An interview with the republican LGBTQ activist Seán Óg Garland from Belfast on the need to combine the struggle for national and LGBTQ liberation in Ireland.
RNU: Seán, can you tell me who you are and what your politics are?
Seán Óg Garland: I am a republican, and I have been involved in republican politics since I was eight years of age. I first started working on election campaigns in Andersonstown and attended demonstrations and did political activities.
When I was 13, 14, I discovered that I was gay, and I came out as gay and became involved in the gay rights movement. The first LGBTQ group that I was a member of was the ‘Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association’, which was NIGRA. It took its name from the ‘Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association’. There were many people involved in NIGRA that were former civil rights activists, and there was also a former political prisoner actively involved in the campaign. But because they were a bit older than I was, there was some conflict over the way to do things.
Then I went to university in London when I was 18, and I came across Peter Tatchell, who was an international gay rights campaigner. I got involved in his group ‘Outreach’, and it educated me in civil disobedience and direct action to achieve political aims and objectives.
One of the things that I did do was when I came back to Ireland that I formed a group called the ‘Irish Queer Solidarity Society’ with a couple of feminist activists and NIGRA members. We made a banner that said: ‘Gay Brothers and Sisters Come Out!’ We carried this banner at a republican demonstration on the Falls Road in the late 1990s, early 2000. We did this in solidarity with the republican ideology, and we got actively involved in solidarity campaigns with republican groups. We did this because if we want LGBTQ liberation, we must support Irish liberation. That means that we believe in gay liberation through national liberation and national liberation through gay liberation. That was the agenda of the ‘Irish Queer Solidarity Society’.
RNU: How did you become a republican?
SG: I grew up in a republican family. My grandfather was a republican prisoner. He was in the Old IRA. I grew up in a house where you heard about Tom Williams, you heard about the IRA campaigns in the 40s and the 50s. You grew up as a young child, and you were asking questions why these men (British Army) are wearing guns, why they stop me, why they empty my school bag onto the street, why they empty a bottle of water over my school books, why they are harassing a defenceless child? Why are they here? What right do these soldiers have to stop you? You question all these things in your own mind.
Then you grow up, and you realise that you have uncles in Long Kesh. All my father's relations were political prisoners in Long Kesh. So, my family is a very old republican family. I grew up in this situation. The news was always on the television. I was very happy to grow up in West Belfast because we spoke a lot about other struggles, the African struggle, the Palestinian struggle. So, you learned to understand that you are part of an international struggle. Then I started to go to demonstrations, and they were attacked by the RUC. It was then that I really understood that we are people who struggle for freedom and our rights.
RNU: How did you become involved in republican politics?
SG: I was first actively involved in the Republican Youth and later for a short time in Ógra Sinn Féin.
RNU:You remember that your group produced and carried a banner in support of LGBTQ people at republican marches. How was the banner perceived? What as the reaction?
SG: I was very surprised by the reaction. Because the very first time we did it, we were very nervous because we didn't know what way the people will react to us. If they are going to attack us or if they will ask us to leave the demonstration. But they didn’t, and I was quite surprised. There were hundreds of people standing beside and passed by the march, and they were clapping and cheering us.
There was one incident where a woman who was standing outside the chapel opposite Royal Victoria Hospital had rosary peas in her hands, and she came over. I thought, here we go, she is going to attack us. But she came over and said: ‘Listen, son, I wish my son was as brave as you.’ That was very inspiring, so it was, and we continued to stand up and do more things.
We attended more marches. There was one on Ormeau Road where our members, including myself, where battered off the road and the RUC fired plastic bullets. I had very fashionable shoes at the time, and the RUC pulled off my shoes and threw them over the police line. And that evening everyone was told to assemble on top of the Ormeau Road, and there was a pasting table with everybody's shoes on it. I have never seen anything like that, and I realised then that we are living in a police state. The police are very sectarian; you could see the hatred in their faces. Every time they saw the LGBT banner, they came punching us. In other words, they targeted us for being gay people. I remember the solidarity from the people of the Ormeau Road we got as well. They were defending us. They really welcomed us in their community.
RNU: What happened to the group?
SG: The war happened in Iraq, and we formed a group called “Lesbians and Gays Against the War (in Iraq)”. We were part of the anti-war movement. (...) But sadly the group just dissolved because we didn't have the funding or the materials to keep it going. We were a community-funded group; we funded ourselves. We did collections around the gay bars to get money for banners and posters.
RNU: How was the fundraising perceived in the gay clubs in not nationalist areas when your group was republican?
SG: We were very well perceived, even from gay people in East Belfast. People I would class as liberal unionist knew very well what we were doing and that we were marching on the Falls Road.
RNU: Irish republicanism is often seen as very much male-dominated, machoistic, sometimes considers as homophobic by outsiders. How do you see it?
SG: I would be a fantasist to say that there was no homophobia among republicanism. But I also remember back in the days at Queen's when students were coming from Tyrone or Fermanagh, and they saw gay people, that was sort of shock and horror for them. But it was not just gay people, also people from different ethnicities. Because these students have never seen gay people in their area. I always challenged that in republicanism in Belfast. You also had many great republican women who were feminists and who challenged the sexism in republicanism.
RNU: You said before that gay liberation and national liberation are linked. Can you explain what you mean?
SG: As an Irish republican, it would be hypocritical for me, as a gay person, to call for gay liberation, the LGBTQ liberation, and not defend my national liberation. My identity is Irish republican because I was brought up being an Irish republican and I am a queer person as well. I believe that to have liberation you must stand with other people fighting for liberation. Their liberation is our liberation, and our liberation is their liberation. I want to live in an Ireland in which – that is pointed out in the Irish Proclamation – every child of the nation is cherished equally. I want to live in a Republic that is liberated. I don’t want to live in an occupied, repressive liberation. You cannot just stand for a certain section of liberty. You must defend the liberation of the whole nation.
RNU: You participated in the first Belfast Pride. What role plays progressive politics in the LGBTQ movement today?
SG: Sadly, it came to a situation where it is funded by the state. You have people in the LGBTQ movement today that are in paid positions and fear grassroots activism, fear revolutionary radical activism. That is totally wrong because it is hypocritical.
If you look at the gay rights movement around the world, it came from the Stonewall riots in New York city in June 1969. That was a riot against police harassment. That was a revolution that started the movement worldwide. The bricks that were thrown at Stonewall were thrown for every LGBTQ person throughout the world. I go to Pride today because I was there when it was small, and we were only 40 or 50 people marching there. When it was attacked by the RUC, by Neo-Nazis and other ultra-right-wing people. I do support it from that point of view but oppose the police being there.
I don't think the police should be there when they are still involved in political policing and actual oppression against people. People who come here to make a better life for themselves are being harassed, refugees are being harassed. Political activists are stopped and searched daily and that is totally wrong. I know as being a gay rights activist the police harassment very, very well. I suffered it.
RNU: What was your reaction seeing the photo of Leo Varadkar taking the photo with the PSNI at the Dublin Pride?
SG: I totally oppose him. Just because he is gay doesn’t mean that I have to support him. I oppose this man’s politics, I oppose his right-wing politics, I oppose his conservative politics. I don't think I have anything to identify myself with that man just because of his sexual orientation. When the PSNI was first walking down the gay pride, I think it was two years ago, I made a demonstration. I carried a poster saying: ‘Remember the first gay pride was a riot!’ I moved to the front of the march with the poster and it was broadcasted on television and in the press. I got a good perception. Some people opposed it, of course. But some people were very supportive.
RNU: Some progressive activist would accuse the current LGBTQ movement as ‘pink-washing’.
SG: I criticise the LGBTQ movement myself for the past 5 years. I think the direction it went is wrong. It has lost its radical and revolutionary direction. But I certainly believe that it will come back, and I believe that there are LGBTQ people who are republicans and socialists and who feel rejected by the current movement and the current LGBTQ community.
On that, I welcome the issue of marriage equality and the right to ‘choice’ but I would have loved to see it in an All-Ireland referendum. I would have loved to see people in the North voting for it. I carry an Irish passport and my rights as an Irish citizen were denied voting in a referendum on the issue that affects me as an Irish citizen.
RNU: How can the revolutionary spirit come back to the movement?
SG: You still have queer-bashing, you still have discrimination, you still have repression. That will be fought back against. There is radicalism there. It’s finding the people to come together to fight back. When I go to Derry Pride, for example, it is a very radical pride. It is inspired by the civil right movement and they don’t let the PSNI march on it. Every time I am in Derry, I feel more pride at the Derry demonstration than I feel at the Belfast demonstration because in Derry you march with radical people, you march with political people, you march with people who were part of the civil rights movement, you march with people that were battered off the streets. I have more identity with them.
RNU: As a revolutionary you obviously disagree with the existence of the Northern Irish state. What is your opinion on the introduction of the same-sex marriage bill here in the 6 Counties by legislation from Westminster?
SG: I welcome it because people need equality. People cannot wait for equality. Equality cannot wait for anything. But I oppose where it came from. I would have wanted to vote for it in an All-Ireland referendum. It is not about me as a gay person, it is about people’s rights and what rights they are entitled to. I wanted to vote for it with other Irish people in a 32 Counties referendum. It’s the same thing with pro-choice. I am pro-choice and I have an Irish passport, yet my rights were denied voting in this referendum. I would like to see that marriage equality is given to gay people by Irish democratic means. I don’t think Westminster should dictate these rights. I think the Irish people should be taking these rights. The Irish people came out and supported the gay people in the 26 Counties and it is just sad that it didn’t happen in the 32 Counties.
RNU: On 30 November, there will be a march against violence against women and LGBTQ people in Belfast. What is this march about?
RNU: Why is this necessary? How is life in Belfast for LGBTQ people?
RNU: Why the attacks start again about five years ago?
SG: It is the rise of the political right in Belfast. It's the right-wingers who encourage these things to happen. There were flyers put out around the Sandy Row and Lisburn Road area with very religious and homophobic messages. They were delivered to all letterboxes. We went down and put up posters around the whole the area with slogans saying: ‘Stop Anti-Gay Attacks.’ We fly-posted the whole area. After these flyers were distributed, there seems to be an increase in the attacks on LGBTQ people. I believe the reason is the rise of the far-right in certain areas of this city. That needs to be directly challenged.
RNU: In what areas of the city do you witness a rise of attacks?
SG: The far-right operates in unionist and loyalist areas, they don’t operate in nationalist and republican areas as you know. They try to recruit disaffected members of loyalist paramilitary groups. They blame refugees, LGBT, feminists. There was a great right-wing influence in the Flag protests (in December 2013), too. It was during the Flag protests that right-wingers started with these anti-LGBT leaflets.
RNU: As socialist and as republicans we think in class terms rather than in national terms. There is also a progressive tradition in the PUL community, small and very different to the republican tradition, I am thinking of the likes of the NILP, PUP, etc.
SG: The PUP isn’t very progressive.
RNU: They claim to be progressive.
SG: But they are not. They are right-wing, they are sectarian. If they are progressive, why are they backing the DUP in North Belfast? Why are they not standing against Nigel Dodds? He is an anti-choice person, an anti-LGBT person. And the PUP has given their full support to him. That is not progressive politics.
RNU: How is the support from republicans for LGBTQ issues today?
SG: A few years ago, Cogús republican prisoner Connor Hughes wrote a letter in support of LGBTQ people from his prison cell in Maghaberry. That was welcomed by everyone in the LGBTQ community. People were very grateful. Derry Pride thanked for his solidarity from the platform on Guildford Square. I sent a copy of the letter to the Lesbian and Gay Archives in San Francisco. That solidarity is a wonderful thing. The letter was later published in the Andersonstown News.
I need to point out that there were different factions of republicanism that supported Pride for many, many years when no one else did. And it was supported by smaller republican groups long before constitutional nationalists even took on this issue. It is important for republicans to get involved in these social issues because the whole history of the movement is about fighting for equality and fighting for liberation.