Queer Ireland is Here, Catholic, and Standing its Ground

Brown curls flouncing, one hand gripping her tiny waist, the other poised on a Win, Lose or Drag spinning wheel, Miss Bunny O’Hare confided to the audience of the George in a dulcet tone, “I’m just a bad Protestant.”  Instantly, the plaid, leather, and denim-bedecked collective became her confessors – a kind of democratized confessional, the edge of the stage a screen between herself and a pastoral ministry clutching Guinness and G&Ts.

Miss Bunny O’Hare performs at The George in Dublin. Opened in 1985, 8 years before homosexuality was decriminalized, it is one of the oldest LGBTQ bars in Ireland. Photo by author

She didn’t qualify her statement, but while she strutted the stage in a ruby leopard print dress accosting a quartet of self-identifying Australian Lesbians to participate in the game, I lingered on her confessional divulgence. Her assumption that the audience of Dublin’s most iconic gay bar immediately understood her admission made me wonder if its logic could be similarly applied to Roman Catholics, who make up nearly 78 percent of the Irish Republic.
If we know what makes a bad Protestant, I wondered, what makes a good Catholic?
The answer to this question is currently under construction in Ireland.
Pope Francis will visit Dublin in August for the World Meeting of Families – the first papal visit to Ireland since John Paul II in 1979.  Held every three years, this international Catholic event discusses, meditates on, and celebrates the modern Catholic family. The last meeting took place in Philadelphia as Ireland was becoming the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, with a whopping 62 percent in favour.
For Ireland at large, pressing questions about the inclusion and recognition of LGBTQ Catholic existence at this year’s meeting are being asked with great urgency.
In 25 years, Ireland has transformed from a country only just decriminalizing same-sex activity in 1993 to being led by Leo Varadkar, the first openly gay Taoiseach, the chief executive and head of government. Gender can now be legally self-declared and LGBTQ people are protected by anti-discrimination policies.
“The Irish government is very much of the view that there are many different types of families and that all types should be celebrated,” Varadkar told parliament last month in remarks quoted by Pink News, “including the traditional nuclear family with the man married to the woman with children, but also one-parent families, families led by grandparents, and families led by same-sex couples.”
This shift in policy and treatment of LGBTQ people is exceptional for a country whose legislative governance has been historically bundled tightly with Catholic doctrine, which, in the language of the Catechism, upholds the belief that same-sex attraction is an “objectively disordered” condition.

International drag icon, Miss Panti Bliss, owns Pantibar in Dublin. A drag performance space and LGBTQ dance club, it is open to all, seven days a week. Photo by author.

Rory O’Neill, otherwise known by the stage name, Miss Panti Bliss, and Ireland’s most famous drag queen and gay activist, hails from County Mayo, a dyed-in the-wool Catholic region where Marian devotional statues abound and the visit of Pope John Paul II is enshrined in local memory. Sitting as Rory during our meeting at Pantibar, his LGBTQ bar in Dublin, O’Neill reflected on Ireland’s transformation while two wiry Jack Russells stirred in our laps.
He recalled the hardship of being gay in his Catholic school years when homosexuality was still illegal, but remembered fondly performing drag in 1980s Dublin, in a Dame Street club called Sides.
“I like drag to have fangs,” he quipped.
Hobbling down Dublin’s cobblestone streets in platinum wigs and neon platform shoes then was transgressive, discombobulating, and an assertion of queer existence.
O’Neill recently accepted an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin, the equivalent of a knighting ceremony in the Republic. For him, the honor confirmed the Irish public proudly claim Panti Bliss as theirs, signaling the substantial impact of two decades of major attitudinal change.
Global exposure of the decades-long clerical sexual abuse scandal spread in the early 2000s, rattling the Republic as a Catholic stronghold especially hard.  In a nation where priests formerly held intractable power over their parishes, the scandal ruptured the hierarchical stratification of the Church. As parishioners grew more suspicious of their local leadership, pews emptied of their devout, from rural County Sligo to urban Dublin.
Without their parish priests evoking the statutes of canon law, parishioners found it easier, in the words of human rights activist and barrister, Bill Shipsey, “to take an independent view of being gay and what that meant.”  Landmark human rights cases such as those led by Senator David Norris or involving Lydia Foy brought LGBTQ existence to the fore.  For the first time in the Republic’s brief history, Irish Catholics were freed from the gaze of their clerical superiors and had to reconcile their position on human rights with cultural and confessional precedent.
But the horror unveiled by the systematic protection of abusive priests did not stop the Irish from being Catholic. “It’s in our blood,” one Irishwoman said in the Alex Gibney documentary on the crisis, Mea Maxima Culpa.
Now that divorce is legal, abortion is on the table, and gay couples can wed and raise a family, the Irish are reconsidering what it means to be Catholic.
“There is still a deep spiritual sense among many people,” said Ursula Halligan, former political editor of Ireland’s main independent television station, TV3, who came out in an article for the Irish Times ahead of the same sex marriage referendum of 2015. “But people are lost. They’re looking for a leader. They’re looking for an alternative voice.”
O’Neill remembers Halligan’s bravery as a watershed moment. “She’d come out to the whole country before she’d come out to herself, in a way.”
A voice familiar to the Irish public for more than 30 years, her story personalized the suffering of queer Catholics. She quoted from her diary at aged 17, in which she said falling in love with a girl at school had made her think about death. “At times I feel I am talking to nothing, that no God exists,” she wrote as a teenager. “I’ve never felt like this before, so empty, so meaningless, so utterly, utterly miserable.”

Scrawling on the walls of the lavatories at The George in Dublin. It reads, “You’re here, you’re queer, don’t live in fear.” Photo by author

More than four decades later, she serves as a core member of for We Are Church Ireland, a group of Irish Catholics advocating for equality and justice in the Church, especially women’s ordination and LGBTQ inclusion.
“When I came out, I said I was a person of faith and a Catholic,” Halligan explained, sitting close to me on an emerald velvet couch in Dublin.  “I wasn’t leaving the Church. I’m not going anywhere.”
The marriage referendum, for her, was just a starting point.
“I knew me and my Church,” she said. “We still had a bone to pick with their theology.”
“So when the WMF appeared…I thought, ‘How are they going to handle this? Am I going to sit quiet and allow them to treat LGBT people the way they do, which is erase them from the picture?”
For her, it was no accident the World Meeting of Families chose Dublin as its 2018 venue.
“I think it’s a reassertion of power,” she said. “It’s a pushback from forces inside the Vatican and around the world to reclaim traditional family values.”
Michael O’Sullivan, who works for The Missionary Society of St. Columban in justice and peace issues and is one of the Catholic representatives for the Dublin City Interfaith Forum, disagreed.
“If you’re looking for a pope to draw some lines, he’s not the pope you bring,” O’Sullivan said. He articulated a hope in his community that Pope Francis’ visit will be consistent with his message of the extension of pastoral care to all forms of love.
Even though same-sex marriage contradicted Church doctrine, O’Sullivan said the referendum released a sense of positivity and a collective agreement among the Irish that granting equal rights to LGBTQ people was a moral obligation.
“You know, we often talk about the secularization of the world,” he said. “But there was something sort of religious about what was happening.
“People were finding a chance to express some values that had been perhaps, suppressed.”
Halligan also invoked religious language to describe the referendum. Older people were “going through their own conversion experience,” including her own mother, she said, “relieved to throw the yoke of old Ireland off their backs.”
O’Sullivan noted that most clergy and people who had taken religious orders in Irish missionary and parochial circuits were comfortable including LGBTQ people in their community.
Colm Holmes, another core member of WAC Ireland, made a discovery in January that seemed to confirm O’Sullivan’s contention.

Advertisement for the World Meeting of Families 2018 at Maynooth Seminary. The seminary has a reputation of students involved in sexual activity using the gay dating app, Grindr. Photo by author.

Thumbing through parish programs for the WMF published by the Irish Catholic press, Veritas, he found five photographs of same-sex couples along with words that invoked Pope Francis’ emphasis on ministering equally to all sexual orientations.  Four thousand copies were distributed globally but the messaging of inclusion was absent from subsequent copies, Holmes said.
Yet many Irish parishes are still using the original version and Dublin organizers have not issued instructions for them to be returned in Ireland, he noted.
“We don’t believe it was here in Dublin that the decision was made to pull those photos,” Holmes said. He and others at WAC Ireland believe the decision may have been taken as a result of pressure from North American churches.
In Ireland, the Association of Catholic Priests, and Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick, have advocated for the inclusion of LGBTQ families in the meeting and denounced the excision of the photographs from the pamphlets.
Further evidence of this tension can be found in claims of censorship of a one-minute section of catechetical video featuring Bishop David O’Connell, the Irish-born auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, California. An early edit of an “Amoris: Let’s Talk Family! Let’s Be Family!” video series included a one-minute segment in which he referred to same sex couples as parents – but according to WAC Ireland was later removed.
“Pope Francis…he gets it,” O’Connell said as he discussed the changing face of Catholic families, which included “a gay couple raising children.”
It is hard to discern exactly who stands where in the Catholic Church on the issue, but O’Sullivan said the removal of gay couples from the pamphlet “really shows you where the Church is.
“The fact that they were in it in the first place, I think, represents the majority of where Catholics are,” he said. “The fact that it was taken out, I suppose, represents where the hierarchal church is.”

Wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary in the Chapel at Maynooth Seminary. A seminal figure in Irish Catholicism, she is perceived as the penultimate model of pious behavior. Photo by author

O’Neill, Ireland’s ruling queer icon, offered the reaction of his mother, whom he described as a thoughtful Catholic, and that of her brother, a Catholic priest, as examples of changing attitudes. Still living in County Mayo, she goes to mass every day and cleans the church every Tuesday. When he and his brother came out as gay, it was difficult for her at first, he said, but it was his uncle who told her to get over it.
“She’s a classic a la carte Catholic,” he said of his 83-year-old mother. She turns off the hierarchy like a radio of religiosity when she wants to, especially with respect to women and sexuality, he added.
It seems that in Ireland today, a good Catholic is a person who respects the integrity of the lives of others, as demonstrated by the resounding success of the marriage referendum, the resistance of WAC Ireland, the original pamphlet materials and video, and the refusal of the Irish Church to cast them and the people they recognize aside.
Their stories point to an Ireland where the right to define who is and who is not a Catholic is no longer reserved for the ecclesiastical authorities of the Church.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Halligan said of LGBTQ Catholics in Ireland.
“This is our home as well.”