Town versus Gown: queer culture in Oxford and Northern Ireland

Eimer McAuley celebrates the vibrancy of LGBTQ+ culture in Oxford after her childhood in Northern Ireland

On a day so bleak it somehow managed to make Belfast look even more industrial than usual, I had my first experience of queer culture.

Walking past the Kremlin, Northern Ireland’s leading and, not unsurprisingly, only Soviet-themed gay night club, I saw a drag queen sitting outside smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone. Looking back, my staring probably didn’t seem so out of place: in the most ‘backward’ place in the UK, I’m sure that a lot of people would have been staring that day. But I wasn’t staring for the same reason: instead, I was curious and fascinated. She was so unlike anyone I had ever seen that, in that moment, she represented exactly what it meant to be different.

Northern Ireland is not an easy place to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community, especially in the rural area where I grew up. My closest neighbours at home have a sign on their barn that reads ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ and my local MP publicly described gay sex as a ‘repulsive act’. Trust me: it’s a tough crowd.

Going to Oxford and experiencing not just acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, but a tangible and vibrant queer culture, was like being dropped into another world completely. When I went to the first Haute Mess night in Plush, it was an almost overwhelming experience. I sat in a toilet cubicle and tried to wrap my head around the idea that this was a space where I could be open about my sexuality and actually celebrate it at the same time, rather than just constantly defending it.

There’s nothing more liberating than the realisation that you’ve found somewhere that you can be yourself, and that’s what Oxford has meant to me. At a summer school for Northern Irish students, one girl approached me after a Q&A session and nervously asked what Oxford was like if you were LGBTQ+. To be able to tell her how progressive and accepting I have found it seemed to give her real hope.

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Being back in Northern Ireland now, I can finally see my country’s pulling out of the dark ages, one rainbow flag at a time. Thousands of people have marched down Belfast’s streets protesting for same-sex marriage. As the public demand for equality grows, it feels like change is becoming inevitable rather than impossible. So although Oxford is still a comparative paradise, Northern Ireland is beginning to change for the better, and it’s so exciting to see.