Gay culture has gone from the margins to the mainstream in Ireland, with surprising results, writes Gerry McCarthy
Half man, half woman, Decko & Charmelle is a drag act with a difference. One person, not two as the name might suggest, the left side of his body is done up like a woman while the other half is male. Swivelling left and right, he carries on a surreal, transgender conversation with himself.
Like Shirley Temple Bar, Decko & Charmelle has emerged from the demimonde of the Alternative Miss Ireland show, an annual celebration of gay style that shows just how much it has been absorbed into the mainstream.
Until recently Ireland had no gay culture worth mentioning. Homosexual acts remained illegal long after other countries had liberalised their laws. Gay ghettos in the larger cities were small and cliquish, looking abroad for their models of gay liberation. Outside Dublin and Cork the image of the lonely, isolated rural gay was very much a reality.
In Joe Comerford’s 1987 film, Reefer and the Model, Ray McBride played Badger, a gay character. His life is seedy and dangerous, picking up young men and routinely being beaten up in pub toilets. In the film he is an outsider, a reject from mainstream society.
But things have changed. Mainstream society has embraced its other half. The affluence of the 1990s saw a gay culture emerge: proud, defiantly out, comfortable with all forms of sexuality. It was as if the old repression had never existed. These days the love that formerly dared not speak its name is both eloquent and voluble.
Films such as Elizabeth Gill’s Goldfish Memory — a complicated tangle of romance between gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and straights — depict the confidence of this new gay scene. Another, Cowboys & Angels, shows that the new dispensation is not limited to Dublin and Belfast, nor is this culture limited to gays.
So popular has gay style become that some are openly nostalgic for the bad old days, when at least they had the scene to themselves. Now heterosexual couples are getting in on the act: women urge their boyfriends to be a little bit more “gay”, to spruce themselves up and embrace the notion of the body beautiful. Gay culture has long put a premium on physical beauty: now the straight world wants more of a share of the action.
Gay characters — many of them stereotypes — pop up on television. RTE’s glitzy but two-dimensional urban drama series, The Big Bow Wow, screened earlier this year, featured Chris McQuarry as Eric, a typically promiscuous and witty television gay. When another character calls him “an English queer”, he remonstrates. “Don’t ever call me English again,” he says.
In the world of reality television, Irish gays have been to the fore. The lesbian former nun Anna Nolan has forged a telvision career from her appearance in Big Brother. Subsequently, Kildare man Brian Dowling also emerged as a Big Brother winner. Dowling, gently camp and nicely articulate, became a favourite with the television audience. He epitomised the kind of gay man you could introduce to your granny — good manners, well spoken, no tiresome double entendres or leather thongs.
On the other hand, Cork-born Graham Norton is no shrinking violet: his television shows specialise in outré behaviour and camp mannerisms. But he too has reached an audience far beyond the traditional gay ghetto.
The mainstream, it seems, can deal with both nice and not-so-nice versions of the gay male — as long as they’re Irish.
This uniquely Irish take on gay sexuality is highlighted in the Alternative Miss Ireland competition, now 10 years old. A documentary about its first decade, A Bit of the Other, will be screened as part of the forthcoming Outlook film festival. Formerly known as the Dublin Lesbian and Gay festival, Outlook has been rebranded to reflect the way in which gay culture in Ireland has sprung out of the closet.
The Alternative Miss Ireland took its cue from the similarly titled Alternative Miss World based in London, but it quickly asserted its Irish identity.