“I can’t see how a group that has been, and is still marginalised can judge women for their actions. How can you identify as LGBT and at the same time think that a woman can be shamed into taking her problem out of the country and be ignored and shunned by society? It makes no sense. Given that you had to make a choice to come out, that you had to identify yourself to others; it’s a similar process which for many people is traumatising”. Cian O’Brien is Artistic Director of Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Here, he speaks with masc about the intersection of the movement for LGBT equality and liberation and the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
A few hours before our conversation, in a symbolic and performative act of “defiant compliance”, Cian painted over Maser's immediately iconic Repeal mural upon receipt of a threat from the Charities Regulator that the organisation risked losing its charitable status if it continued to publicly take a position on a political issue. As many quickly asserted, the situation perfectly encapsulated the sorry state of affairs in Ireland as far as issues of bodily autonomy, sexuality, and womanhood have been concerned: to cover up rather than meaningfully engage.
Cian describes his feelings following that morning's events, and the substantive issue at hand: "Project doesn’t have a stated point of view on anything but art. The crux of this issue around Maser’s mural is that this is an artist’s idea, it’s about giving a voice to an artist who had come to us through a process".
He continues: "[In painting over the piece], I was standing over my decision as Artistic Director, as responsible for the work being there. I got emotional when I marched back into the building. I found it sad to paint over the mural and that has nothing to do with the referendum. Obviously, the mural has lots of different meanings for lots of different people but, for me, it was about the art and the fact that art can be silenced like that. The Charities Regulator is defining what art is and what art isn’t and that’s a very dangerous situation”.
We turn to discuss the parallels between the LGBT and women's liberation movements. For Cian, they connect beneath the “Catholic shadow” that has defined this country’s approach to social issues for so long. One which denies “freedom of choice and freedom of acceptance” and still finds expression today, it is underpinned by “a fear over what bodies do to each other and what bodies do to themselves” and compelled by a sense of “public ownership of the body”. For LGBT people, it relates to the policing of who we love, who we have sex with – and how. For women, it is defined by a desire for control that is grounded in a reductive conception of who they are – or who they should be. Either case is an attempt to deny an individual’s agency and to undermine their bodily integrity.
Cian continues: “the private shame that is still inflicted on women today [that they must leave their own country in order access basic healthcare] is so awful. Meanwhile, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that LGBT people did everything in private and still kind of do". This sense of historical "exclusion that LGBT people – some or all or most – have felt is definitely something [women] who are fighting for their autonomy can identify with – in some way, shape or form”.
Although Cian grew up in a liberal household with feminist parents, it would be a little later in life before he would have direct personal experience of the Eighth Amendment: "[I] didn’t really have adult female friends until college or after college. It is not until then that you really start to think about the reality of living and how you want to live your best life. One of my friends had an abortion in her early twenties. That was the moment for me when I realised the reality of it: ‘how is she going to get there? Who is going to go with her? How much is it going to cost her? How did she find out?' All the real, hard stuff". This situation continues to repeat itself; affecting sisters, daughters, granddaughters, nieces, wives, girlfriends and friends – fellow citizens – now, and will into the future unless the Eighth Amendment is repealed.
With that in mind, Cian brings the conversation back to the aftermath of the marriage equality campaign when many sensed the abortion referendum would be next on the table: "A lot of my female friends were like, ‘well I went out for you so you better go out for me’. And that’s fair. That feeling of sympathy and empathy for other marginalised people is definitely real. Although it’s a more complex argument, the success of the marriage equality campaign has prepared people. There are so many young people engaged politically, engaged in canvassing, there are groups mobilised. It feels like the ‘training’ that came with that campaign has been really beneficial. Together for Yes is a classy campaign compared to the anti-choice side. I just hope it works”.
Postscript: Further to the above, this writer's own opinion is that to be LGBT and anti-reform with regard to women’s access to basic reproductive healthcare is a contradiction of terms. To be able to enjoy the act of living with your LGBT identity while supporting the retention of the Eighth Amendment is to deny the compassion, empathy and solidarity – expressed through resistance and action – that has historically been afforded by women to the LGBT community in order to achieve its ends. On May 25, repeal the Eighth. Ensure you are registered to vote here.