LINC (Lesbians in Cork) celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Its establishment in 1999 added another necessary choir of voices to LGBT activists in Cork.
Decades before the marriage referendum in May, 2015, where Irish people voted in favour of marriage equality for same sex couples, and July, 2015, when the Dail passed the Gender Recognition Act which provided for the legal recognition of a person’s preferred gender, members of the LGBT community were actively campaigning for recognition and equal rights and tackling discrimination faced by members of their community.
The history of the LGBT community in Ireland is a long, rich and resilient narrative. The Cork branch of the Irish Gay Rights Movement was set up in 1975, 18 years before homosexuality was decriminalised. The group aimed to reform the laws relating to homosexuality, change misconceptions and remove the stigmas regarding homosexuality.
Cork’s first gay centre opened on MacCurtain Street in 1976. It provided a social and community space for members of the gay community.
The first Cork lesbian meeting took place at this centre in 1978. A specific lesbian social and community space was deemed necessary as the centre in MacCurtain Street was geared towards the needs of gay men in Cork.
The 1980s saw a significant increase in gay and lesbian activism in Cork. The first Cork Gay Pride events were organised in 1981. In 1983, the Cork Lesbian Collective was formed. Women met every Thursday night in Loafers bar on Douglas Street, providing lesbian women with a safe and identifiable space to chat and socialise.
A helpline called Cork Lesbian Line was set up in 1985. This was an important support and information resource for lesbian women in Cork because many of them faced isolation and discrimination because of their sexuality.
The ’90s saw the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Until 1993, sex between men was deemed a criminal offence under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This law did not explicitly criminalise sex between women, but LGBT people were negatively affected by it as they faced discrimination and misunderstanding by the general public.
In the ’90s, the LGBT community became more visible due to the relentless work of LGBT activists around the country in the preceding decades. Members of the lesbian community felt that a Cork lesbian and bisexual centre was necessary. A group called Cairde Corcai was set up to explore this idea in 1999 and Cork’s first lesbian centre was opened that year on George’s Quay.
The centre moved to Princes Street in 2000 and its name was changed to LINC. LINC is currently based on White Street where staff, volunteers and members of the community continue the work of the women that went before them.
Kate Moynahan has been the CEO of LINC since 2013 but has been involved with the service since 2005. She has been an activist for LGBT rights since she came out in the early ’80s.
Kate said that in Cork there was always “a community here and a community of women activists. LINC was built on what women had been doing over the years. We have built on what has gone before.”
LINC provides “a space where a woman can be with other lesbian and bisexual women and feel totally safe and can be herself”.
“The woman that comes through our door is the most important to us. It’s important that she gets whatever support she needs,” said Kate.
Marian O’ Sullivan started visiting LINC in 2003. Now aged 65, she came out when she was 49.
Support and encouragement from the other women at LINC helped Marian to come out to friends and family.
She said: “It took me a while to tell people. I met my partner and being with such a wonderful woman made it hard to stay in the closet.”
Coming out allowed Marian to start life as the person she “really is”. She explained why it took her so long to tell people she was a lesbian and how the support from women at LINC helped her.
“I was a child in the ’50s and ’60s. What was said to us in school and church affected me. You absorb those messages. I didn’t understand that until I went to LINC. It was the first time I really understood how we absorb negativity from our surroundings and society.
“If you are told that something is bad or sinful, it makes you feel like there is something wrong with you.
“Coming out is so personal. Everyone’s circumstances are so different. The beautiful thing about LINC is they don’t pressurise anyone to come out. That’s not their role. They are there to support people when they are ready to come out.”
Sandra Carroll is a volunteer at LINC and a member of the steering committee. Like Marian, she waited a long time before telling people she was a lesbian and came out when she was 31 years old. Now age 51, she has been attending LINC for more than 15 years.
She said: “I knew when I was young that I was attracted to girls, but I didn’t know the word ‘lesbian’. I heard the term ‘lesbian’ when I was a teenager, but I remember thinking ‘that’s not me’, because at the time, it was deemed ‘wrong’ to be like that. I think I struggled with my sexuality when I was younger because I was ashamed of it. I wasn’t a God-fearing Christian, but we were taught that it (homosexuality) was a sin.
“My parents wouldn’t have judged me that way at all. I came from a very progressive family and my parents were very open-minded, but I still found it very difficult to come out.” Sandra describes LINC as “a home away from home”.
She loves working as a volunteer because “I love welcoming people to LINC. I remember how hard it was for me to go in there initially. The first day I came to LINC I lasted 20 minutes and didn’t go back for a few weeks.
“Now I am like a permanent fixture in here. It is an incredible place and there is something here for everybody.”
As well as providing support and information to lesbian and bisexual women, LINC runs a plethora of social activities and clubs such as for soccer, walking, creative writing, book club and an adventure club.
Kamila Walazek is 24 years old and has lived in Ireland for over four years. She started attending events at LINC in 2016 and is an active member of LINC’s drama group, as well as a volunteer.
She said: “The reason I moved to Ireland is because I couldn’t be myself in Austria. My parents found it difficult to accept in the beginning that I am gay.
“I came out to my parents nearly three years ago. LINC helped me, especially the women from the LINC drama group. They are my family here.
“Without them, I probably would have moved back to Austria and remained in the closet.”
While Ireland has become a more tolerant and open-minded nation over the decades, Kate explained that work still needs to be done and that LINC’s services are as vital now as they were two decades ago.
She said: “There have been huge changes in the last twenty years. Ireland voted in favour of marriage equality and we are a beacon for the rest of the world, but we cannot be come complacent. There is still a lot to be done and a lot could be taken away.”
“Transphobia is rampant in this country. Health services for trans people aren’t great and an awful lot more services are needed. We run parents’ groups for parents of LGB children.
“Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) run a group from our premises for parents of trans kids.”
LINC are aiming to help improve the health and wellbeing of all women in Ireland who identify as lesbian or bisexual.
“We have asylum-seekers coming into LINC who are lesbians and who have had to leave horrific situations in their own countries. They come to Ireland to look for refuge and safety. That is a huge piece of work that we are only starting to get stuck into.”
Kate said: “There have always been LGBT people, but how many older lesbian women do you see? They are out there but a lot of them married into heterosexual marriages and had children because that was the ‘norm’. There is still a need for visibility (for older lesbian women). If people see others come out, they may think they can do it too.”
Kate said “the work is never done” and that LINC will continue to support lesbian and bisexual women and members of the LGBT community long into the future and advocate for them.
She encourages women who feel that the LINC staff and volunteers might be able provide support and friendship to them to “come in”.
She said: “Come in for a chat. Come to one of our activities. I’m sure that there will be something here for you that will make you feel at home.”
Contact LINC, 11A White Street, Cork (021) 480 8600 firstname.lastname@example.org