By Charlie McBride
Galway’s LGBT community is a vibrant part of the city’s civic life and its interests are championed by advocate-group Amach! and its sister resource-centre Teach Solais in Victoria Place.
Amach! was launched in July 2010 following a community meeting attended by more than 300 people from Galway’s gay community, while Teach Solais opened its doors in June of this year. It hosts a wide variety of events open to the public. It is also a focal point for delivery of education, training, and health programmes in addition to support for individuals identifying as LGBT+ and for those who are ‘coming out’.
Last Saturday morning I met Maria Molloy, chair of Amach! and Vivienne Ivers, secretary of the board to talk about the activities and achievements of both Amach! and Teach Solais. I began by asking both about how they came to Galway and got involved in LGBT advocacy.
“I’m from Tynagh in the southeast of county Galway,” Maria tells me. “It’s a tiny village best-known for either the mining in the 1960s or go-karting more recently. I came to GMIT several years ago and qualified in biomedical science. Throughout my college years I was active in various campaigns on social justice and volunteered with the likes of Oxfam and Amnesty International. I was always interested in volunteering. After several years in several continents I came back to Ireland and Galway and am currently working in UHG. Once I got settled I was looking for volunteering options and Amach! came up on my radar. Their primary aim was the opening of the west of Ireland’s first LGBT centre and I was interested in that so I signed up and here I am.”
“I’m from Arklow,” Vivienne reveals. “I came to Galway 10 years ago, after a good few years living in Dublin, to study as a mature student. I first studied archaeology and classics then I came back a couple years ago and did a master’s in health promotion because I had worked a lot with people with intellectual disabilities. I currently work with Galway Simon as an occupational therapy assistant. I first got to know Maria while doing my master’s and she invited me to come onboard with Amach! and I felt it was a good fit for me so as soon as my thesis was handed in I signed up.”
The two women outline how Amach! and Teach Solais emerged. “Amach! came about from a community urge and meeting for something different,” Maria explains. “There was a big community meeting in 2009 around the idea of Pride where a lot of people were saying that was the only focus for LGBT community and a resource group would be great. We have now spent years setting it up formally and legally and we are now a fully registered charity and company.”
“Teach Solais is still in its early days,” Vivienne states. “It wasn’t open to the public initially but was open to various support groups. The LGBT helpline use it as their base, Shout - a peer support group for young people coming out - use it, the trans support group Gossip use it, and we have our own group use it Saturday. We also teamed up with community wellness group Cosain to do a drop-in on Saturday to promote positive mental health which is an issue we are passionate about ourselves. We found we had people presenting to our Saturday drop-in who had issues in that regard and we connected with Cosain to do get-togethers that promoted positive mental health.”
Maria adds: “We do rapid HIV testing once a month allied to Aids West. A lot of our work is collaborative; we like to combine with different groups. We feel our resource centre should not only be used by LGBT community but also the wider community because integration for us in the wider community is key, it breaks down stigmas. We had a great screening of the documentary As Human As I Am about countries where LGBT awareness is not as advanced as here which we did with Galway Anti Racism network and we had people coming from direct provision sites around Galway.
“Our core ethos is mental well health and we see Teach Solais as a health and wellbeing hub; we have services for people who are in crisis and need help. A lot of our one-off events transcend LGBT groups and appeal throughout the community, like the mental health talks.”
Vivienne points out: “If you come to the drop-in on Saturday between two to four you will meet old people, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, and people who are gay, bisexual, lesbian or trans. There are people from the direct provision centres and the centre has been a lifeline for them, they get a lot out of it and feel like they belong and are integrated into the wider Galway society so Teach Solais is like a beacon for them.”
While society’s attitudes to LGBT people has become more tolerant and anti-discrimination legislation has been enacted homophobia has not gone away. “A lot has been done but there is more to do and there is still homophobia about people coming out,” Maria notes. “They feel isolated and there are higher levels of suicide and self-harm in the LGBT community.”
She continues: “Within schools, LGBT kids experience lots of homophobia. A lot is lacking in services; for instance sex education in schools has nothing to do with education about gays, it is hetero-normative so there is a lot that needs to be addressed within structures regarding how open they are to the LGBT community. We have links via Shout who send people to schools to talk about LGBT issues but their access depends on the ethos of different schools. We are a volunteer-run organisation and try to get our info from Teach Solais out to as many organisations as possible, but we need a fulltime resource centre manager to offer more services.”
As well as teen group Shout, Amach! also facilitates Silver Rainbows for older LGBT people, runs a diversity choir, and is about to set up both a running and a soccer team. “We’re all about bringing people together not causing divides,” Vivienne declares. “That is more important than the letters within the LGBT acronym. If you go into our Teach Solais drop-in on Saturday you will see old and young people from all kinds of different backgrounds.”
While acceptance of gays and lesbians has happily advanced, understanding of transgender issues still lags behind; “We had the Gender Recognition Act in 2015 which was welcome but there is still less awareness around transgender issues,” Maria acknowledges. “Transgender groups would like to shine a light on those areas so that organisations would have things like gender-neutral toilets which is a simple thing but shows they are inclusive to the wider community and would be a nice gesture.”
I mention an acquaintance who is going through the trans surgery process and how brave it must be for someone to take on that profound physical change; “They are living as someone they don’t see themselves to be so there is no alternative,” Vivienne points out. “It is very brave to endure that process though. Like with LGB people, the more visibility trans people have in society the more people see they are just like everyone else. We are all human at the end of the day. If you show the human side, understanding follows.”
I conclude our amiable palaver by asking Maria what plans Amach! and Teach Solais have for 2018; “We have a year-long LGBT migrant project,” she replies. “We have just started arts and craft classes and throughout the year would like to have further creative classes in that vein with an LGBT migrant theme, and that that their work would be shown in Galway galleries and exhibitions during various festivals.
“We don’t have a core funder but TD Hildegarde Naughton enabled us to meet TD Catherine Byrne in Dáil Éireann to discuss possible funding streams and we hope to apply to some HSE streams. We have evidence to show we do good work and essential mental health services are run through Teach Solais so we would hope they can see us as a group that fits within their overall aim for a healthier Ireland.
“If we had sustainable funding we could focus on programmes instead of just where next month’s rent is coming from. We’re always looking for volunteers and we are accepting of everybody so anyone who would like to come along is welcome and if someone feels like they want to start a group or activity within the centre we are also very supportive of that.”