as politically important as the rest of the conference and it certainly was a night to remember for anyone who had attended.’ (1981 National Gay Conference Report)
The importance of the 1981 National Gay Conference in Cork has been acknowledged by a number of commentators. Kieran Rose claims that the “conference made a significant contribution to the development of an indigenous theory and practice of lesbian and gay politics in Ireland.” (Diverse Communities p. 17) Writing in In Touch newsletter in June/July 1981, T. McC comments: “The Cork Conference will, I feel, become to the gay rights movement in Ireland what Stonewall is to the gay liberation movement worldwide. It was not so much the discussions at the workshops or the strategy for the future which we talked about (although these are important) but rather the spirit of unity and the recognition of diversity of view and approach which marks the threshold which we have crossed. The Cork Conference is already the symbol of the unity of the gay movement in Ireland. All gay organisations in Ireland were represented, gay women were working with gay men, major goals of the 80s were isolated and the commitment to work together towards them was made. The conference was a statement about the growing confidence and maturity of the Irish gay liberation movement. Gay men and women have been coming out of their closets for years. Now, in a sense in which it has never happened before, the gay movement is coming out of its closet. The healthy diversity of the movement, the diversity which leads to constructive analysis of our prospects in Ireland, was much in evidence at the conference. The divisions among us, which all too easily divert, did not. The gay community is looking forward.!