When I was a teenager I sometimes wore make-up. A peculiar & particular kind of make-up. Sudocreme to whiten my face like a ghost’s or a geisha girl’s. Bright red lipstick smudgily applied so that I looked a little dizzy, a little drunk, a little off-the-wall.
And slashes of that bright red lipstick under my eyes so that my sweating in the heat of the disco or even of the balmy summer night would cause the lipstick to liquefy and run down my face and i would therefore appear to be crying blood. Cool, right!?
Believe it or not I wasn’t the only youngfella in Clonakilty to Cosplay like this in the late 1980s. There was one other, and we were best buddies. Girl buddies of ours helped apply the make-up, and sometimes we put it on each other, which was cute.
I should also mention that all through the 80s the very popular owner of a local supermarket, a biological male, rarely appeared in his shop or anywhere else without a shimmering black ball-gown, high heels, and properly-applied lipstick.
Opinion was of course divided on this brave person – but they were a hero to many because they stood out so proudly and so fragrantly and so i-couldn’t-give-a shitly!
It might be considered dangerous for teen boys to gynder-play in the rural ireland of that far more conservative era, but nobody bothered us about it. I guess the grown-ups just thought we were daft and afflicted and there is a long tradition of empathy with the daft and afflicted where I’m from – they’re left to their own devices. Kids around our own age – some of them anyway – thought we were cool and looked up to us for our brazenness.
Rural Ireland has perhaps a bad reputation for backwardness on matters of identity and self-expression, but West Cork is for the most part a cosmopolitan, open-minded and above all porous place where all sorts of carry on and all sorts of rebelliousness and newfangledness have long been accepted, tolerated, even encouraged.
I’m not saying Clonakilty was or is a celtic San Fran or anything like that, but there were and are far worse places – some of them far far bigger too – to try and stand up, stand out & be proud in.
Two of us in Clon and two hundred in cork and two thousand in dublin and maybe twenty thousand in London dressed up like this in the summer of 1989, all in imitation of the lead singer of The Cure, Robert Smith. We were what’s known as Curehead’s.
But there were other tribes & other famous individuals that blurred the distinctions between lads and lassies too – Culture Club, New Romantics, Goths, Glam Metallers, Club Kids etc etc – at one stage in the 80s it seemed that everyone was wearing make-up, everyone wanted to be pretty, everyone wanted a second face, another identity to play with.
I sometimes think that these rock and pop musicians and movements of the 80s are overlooked when it comes to the (unfinished) history of ginder liberation. They don’t seem to me to be very often mentioned in accounts of how being gay or trans or simply going through a gender ambiguous phase got to be more and more accepted by youth culture at least over the course of the 80s – even in far flung corners of rural Ireland.
But long before there were many signs of the wonderful and widespread pro LGBTQ+ activism of today, these sexperimenting superstars were sending out the message to millions of young people that it was more than ok, that it was supercool & supersexy to be other than 100% hetero all the time.
Only for these popstars we’d have been relying on womanising bishops, child-whipping schoolteachers, and the Gay Byrne show to enlighten us. So I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate how importantly alternative the alt.80s were – especially to those of us far from cities and from working class backgrounds.
I remember a very camp boy about 14 or 15 who was always roller-skating in Hawley Park, a large working class estate in Tralee suffering a 50 percent unemployment rate at the time. He dressed up very glamorously and indeed peacockishly in imitation of Boy George. Now Tralee has always been fairly hip and cosmo like so many coastal towns and cities around Ireland – they had the best breakdancers I have ever seen in Hawley Park back in 1983 – but I can’t help thinking that it was the pop-cultural omniscience of Boy George that protected this young acolyte of hys from suffering homophobic abuse or worse.
I’ll be honest and say I don’t remember much discussion of non-conforming sexuality or identity in school, or among my friends. Discussion of such was still very much repressed, even if some of us dressed up a bit. But the influence of The Cure and all those others meant that when I started college in UCC in 1992 and shortly came into contact with openly gay people and LGBTQ+ activism for the first time, it was natural and easy for me to become an ally, which i have proudly remained ever since.
If Robert Smith, the most beautiful person who has ever lived in my opinion, ever breaks up with Mary Poole (who he’s been with ever since slow dancing with her to Life on Mars at a school disco in 1974) I’ll be first in line with a marriage proposal.
PS I will be supporting and attending the alternative Pride kicking off at Rosie Hackett Bridge this saturday at 12 – because that’s where my alt.80s heritage tells me to be🚩🚩🚩