Lesbian Visibility

Brigid comes from a small town in the midlands where she lives with her mother and brothers. She is a lesbian. In her town there are no gay groups or clubs, and consequently, she has no outlet for expressing her sexuality. She describes herself as lonely and isolated.

There are many women like Brigid, living in rural communities through­out Ireland, unable to fully participate in the social life of their town or village, because they feel somehow “different”.

Luckily for Brigid, a friend gave her the number of Lesbian Line in Dublin, and Brigid called. That phone conversation was to change her life. She spoke for the first time to a “real live” lesbian, who gave her the opportunity to chat about herself and her situation, without judgement or interruption. What amazed Brigid about the call was how positive this woman was about herself and her sexual identity.

Dublin Lesbian Line is a collective of seven women who are all volunteers and who staff a confidential phone line for two hours every Thursday even­ing. The aim of Lesbian Line is to provide information, advice, support and referrals to the women who call. It is not a befriending, counselling or pro­fessional advice giving service, although referrals to counsellors and advice agencies can be made where appropriate.

The phoneline is continuously busy during its hours of operation (as are all the helplines around the country) and many women callers complain of not being able to get through. More than 400 calls are logged every year, and the likelihood is that there would be many more if the line were expanded. Unfortunately, restricted resources and facilities mean that expansion of the service is not possible at this time.

In Brigid’s case, Dublin Lesbian Line acted as a point of first contact. For her, the anonymous, confidential aspect of the line was more appropriate than seeking professional counselling or therapy.

Several months after making that initial call, Brigid phoned the line again. She felt she was ready to move forward and make contact with other women like her. The volunteer on call that night gave her the details of “First Out”, a lesbian icebreakers group, and she resolved to go along to the next meeting. Having taken the first big step in contacting Lesbian Line, Brigid was now ready for the second, walking into a roomful of women just like her, or so she hoped!

“First Out” provides women with an opportunity to explore their sexuality in a safe, confidential environment, guided by two trained facilitators who are also lesbians.

While the atmosphere is informal and relaxed, there is a loose structure to the evening, and the facilitators come to the meeting with a theme already chosen. This might be anything from “Coming Out” to “Fears and Expecta­tions of Being Lesbian” to “Myths and Stereotypes about Lesbians”. Often the participants themselves will suggest new themes which can be taken up at further meetings. Every woman is encouraged to give voice, but for those who want to remain quiet and listen, the space is also allowed. Often the facilitators will break the larger group into smaller ones to encourage greater participation from shyer women.

Women come to “First Out” from rural as well as from urban backgrounds. Not only are support services like “First Out” rarely available in rural areas, it is often the case that women prefer to safeguard their anonymity, even if it means travelling long distances.

An average of 10 to 12 women attend each meeting, held on the first Wednesday and third Saturday of each month. Some thought was given to the choice of evenings for these meetings. For women in Dublin it is easier to avoid comment if they can come on a midweek night, whereas for women coming from the outlying areas, a weekend night is more suitable.

It is the experience of the collective that women tend to bond quickly and often arrange to meet informally amongst themselves, without waiting for the next “First Out” meeting. What seems to happen in a lot of cases is that after attending two or three or four meetings, women find the group less necessary as they build contacts and friendships, and gain more confidence. “First Out” is an open-ended group, in the sense that women can come and go, and come back again, if they wish, but it is not intended that women stay in the group for a long period of time.

“First Out” is a highly successful support group. This is reflected in the collective commitment to the continuity of the group, and the growing number of women attending.

Both Lesbian Line and “First Out” are affiliated to “Lesbians Organizing Together” (L.O.T.), a Dublin based voluntary organization, which has office space in the centre of the city. L.O.T. is three years old this September and is growing steadily. This growth is supported by the many voluntary groups within L.O.T. and by the gradual phasing-in of eleven staff employed under a FAS community enterprise scheme. The organization is coordinated by two elected volunteers and all planning and decision making is taken at monthly meetings, which are open to all volunteers.

Apart from the two support groups I have mentioned, there is Lesbian Equality Network (L.E.N.) which is concerned with campaigning for equal rights for lesbians as full Irish citizens in all aspects of the law; there is a pub­lishing group which is responsible for publishing two lesbian pages within Gay Community News, the national gay monthly newspaper: there is a social and entertainments group which coordinates all fund raising activities, such as discos, pub quizzes, wild and wonderful women’s weekends; and there is the finance group which meets monthly to monitor and plan L.O.T’s financial requirements. This involves keeping accounts, budgeting and fundraising through grant applications. L.O.T. receives no statutory government funding, apart from payment of staff salaries under the FAS scheme.

Training is a very important part of the infrastructure of L.O.T. All training is specifically designed and organized to meet individual group’s needs, as with Lesbian Line and “First Out”. Other training is also made available to the wider membership, as with the leadership training, to encourage more lesbians to take on active roles in the organization. All training programmes include the development of listening, communication and facilitation skills…

Line volunteers are taught how to handle silent or abusive calls, and how to refer a caller on. “First Out” members are taught how to co-facilitate a group from the planning stage, through the running of the group, to the evaluation stage. Roleplays are commonly used as well.

The leadership training was held over a period of four weekends and involved exploring issues like leadership and group dynamics, being a lesbian leader in Ireland, teamwork and motivation and working publicly with the media. It also explored the more practical elements like chairing and organization of meetings, facilitation skills, the preparation of a course project and finally, planning and evaluation. Women were invited to participate from all over Ireland and the training was funded by Cooperation North.

One of the most recent developments within L.O.T. is the emergence of an Outreach Group. This grew out of the need for greater understanding and more positive images of lesbians in the wider community. One of the women involved in the formation stages of Outreach was Siobhan.

Siobhan, who is from Dundalk, is a lesbian and mother of two children. For over a year she got on a bus straight after work on the first Thursday of every month and came to Dublin for the L.O.T. monthly meeting. She had read about L.O.T. in “Gay Community News” and she needed to make contact with other women like herself.

At first it felt wonderful to meet up with other lesbians, but after a while, Siobhan didn’t know which part of her life was more real – being a full-time mother in Dundalk or being amongst other lesbians in Dublin. She felt fragmented and increasingly polarized. In an attempt to bring her two worlds together, she began to see that she needed to start up a lesbian support group in her own area. (She had been attending an “Outcomers” group in Drogheda, but she got tired of being the only woman in the group.)

She decided to run an ad in “Gay Community News” inviting any woman interested to come along to a lesbian equivalent of Outcomers. Meanwhile, she was maintaining links with L.O.T. Outreach in Dublin as a way to get support for her new initiative in Drogheda. Eleven women attended that first Outcomers meeting and Siobhan felt delighted with this response. Outcomers continues to meet in Drogheda.

One of Outreach’s first assignments was to travel to Drogheda to run a workshop entitled, “Lesbian Invisibility in the Rural Community”. Siobhan was instrumental in setting up this workshop and it became part of a bigger programme for Drogheda’s Gay Pride celebrations.

A total of nine women attended the workshop which was run by two trained lesbian facilitators and lasted for one hour and a half. It went very well and a number of points emerged:

1. The lack of anonymity in a small town environment is a big factor in lesb­ians’ reluctance to “come out.”

2. The close interdependence and interconnection of a small community causes difficulty for a woman in terms of accepting her lesbianism.

3. In the case of a lesbian mother, there is the additional difficulty of “coming out” in a rural context. This can be seen in terms of increased exposure as a mother figure in the schoolyard with other kids, at parent/teacher meet­ings and in the housing estate where she might live. The greatest fear for mothers is for their children.

4. The option of travelling to a bigger town or city in search of lesbian culture is drastically reduced if you have no friends or contacts in that town or city. This option is narrowed again if you have children as it’s that much harder to travel.

Outreach is just beginning and it has great potential. It is hoped that this group will go out to community groups, schools and youth reach pro­grammes in all parts of Dublin, travel to rural areas to make contact with women there, give talks and run workshops on different themes, help women to set up groups in their own areas and provide models for them to do this.

In conclusion, I hope I have conveyed to the reader the strength, depth and vibrancy of support that is alive, well and growing, within the lesbian community. The ethos of self-help make a lot of sense to us as lesbians, as we are the ones in touch with what it means to be lesbian and with the issues involved. We are often in the best position to support other women in their “coming out” process.

We attempt to do this by building on existing support systems, by instill­ing an air of confidence and promoting self empowerment amongst the women in our community. By presenting positive images of ourselves to the media, by listening to and learning from other minorities, and by drawing on the professional support services of therapists and counsellors, we believe we are contributing to, and participating in, a more inclusive and equal society for all.

Lesbian Line is open every Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. telephone 01 661 3777. “First Out”, Outreach and all other groups mentioned in this article are contactable through L.O.T. 5/6, Capel Street, Dublin. Telephone 01 872 7770.