Cork gay emigrant: No longer living a silent and secret life

Togher woman Collette O’Regan’s story is told in a new exhibition, featuring the stories and experiences of the LGBTQ+ diaspora, writes CHRIS DUNNE
Cork gay emigrant: No longer living a silent and secret life

Cork woman Collette O’Regan and wife Toni

BACK in the 1970s and ’80s, Ireland was no country for LGBTQ+ citizens, and many of my own peers living in the west of Ireland went off to the ‘Big Smoke’ to ‘come out’.

Ireland was still in the shadow of the valley of the squinting windows and the Catholic Church was hand-in-hand with the law of the land.

“In my age group people went abroad or to Dublin to come out,” says Cork woman Collette O’Regan, the fifth of seven children, who grew up in Togher and who is married to Toni.

“Having 12 or 14 children in Ireland back then was the norm!” says Collette, laughing.

“No-one batted an eye-lid!”

Not everyone was welcomed into the Irish fold.

“Most people went to London, rakes of Irish lesbian and gay people who’d go back into the closet when they were going home for Christmas. They’d settle over there then and never come home really.”

Going to secondary school in St Al’s in the ’80s, Colette played basketball and camogie. She liked school.

“There was a mix of nuns and lay teachers teaching there,” she says. “I didn’t mind school.”

She went to UCC to study French and German, and the Erasmus year when she could travel to Europe, held the promise of new horizons for Collette.

“It seemed to be a way out. Back in 5th class, I recognised who I was. The onset of puberty at the age of 11 or 12 is an important time for all of us.”

What did she recognise?

“I recognised that I got butterflies in my tummy around girls in my class and around boys too; but mostly girls.”

Times were different then in comparison to the previous generation..

“I think the ’40s and ’50s were the cruellest times in Ireland to be gay or lesbian,” says Collette, who is Senior Training and Advocacy Co-ordinator with LGBT Ireland.

“People kept it hidden. They internalised it. They were invisible. They thought they were wrong because of the times they lived in and because of social conditioning.

"Most LGBTQ+ people felt inside that there was something wrong with them. The inner struggle was very difficult. Accepting themselves proved a struggle. There was a very strong Catholic influence in Ireland.”

At 52, Collette considers herself lucky to be part of the LBGTQ+ community in the Ireland of today. This became the first country to approve same sex marriage by popular vote on May 23, 2015, when 1.2 million people voted in its favour.

So are things different and better now for lesbian and gay people in the Ireland of today?

“There’s a perception all is fine now since 2015,” says Collette.

“But we have many outstanding equality and inclusion issues. We also have many invisible LGBT+ people still very afraid to show who they are and live their true selves.

“This is particularly true of older LGBTQ+ people, most of whose lives were lived in a very hostile homophobic and transphobic Ireland which lasted well into the 1990s and 2000s.

“It’s really only since 2015 that the veil of stigma and shame has been lifted somewhat and so we have massive catch-up to achieve as a country in order to be able to say LGBT+ people in Ireland are truly equal.

“Our education system needs to deliver a holistic, inclusive and mature RSE curriculum which opens up understanding and acceptance for LBGTQ+ people and the rest of their classmates from a young age, thereby making it very ordinary that everybody is not the same. And that’s fine.

“Health and social care systems need to become more inclusive in their practice, especially older people’s services where older LGBTQ+ people remain so invisible due to their fear of negative judgement.

“Same sex family rights need to be fully enacted, along with rights of children in those families.

“Transgender healthcare needs to be fully available in Ireland in a timely fashion so that Trans people don’t need to travel abroad for treatment currently unavailable in Ireland.

“We also need to remember that LGBTQ+ people are part of every ethnicity so we need to pay particular attention to those who face multiple layers of discrimination and invisibility like LGBT asylum seekers living in direct provision and LGBTQ+ Traveller and Roma people. There is still so much to do!”

The couple on their wedding day.
The couple on their wedding day.

WORKING ABROAD IN THE 80s

After returning from Europe, after school, Colette went to Nigeria, for development work, where she discovered a different landscape to Ireland.

What did she do when she swapped one closet in Ireland for another closet in Africa?

“No way was I going to Nigeria in the 1990s to come out,” says Collette. “I felt I just swapped the closet.”

She hid in the closet for a long time.

“It took 30 years for me to tell my family. That was my 30th birthday present to myself. My parents were very supportive.”

The year 1992 was another important one in Collette’s life.

“I arrived in Nigeria in 1992 when I achieved a dream of mine. The moment I stepped off the plane; I loved it.”

It was not a place to come out of the closet.

“Definitely not!” says Collette.

“You’d take your life in your hands. It was a way you were not allowed to be. This was a much scarier closet than the one in Ireland.”

Was not revealing her true self stressful for Collette?

“Life was stressful, yes,” she says. “My work was very worthwhile and I focused on that. Staying silent and suppressing my true self seemed like an injustice though.

“I avoided situations that were stressful for me. That was my way of dealing with it. It was not a normal way to live.”

Many people were living in this way.

“Many LGBTQ+ people lived a secret life, living their lives under wraps.” says Collette.

“They didn’t do anything about it. Avoidance was silencing a part of yourself.”

LIVING IN DUNDALK

Arriving at another point in her life, when she came to live in Dundalk, Collette found working in a community development role and in cross-border communications opened up new avenues for her.

She found her tribe.

“Dundalk Outcomers, a social and support group for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, had started in October, 1997,” says Collette. “I was so meant to be here.”

She wasn’t in the closet anymore.

“It is so important to reach out to community.”

Things opened up.

“The referendum lifted the shame and stigma for our families,” says Collette.

“It was a proud moment for everyone. It created the perception that everything was going to get a lot better; even though we have a bit of catch-up to do.”

Collette O’Regan and wife Toni.
Collette O’Regan and wife Toni.

GETTING WED

Collette and Toni married each other in 2017 in a beautiful ceremony at Dundalk Outcomers. 

“It is a sacred place for both of us,” says Collette.”

People laughed and cried with joy for the couple.

“My parents cried as I was doing something they never imagined possible for me.”

Collette is living her true life as her true self.

“As a married lesbian; it’s a good place to be. The LBGTQ+ community is strong and it is having a positive impact on society.”

Collette’s life, evocative of one gay emigrant experience, is one of many in a new exhibition looking at the Irish Diaspora experience through the LBGT+ lens. What was hidden and painful in the past is now more out and well worth examination.

Emigration is part of the Irish story and Out in the World, Ireland’s LGBT+ Diaspora aims to tell a more complete and inclusive story about emigration by documenting the extraordinary lengths people went to seeking love, recognition and security.

“It’s a wonderful exhibition,” says Collette.

“And it is really important. So many people left Ireland; I think that is really sad. Those who had money came home. Irish lesbian and gay people never came home where they had to pretend.”

The pretence is over for Collette O’Regan, who has found her tribe and who has found happiness.

FEATURING IN AN EXHIBITION

Collette’s story features in Out in the World; Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora, an exhibition which runs at Epic, The Irish Emigration Museum, at Custom House Quay, Dublin, until December 1. The exhibition is also on display at Irish consulates and embassies worldwide, collecting stories and experiences of Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora.

The exhibition is staged in partnership with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

The exhibition highlights 12 stories under six themes — ‘exclusion, community, love, defiance, solidarity and return’ which were chosen as they speak to significant parts of the Irish LGBTQ+ experience.

The exhibition is diverse, with stories from the 1800s to the present, detailing experiences from England to India and Chile.

Some of the stories included are of of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation (ILGO) which was founded in a Japanese restaurant in New York city in 1990; the Brixton Faeries, a gay theatre troupe based in the UK in the 1970s; and an Irish participant in the Stonewall riots

This exhibition is a remarkable opportunity to learn about a past which hasn’t been publicly acknowledged or recognised in mainstream Irish exhibitions or history.

Dr Patrick Greene, CEO and Museum Director, says: “We research, collect and share the stories of Ireland’s diaspora through exhibitions, education and engagement in person and online.

“Out In The World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora is a unique vantage point you won’t get anywhere else.

“This exhibition is a chance to understand Ireland and its influence around the world through our LGBTQ+ emigrants, what they brought with them, and their influence on the world.”

Out in the World was developed with the consultation of Queer Culture Ireland, a LGBTQIA+ culture, heritage and art group of which EPIC is a founding member. The exhibition was researched and developed with the consultation of various international Irish diaspora LGBTQ+ groups and LGBTQ+ members of the diaspora.

See https://epicchq.com/

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