Oisin McKenna takes a look at queer activism today and republican activism in the past in his new show Gays Against the Free State. James Beggan sat down with him to find out what’s what.
Okay so, you’ve done a show at Fringe before – GRINDR – a love story, and you’ve done Write/Performer/Salesman, both back in 2013. Is this your first show since then?
Yeah this is my first show since then, so it’s been three years, the show that I’m making now took way longer to make than those ones before. I felt like with the other two shows I did, they were about my own life whereas this isn’t at all. The subject matter is quite dense and I needed to know a lot more about it so it took way longer to make. It’s really different as well so it was harder to make, yeah it took a while.”
Did you have many people helping out with this one compared to the last one. Are there more moving parts?
Yeah definitely, way more. In terms of the cast, there are five people in this whereas with my first show was just me and the second one had two people. Then there’s the bigger production team as well, production manager and stage manager, more design people. Before it would’ve been quite small with maybe six people on the whole thing.
This in general is bigger, my other work felt quite intimate, introverted kind of, but this is really maximalist. There are parts that are self-consciously tacky, any time i had an instinct to go bigger or make a point in a more confrontational or inflammatory way, I did that.”
So you did really well with the funding, why do you think it resonated with people?
I think it being the year of the centenary, and also a year or so on from the marriage equality referendum – i think there was a little discomfort for a while after it with voicing any dissenting opinions about how the referendum was managed but those are starting to come to the fore now, there’s an appetite for increased dialogue around that which i think was suppressed for a while, except in more radical queer spaces. Also, the catchy title: Gays Against the Free State! Haha. I’ve gained a good core following and get great support from people too.
One of the first things you see about the play is that it’s about reform vs. revolution, what do you mean by that? What are you linking into there? I guess those two things, whether reform or revolution, which of those is a more effective way to make change or a more equitable way that benefits more people or do more lose out by either one of those. That’s a question that occurs across lots of different kinds of activism, it happened in 1916, with stuff about home rule vs. armed insurrection, or later on with the pro and anti-Treaty.
The same thing happens in queer politics, in terms of like, assimilation vs. liberation. Initially marriage equality vs. civil partnership, but also whether marriage equality is a good thing or whether to completely opt out of that system and build something new.
I guess those two things revolution or reform are like poles that happen in a lot of activism and how you negate which of those is more effective and better and fairer.
The first thing I kind of thought of was reform being linked to the marriage equality referendum and comparing that to 1916 as the revolutionary example. But would you say there was a clear divide between reform and revolution just in terms of marriage equality and queer activism?
“I think, the conversation around it, marriage equality in a lot of public discourse was just accepted to be like the good thing, and it is a good thing in lots of ways but it’s still problematic and the campaign was problematic as well. I think there wasn’t, dissenting voices against marriage equality that were aired in the public discourse were all religious conservatives. There wasn’t really queer dissenting voice with any space in the public conversation.
Part of what this show wants to do is disrupt that narrative a little bit. Not saying marriage equality is bad, but allowing for, or accepting it to be more complicated than that. It’s possible for all these things to be true at once.
The Oireachtas Retort site had a long piece about the referendum and the discourse around it, it highlighted something said by the political director of G.L.E.N. about the campaign not wanting the word homophobe to be used at all, and people that did use it wouldn’t get the chance to speak in public again. Varadkar said LGBT people are their own worst enemies sometimes when it comes to that. The writer made the point that queer experiences were just being engulfed by a heteronormative vision for capitalist society.
Yeah, totally, and really desexualised as well. The entire campaign focussed on this insistence that it was about love, and it’s not necessarily about love. All of that discourse that happened was about respectability politics as the way to create change, it’s kind of just accepted in the mainstream now as the definitive, correct and legitimate way to win public support and to make a social change.
Lots of people are applying that rhetoric to the Repeal the 8th, pro-choice stuff in terms of policing the tone of women who are actually affected by it and telling them not to be too loud, to be polite about it, to be respectful. So yeah, I think that’s a really negative hangover from the past year.
Is that something you address, maybe show the downfalls to it or alternatives?
Definitively, the show kind of is a staged queer prime time debate between reform and revolution. It ultimately does advocate against respectability politics and it’s pretty explicit about that, yeah it’s pretty direct.
I guess the other thing I was interested to see what you see what you thought of was the more queer political demands that may have been suppressed a little bit, or maybe what could’ve flowered?
I think because of that very normative version of LGBT that the referendum presented, and considered representing itself that way to be necessary to its success, that pushed other different kinds of queerness to the margins so particularly stuff around different ways of organising relationships, different ways of organising family structures, polyamory, less normative sexual practices, less normative gender presentations outside a gender binary, all of those identities i think were pushed to the margins. Also the acceptance that there are multiple kinds of queer people and not all of them are white, middle class urban lesbians and gays and that there are numerous ways of experience oppression as a queer person, for instance a queer person in direct provision or from the Travelling community will be experiencing it in lots of different ways and the marriage equality referendum didn’t, the way the discourse was around then didn’t really accept or didn’t really allow space for all of those things to be true. I think what the play ultimately advocates for is increased solidarity between mainstream queer activism and other forms of activism, a broader more intersectional approach while also celebrating what queer alternatives could look like.
A more disruptive kind of liberation?
Gays Against the Free State is on in the Smock Alley Theatre Boys’ School as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival from September 21st to September 24th. You can book tickets here.