Interview by Robyn Ochs
Aoife is a queer bi woman in her thirties, currently living in Cork. She works as a freelance writer and plays roller derby in her spare time. She has a blog, Consider the Tea Cosy, at freethoughtblogs. A year and a half ago, Aoife founded the Bi+ Ireland Network.
R: How did you come to identify as bi? How old were you? Who did you tell? What happened?
A: I was 16 when I first realized I was bi – and also when I came out. In a way, I’ve never been in the closet to anyone but myself!
In some ways I am incredibly lucky. My parents have always had gay friends. I always knew that heterosexuality wasn’t the only option, and I had plenty of lesbian role models. However, as I’m sure you know, that doesn’t necessarily translate to bisexuality!
I have only one clear memory of how I felt before I realized that I was bi. I remember lying awake at night, scared that if I let myself feel something for women, I’d stop liking boys. I knew that I liked liking boys, and I knew that being gay was difficult. Bi simply didn’t occur to me.
Then I hit 16, and a few things happened at once. I became aware that bisexuality was an option (thank you, Brian Molko!). And I developed a giant crush on a girl that, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t explain away as just a close friendship. It took a little while to admit that to myself. But once I had? I told my friends almost straightaway
Again, I was lucky. I was away at summer camp (CTYI – a summer camp for academically-gifted kids). It was a wonderfully open space full of extraordinarily diverse and interesting kids. It was the first place I ever met a lesbian couple my age. I came out to them and within minutes they were giving me my Queer 101 – from Ani DiFranco mix tapes (yes, we still had tapes!) to a tour of the campus queers. It was a wonderful experience.
Of course, it didn’t all go perfectly! My boyfriend at the time didn’t react well. When I came back home, a few of my friends weren’t great about it. But the important people – my close friends and family – were supportive, and our CTYI group stayed in touch all year ’round, so I always had people to talk to.
And of course, within a few months several more of my friends came out too. Living my teenage years in a group of friends where being gay, bi or straight – as well as mono- or polysexual – was absolutely normal is something I’ll always appreciate.
R: What is your religious background, and what impact did this have on your coming out?
A: Like most Irish people of my age, I was raised a Catholic. Again, though, I was lucky. My experiences with Catholicism were almost all very loving. I sang in church choir and prayed with a beloved grandmother. I attended some very diverse schools – a multidenominational primary school, an international school outside Ireland for a couple of years, and a Church of Ireland secondary school that was far more secular than many of its Catholic equivalents.
With one exception (from 12-13 I went through a somewhat more guilt-ridden stage – entirely self-inflicted!), religion wasn’t a scary force in my life. Although I’ve been an atheist for most of my adult life, when I came out I still believed in a god. It made no sense to me that a god would think being drawn to people of different genders was wrong!
Of course, that’s a typically Irish response. While most Irish people do identify as Catholics, most of us ignore the hierarchy completely when it comes to our personal and family lives. Here, religion is more about culture and identity than dogma.
R: Ireland has undergone a dramatic cultural transformation. In May, Ireland had a voter referendum on marriage equality, with 62% of voters casting their ballots in favor of extending marriage rights to all loving couples. What, in your opinion, caused this transformation? Were you part of the #VoteYes movement in your country?
A: I could talk for days about this and still have more to say!
Yes, I was part of the campaign and movement, both as a writer and as a campaigner. I don’t want to downplay the part I played – I did everything I could. But the most transformative thing about the marriage referendum campaign was how it was created by tens of thousands of people from all over the country.
Ireland has changed a lot over my lifetime. In a way, the referendum was simply one part of a chain that started with revelations about the Catholic clergy abuses in the early ’90s, moved on to a profound economic transformation in the ’90s and ’00s, was lit by our outrage over our anti-choice constitution after Savita Halappanavar’s* death in 2012, and reached a turning point this May.
I would mark two essential factors in Ireland’s immense cultural transformations over the past twenty years: a generation of young people were not forced by poverty to emigrate and the ubiquity of the internet, which enables us to find each other.
As for the campaign itself? It was the result of years of work, of course. I think that the most important thing that people did was to share their stories. The opposition wanted to create terrifying caricatures of us, but that couldn’t fight against people’s relatives and friends standing up and sharing our everyday stories.
The other thing that happened was that those friends and families were suddenly made aware of what we’d been putting up with all these years! I can’t count the number of straight, cis friends I have who were absolutely shocked at what was being said about LGBTQ people – and at the resigned shrug of our reaction. People from outside our community realized how we were being attacked and they really did come through in defending us. It was a horrible and beautiful time, and the result – two-thirds in favor of change! – confirmed that Ireland sees LGBTQ people as part of our society, not something separate.
Overnight, same-sex couples holding hands became an everyday sight in our cities. It was a profoundly wonderful moment.
R: You founded Bi+ Ireland Network. What inspired you to do this?
A: I’ve been facilitating workshops for and about bi+ people since around 2008. I travel all around the country to do this. Most of the time, the workshops are hosted by LGBTQ groups in universities and the like.
Before long, I began to notice a pattern. Almost every time, someone would share that this was the first time that they’d ever been in a room with other bi+ people, or that they could feel completely safe sharing that they were bi+. This, sometimes from people who’d been active in LGBTQ communities for months or years!
I had been thinking for years that I wanted to do something about it. In November 2013, after a Saturday workshop turned into Sunday morning coffee that people just didn’t want to leave, I decided to bite the bullet and start a Facebook group for us to keep talking.
R: How many folks are on your mailing list? What kind of meetings or events do you have, and on average, how many folks show up?
A: Back in November 2013, we started with a group of around eleven people from different parts of the country. Today, our discussion group has almost 300 members! And we also have a public Facebook page with over 1,000 likes. We’re called the B+ Ireland Network.
We hold meetups all around the country. We’ve established meetups in Dublin, Galway and Cork, and are working on starting them up in Belfast and Limerick. We’d love to have regular meetups on every side of the country.
Numbers, of course, vary. Because Dublin is the biggest city in the country, those meetups get the highest numbers – around forty people isn’t unusual, and we had over fifty marching with us in Dublin Pride. The other cities have smaller numbers, but it’s not unusual to have ten or twenty people attend.
As well as meetups, we have lots of other things happening. Our online discussion group is a lively space and the heart of our group, with several discussions going on every day. We’re currently working to train facilitators to work with other community groups and educate them about bi+ people and our needs, as well as arranging more events both on- and offline. In short: watch this space!
R: Are bi folks well integrated into Ireland’s sexual minority community?
A: I created Bi+ Ireland because I felt that there was a huge lack of representation and integration for bi+ people in our LGBTQ communities. However, we’ve also experienced a wonderful welcome! We’ve had great experiences of working with Pride and local LGBTQ groups. Lots of people are happy to work with us and delighted to get the chance to learn more about us. So, yes and no. I think there’s a lot of ignorance out there, but also often a wonderful willingness to learn.
And while many organizations are welcoming and helpful, the marriage referendum campaign did bring out a darker side. The main campaigning organizations made a deliberate decision to use the phrase “equal marriage for gay and lesbian people” and to avoid using the word bisexual entirely. Many of us felt a lot of pressure to hide our bisexuality in favor of more acceptable gay narratives. And if we objected, we were seen as selfishly putting forward our agenda at the expense of our community.
It was an incredibly difficult position for the campaign to put bi+ people in, and we’ve never had any acknowledgement of this.
R: Last time I was in Ireland, Bi Irish organized two programs at Outhouse, Dublin’s LGBT Centre: one for bi folks, and another for BeLonG To, the LGBT youth group that meets at the Centre. Is Bi Irish still active?
A: I haven’t heard of Bi Irish doing any organizing for a few years now. I remember going to their meetings, though, back in the early ’00s – as well as attending your workshop in Outhouse! One of the projects I’d love to get to in the future is connecting with the people who ran Bi Irish.
Our community can often suffer from what feels like a lack of continuity. We all feel like we’re reinventing the wheel, because it’s often hard to find out about what came before. I’d love to work on finding those connections and seeing what we can learn from each other.
R: Dublin is Ireland’s largest city, and there is obviously an active bi community there. Do you know of any bi groups in other parts of the country?
A: That would be us! We’re active throughout the country. We’re able to do that because a lot of our focus and community is online. Our organizers live in four different cities (and a town) and stay in touch to coordinate events. The first community that we welcome people into is our online discussion group. This means that we can all work together, having local events as well as a common sense of community. It also provides a space for people who mightn’t be able or ready to attend our events to access community and support.
R: Are you in contact with bi activists in other countries? Do you see a value in transnational activism?
A: Yes and no. I’d love to be more in contact with bi activists overseas! I’m afraid that I’ve largely focused on working here in Ireland, though. Bi+ Ireland is entirely volunteer-run so time’s our most precious resource, and organizing our community locally takes up a lot of it.
I think that transnational activism is incredibly important. It means that we don’t feel like we’re reinventing the wheel. We can learn from what works for others and adapt it to our own situations. Also, we all often feel isolated, and it’s wonderful to know that you’re part of a diverse and vibrant worldwide community.
R: Any last words?
A: I think I’ve had no shortage of words so far, so I’ll leave it here!
*Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old woman who died in Ireland after being repeatedly denied an abortion for a miscarrying fetus.