West-of-Ireland LBGT organisation OutWest celebrates 20 years
OutWest – a voluntary social and support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the west of Ireland – formed 20 years ago, four years after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993.
With same-sex marriage now legal in Ireland and the country now having its first openly gay Taoiseach, one might assume the landscape for the LGBT community on the Emerald Isle is all the colours of the rainbow. However, the work of OutWest is still vital in reaching out to members of the community, young and not so young, and helping them to deal with coming out as gay to friends, family and loved ones.
Chairperson of OutWest, Cathy Blake, explained that the group, which was known as Roscommon/Mayo Outreach back in its infancy, holds regular meetings that provide a chance for people to come together to chat, have fun and relax without the fear of harassment.
Cathy describes herself as ‘an ally’ of the LGBT community.
“I’m a mother of two gay children. My daughter, who’s just 40 now, would have had a terrible time back then, not feeling that she could even discuss this with us … She left home, went to college and didn’t complete [her course] because of the difficulties she faced in college.
“Talking to people around that age group, a lot of people still do leave the likes of Mayo and move to cities, Galway, Dublin, where they can be anonymous, because it’s so difficult,” she explains.
Though a lot has improved, problems still exist, Cathy says. “We have a huge issue of people living in rural areas who are not out and feel very very isolated. They can’t be themselves because they fear isolation and discrimination from the community they’re living in. That’s still very much a factor today.”
In 2002 the group decided to set up a helpline, getting it up and running in 2003. To this day it remains one of the organisation’s biggest achievements.
The helpline operates every Thursday evening, from 8pm to 10pm, and though the organisation runs events only for people aged 18 and upwards, the helpline takes calls from all ages.
Carrick-on-Shannon-based member John Murphy tells The Mayo News that the first event run by OutWest was booked as a 21st birthday party.
“It [homosexuality] was only just legalised and it was still in the shadows, not talked about. We had to be very selective in what we’d say to venues. Most hotels were sound, but you wouldn’t know. We relied on hotel workers to let us know ‘This hotel is gay friendly’,” explains John. This eventually changed, he says, when the the hotels came to realise the value of the ‘pink pound’ and the revenue that they could reap by welcoming gay events.
Asked about the organisation’s goals back in the early days, John admits that legalising same-sex marriage was seen as a ‘long shot’ back then.
Way to go
Now, two decades on, the organisation can look back on a functioning helpline, gay marriage and Mayo’s first gay pride, which was held in Castlebar last summer. Still, all is not rosy-pink – when it comes to full acceptance in society, there’s a long way to go yet.
“Mayo Pride was successful, but you also have to think of the people who can’t walk down the streets of Castlebar,” says John.
Referring to Ireland’s Same-Sex Marriage Referendum and Australia becoming the latest ‘Yes’ country, John cautions that these breakthroughs can be a ‘double-edged sword’ for some.
John currently lives in the only Irish constituency (Roscommon/South Leitrim) that voted against same-sex marriage, and he points out that while, at 40 years of age, he’s comfortable with being gay, other gay people walking around Carrick-on-shannon might be thinking, ‘Do these people not like us?’.
“On the ‘No’ side, there is so much negative stuff; if you were fearful [of coming out] it would have driven you back.”
On the plus side, John believes that with changing perceptions, most people can now identify with a member of the LGBT community, as more and more people feel confident enough to come out. “If there’s not one in your family, there’s a relation or someone you know. People can have their beliefs, but not judge.”
Asked about OutWest’s future goals as those involved take stock of the last 20 years, John laughs. “It’s something we’ve all talked about … 18, 19 years ago we said that if OutWest does its job right we’ll do ourselves out of a job, because there’ll be a safe place for everyone wherever they go.” So until society fully embraces and accepts the LGBT community, and its members feel safe and viewed as equals, OutWest will keep on doing what it does best: providing support, with pride.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, OutWest will be holding a birthday and Christmas party on Saturday, December 2. The celebrations will take place in the Ivy Tower Hotel, formerly The Welcome Inn, where the organisation held its 10th anniversary, with a disco to follow in Mantra. For more information, contact 087 9725586.
For more on OutWest, visit www.outwest.ie or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call its helpline on 094 9372479, where you can speak to one of its trained volunteers. Ireland’s national LGBT Helpline is 1890 929 539.