Out in the World: GLBT Historical Society exhibit shows the impact of the queer Irish diaspora globally

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday May 25, 2022
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Andrew Shaffer, left, interim co-executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, Catherine Martin, Ireland's culture minister, state Senator Scott Wiener, and Ireland's General Consul Robert O. Driscoll visit "Out in the World: Ireland's LGBTQ+ Diaspora" exhibit at the historical society's museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter<br>
Andrew Shaffer, left, interim co-executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, Catherine Martin, Ireland's culture minister, state Senator Scott Wiener, and Ireland's General Consul Robert O. Driscoll visit "Out in the World: Ireland's LGBTQ+ Diaspora" exhibit at the historical society's museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Irish diplomats came out to the Castro earlier this month to mark the opening of a new exhibit exploring the history and influence of the LGBTQ Irish diaspora.

The traveling exhibit, "Out In The World," shows the importance of, and sheds light on, the untold history of Ireland's queer diaspora and queer Irish people's impact on the world. The exhibit, at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro District, explores six themes of the diaspora: exclusion, community, love, defiance, solidarity, and return. (The exhibit's name is not associated with the Bay Area Reporter's international news column.)

Around the globe, there are 70 million Irish people. In the United States, there are 33 million. In California, there are 2.2 million, almost half as many as there are in Ireland itself, with 5.04 million people.

Catherine Martin, Ireland's minister of tourism, culture, arts, gaeltacht, sport, and media, called Cork and San Francisco "Rainbow cities," speaking at the May 14 event at the museum. (Gaeltacht is the term used to refer to those areas of Ireland where the Irish language — Gaeilge — is still spoken as a community language.)

She noted how the rainbow flag flies over Cork City Hall during its annual Pride celebrations as it does at San Francisco's City Hall during Pride Month in June.

Cork and San Francisco are sister cities. Cork's mayor, Colm Kelleher, visited the historical society's museum earlier this year. Last year, the two cities flew twinned versions of the Progress flag in observance of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.

"The Irish diaspora played an important role in securing this victory for LGBTQ+ rights," Martin said.

"Out In The World" features 12 stories of historic LGBTQ Irish figures and movements over the last 200 years as Irish people left the Emerald Isle. These people left in search of opportunities when poverty, economic crisis, political repression, and natural disasters struck. Some also left to be able to love who they loved because it was not possible at the time to do so in Ireland. Ireland decriminalized homosexuality in 1993.

"Irish LGBTQ people also left because Ireland was not a place where they had a right to live and love openly," Martin told the 30 people who attended the event.

Martin noted Ireland's historic passage of same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015, calling it "a moment of vindication" for the country's LGBTQ people and queer Irish people in the diaspora. She spoke about the "pride" Irish LGBTQ people have because voters overwhelmingly endorsed the referendum.

"For Ireland's LGBTQ diaspora, that day in May was a watershed moment prompting enormous celebrations around the world, including of course right here in San Francisco," she said.

"There's definitely pride for what Ireland has achieved in the last couple of years with having a national referendum on gay marriage," said gay Irishman John Normoyle. "Even before the United States declared it."

He was referring to the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide in this country in June 2015 in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.

Martin was joined by the Consul General of Ireland Robert O'Driscoll, gay California state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and Andrew Schaffer, the historical society's interim co-executive director and director of development and communications.

"It was important to mark this occasion because it is kind of an inflection point for both of our countries, the US and Ireland ... [and] where we are in the world, said Schaffer, a 35-year-old gay man of German and Irish descent.

He continued talking about the speakers' emphasis on "the importance of learning this history at a time when rights are under attack."

"Things are changing. It's all the more important to remember the activism and the battles that we've won, as well as the battles we haven't had," he said.

Schaffer said the exhibit is "a big step" for the historical society. As the American premiere of the exhibit out of Dublin, Ireland, it is a truly international exhibition of LGBTQ history and a "bigger partnership" than the organization usually engages in, he said.

He hinted that due to "some local connections," the historical society is working on infusing the exhibit with San Francisco queer Irish and Irish American voices soon.

Martin was delighted to learn that the historical society was working with Cork's LGBTQ archives. She said she looks forward to more Ireland-San Francisco exhibitions in the future.

The exhibit

Created by historian Maurice Casey, Ph.D., who studies social movements in modern Ireland and abroad, the exhibit showcases the untold history of Ireland's queer diaspora from the late 1800s to today.

EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin produced the exhibit in 2021 when Casey, who is on the Queer Northern Ireland project at Queen's University Belfast, was the historian in residence.

Casey did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment.

The panels cover prominent Irish people as well as queer activists in the LGBTQ movement, such as American poet Walt Whitman and his Irish-born partner, Peter Doyle; John O'Brien, who was part of the Stonewall rebellion; and Robert Rygor, an HIV/AIDS activist who also involved in the decades-long battle for queer Irish people to participate in New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

The exhibit also highlights lesbian suffragettes Eva Gore Booth and Esther Roper, lesbian Franciscan Nun, activist couple Bridget Coll and Chris Morrissey, and health care pioneer and Buddhist monk Michael Dillon, also known as Lobzang Jivaka, a transgender man.


Normoyle, 41, is from County Clare in Ireland and is part of the queer Irish diaspora. He immigrated to the U.S. in 2003, living in New York for a decade before moving west to San Francisco in 2013. He was "surprised" and "thrilled" the exhibit was touring. He wasn't familiar with "most of this history," he told the B.A.R. "I'm glad that this is getting out there."

Dana Stevenson, a nonbinary lesbian, responded similarly.

"I've never actually seen anything that was specifically for Ireland that was specifically LGBTQ," Stevenson, who is of Scottish descent, told the B.A.R., calling it "an incredible exhibit."

Irish American Claire Friel, who was born and raised in the Castro, which was a working-class Irish neighborhood before it became San Francisco and the world's LGBTQ center, praised the exhibit.

"It's a great tribute to the history of the Irish not only in the city but in particular the activism in the LGBT community in Ireland and here in San Francisco," said Friel, who declined to disclose her sexual orientation and gender identity.

"I think it's important for today's community to learn about the history," she added.

Viewers of the exhibit said they hope Bay Area residents and visitors see the exhibit.

The exhibit will run through the early fall sometime, Schaffer told the B.A.R.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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