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A Stranger In A Strange Land
GER PHILPOTT examines the terrible ordeal of American writer Robert drake who was savagely attacked in Sligo earlier this year against the wider backdrop of continuing violence against gays in Ireland.
Ger Philpott, 10 Nov 1999
Gay American writer, Robert Drake, 36, was born in Maine and worked in Philadelphia, before emigrating to Dublin, in April 1999, to research and write a novel. Robert, a Quaker, moved to Sligo last Christmas for personal reasons.
On January 31st this year, he was battered within inches of his life. Beaten severely on the left side and back of his head, and around his eyes, his injuries included severe head trauma, a subdural haematoma, bleeding into the brain and swelling of brain tissue. Robert was found lying in a pool of his own blood, by his friend, Dr Ciaran Slevin.
Robert s attackers, two local youths, 20-year-old Ian Monaghan and 21-year-old Glen Mahon, were charged with causing serious harm under Section 4 and Section 6 of the Non Fatal Offences Against the Persons Act.
Their trial at Sligo s Circuit Court ran for six days, beginning on October 12th last. They pleaded not guilty as charged before Judge Anthony Kennedy and a jury. But on October 20th, the 11-member jury returned a majority (10-1) guilty verdict. Judge Anthony Kennedy remanded Mahon and Monaghan on continuing bail for pre-sentence reports on January 11th next.
Robert Drake, meanwhile, is still battling to recover from the terrible injuries he sustained.
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Sligo s recent redevelopment has brought, undoubtedly, much needed life to the northwest coastal town. Sadly, it will add little to its architectural heritage. Holborn Street, described by locals as traditionally being the wrong side of the tracks , is on the opposite side of town to Sligo s Cranmore estate. This large area of grey social housing typically manifests the all-too-familiar face of social disadvantage widespread in a two-tier society. Robert Drake lived in one of a block of two infill properties on Holborn Street. His attackers, Ian Monaghan and Glen Mahon, hail from Cranmore.
Robert s attackers, accompanied by their solicitor, made a voluntary and full statement to the gardam in Sligo. It is understood that the victim met with his assailants outside his house in the early hours of the morning. They wanted cigarettes. Robert Drake didn t have any but invited them in for cigars. Having consumed flaming shots of alcohol one of the assailants became ill. During his absence in the bathroom it is alleged Robert Drake made a crude pass at the other man, although friends of the American insist that this would be very out of character for him. A skirmish ensued. The other man joined in and the two proceeded to attack Drake.
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An internet guide to gay bars in Ireland lists Sligo s Silver Swan Bar. If this is a gay bar and, according to local wisdom, the nearby Clarence Hotel s disco Delicious , is a gay night club, then you could be forgiven for thinking that Robert Drake lived in the heart of Sligo s gay ghetto. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Provincial Ireland is still closeted. There are probably only two out gay people in Sligo, says one local publican.
One wit, though many make the claim, likened gay bars, typically decorated with mirrors and glitter balls, to the inside of a hairdresser s brain . The Silver Swan Bar above the Garavogue River is no such place: more swirly carpet meets jaded sun lounge with a bit of check chintz thrown in.
Robert Drake drank in the Silver Swan bar, in the company of garage worker, Michael Murtagh, 55, and his wife, Sarah, and their son, Jason, on the night of his brutal attack.
I remember him sitting at the end of the bar. Murtagh, originally from Skerries, says. He bought a cigar and the wife leaned across to light it for him. We d a bit of a joke about Clinton. Robert Drake blamed Clinton. Sarah Murtagh blamed Lewinsky. An awful pity what happened to him, Murtagh adds. A real nice guy. Very polite. And friendly .
Robert Drake had left the bar after midnight. He withdrew money from a nearby cashpoint machine. His signature was found on the cloakroom register at The Clarence Hotel disco, on nearby Wine Street. Less than six hours later he was beaten near to death.
Robert Drake had lived in Sligo for little more than one month. It s crazy what happened to him. Animals wouldn t do that to their own, the assistant in a neighbouring shop on Holborn Street offered. Drake also visited regularly at the corner shop, further down the street. He dropped in most days to buy his Marlboro cigarettes, Alan, the assistant, says. A quiet chap. He seemed to keep himself to himself .
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Robert Drake was the adopted and only child of Rosalie, 68, his nurse mother, and Ken, 73, his chemist father. He grew up in a poor coal mining region of Charleston, North Carolina. His parents rarely leave their small apartment in Charleston. They were financially, and physically, unable to travel to be with their son.
Robert Drake doesn t know his biological parents. But Ireland was his adopted home. The irony of Drake s brutal beating is that in his first novel The Man A Hero For Our Times, Drake chronicles the exploits of a black-clad, pink triangle-wearing superhero known as The Man who patrols the streets at night fighting homophobia and gay-bashing. Through this character Robert Drake sought the answer to one overriding question: Why?
Robert was an openly gay man. He didn t flaunt his sexuality, but neither did he apologise for it. The West of Ireland is isolated. And insulated, one Sligo returned resident claims. It s often not very welcoming if you re an American or indeed returned from being away. There certainly wouldn t be an open welcome for somebody gay.
The average person takes for granted the simple, loving, gesture of holding a partner s hand, linking arms, walking down the street together. But it is not something gay couples feel safe, or comfortable, doing. The threat of violence keeps gay people in line . Risk assessment is a constant background reality for gay men and women. Robert Drake may have suspended his critical faculties, his common sense, the night of his attack. Critically, though outside his own front door, his subscription to the ciad mmle failte myth may have put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some Sligo residents, shocked by the attack on Drake, wondered how they could respond. There was terrible sense of it being personal because it happened in Sligo, says actress and writer, Maggie Wade, a Sligo resident. Molly McCloskey, an American writer living in Sligo adds: Then a request was made to raise funds for Robert s return to America. This was something concrete we could do.
She along with author Dermot Healy and other friends, organised a benefit night of music and readings for Robert Drake s fund. Initial plans to hold the event in Dublin were scrapped. The attack happened here in Sligo, writer and poet, Leland Bardell explained. We felt the benefit, in response, should also be held here .
The benefit raised #800 towards Robert s fund. It was co-chaired by Thomas Querney, a fellow Quaker Robert had met at a prayer meeting in Dublin, and Sligo teacher Mary Granley. Robert had no money himself, Dermot Healy explains. It was a direct response for the need of money. And to show there s no anti-queerdom in Sligo. Mary Granley agrees: We all have family and friends living elsewhere in the world. It d be nice to think that people would rally round to help them in a similar situation.
Blue Cross medical insurance footed the bill for Robert Drake s repatriation. He required eight months of in-patient care in a rehabilitation hospital on his return to America. The cost of this care exceeded #400 per day, Robert s available medical insurance covering approximately 80% of these costs. The balance, including the costs of physical therapy, left monthly shortfalls in the region of $3,000. Contributions to defray these costs were received from Quaker meetings in Philadelphia and Dublin.
Robert was discharged from Mossrehab in Philadelphia on October 6th last, following months of slow but steady progress. He will require ongoing outpatient therapy. He is presently limited by poor short term memory, and has difficulty making complex decisions. He is blind in his left visual field. His speech has improved, but he continues to have difficulty with certain consonants. And he slurs most of his words. He uses a spelling board when he realises he is not being understood. Robert has enough control of his hands to feed himself. And he can roll over, by himself, in bed when he feels uncomfortable. He has taken some steps with the help of a zimmer frame. Robert appears to be able to read but his comprehension is limited by his memory difficulties.
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Thomas Querney received e-mailed New Year s greetings from Robert Drake last January. It included a message Robert received from other friends entitled: The World as 100 People . The message ran: If we could shrink the world s population to a village of 100 people with all existing human ratios remaining the same, there would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the western hemisphere ( north and south), and eight Africans. Fifty-two would be female. 48 male. Seventy would be non-white, 30 white. Seventy would be non-Christian, 30 Christian. Eighty-nine would be heterosexual, 11 homosexual. Fifty-nine percent of the entire world s wealth would be in the hands of only six people, and all six would be citizens of the United States. Eighty would live in substandard housing. Seventy would be unable to read. Fifty would suffer from malnutrition. One would be near death, one would be near birth. One would have third level education. One would own a computer. When one considers our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for both acceptance and understanding becomes glaringly apparent. n
Legislative equality was won for gay people in Ireland in 1993, 20 years after the battle for gay law reform was kick-started by David Norris and Mary Robinson. Accelerated by the Labour Party s reformist agenda and backed by the campaigning work of Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) and others, the change in the law meant that gay men, at least on paper, were no longer criminalised.
Euphoria surrounding the decriminalisation of homosexuality, however, obscured what in reality was just a baby step for progress. A huge task lay ahead. Signing something into law would not overnight change decades of entrenched homophobia.
One of a series of consultations between the Garda Community Relations Office and gay organisations, held in Dublin, in May 1998, specifically set out to tackle the issue of harassment and violence against gay men and lesbians. The contact is ongoing. Harcourt Square s Community Relations Chief Inspector PJ McGowan, respected by gay politicos, heads up the Garda response, and is assisted by Sgt Finbarr Murphy, a liaison officer for the gay community, operating out of Dublin s Pearse St Garda Station.
Meeting with gay organisations gives us an opportunity of listening to the situation from their point of view and we can work to identify their needs, says Chief Inspector PJ McGowan. The difficulty is understanding the true level of these crimes when they go unreported because people are afraid of being outed.
Certain categories of victim have to be considered in the context of discrimination against them, according to the recently published Report of the National Crime Forum. Specifically, it states that a significant and violent measure of discrimination exists against gays. The Report also recognises that gay victims of crimes of violence may not be able to seek help from the police. Members of the gay community are often reluctant to complain to the police, it argues, because they fear that their complaint will not be received sympathetically. Perhaps they imagine that the police culture will not perceive them in the same manner as other members of society.
The Forum Report is a significant step forward in getting official agencies to acknowledge and respond to the unacceptable level of prejudice-based crimes against our community says Kieran Rose, GLEN co-chair and former Director of Gay HIV Strategies. It is a good example of the mainstreaming of issues affecting our community.
Three out of 10 gay Irish men go cruising at some stage of their lives according to a 1993 AIDSWISE study. You feel horny, you go there and meet someone. No strings, no complications, is how one non-out gay man describes cruising. The prospect of sex in public places proves shocking for many people. But many well known lovers lanes venues double-up, gay and straight. At a glance, similarities exist. Closer inspection, however, reveals a multitude of difference. Straight couples, generally, go to the venues (usually beaches, quiet roads, parks) together. Gay people don t. A straight couple, for example, mugged while in a secluded public place are unlikely to have any difficulties reporting the crime to gardam. Two gay people in the same situation would be, to say the least, more tentative about doing the same.
Given that it s only six years since repressive laws were repealed, many gay people in Ireland, as elsewhere, still find it hard to come out and be open. And that s just to their friends and family. Contact with police about attacks can be a bridge too far. Consider this account of a gay couple s experience of being burgled.
My boyfriend and I fixed up the bed in the spare room, to make it look like we weren t living together, before we called the guards. We had disturbed the burglar. He saw us in bed together and called us faggots as he fled the house. We both felt it was the right thing to do. But deep down I was ashamed.
That this reaction is not unique is confirmed by Gay Switchboard Dublin s Brian Sheehan. Anecdotal evidence exists of gay men not reporting burglaries to the gardam because they feel they would have to de-gay their homes before the gardam arrived, he says. We have found individual gardam to be very supportive, though obviously there is much institutionalised homophobia within the force, Sheehan adds.
Cabra Garda Station covers the Phoenix Park, one of northside Dublin s better known cruising areas. Gay Switchboard claim several gay men attacked while cruising in the Park received less than helpful treatment from gardam at Cabra when they reported the incidents.
Gardam at Cabra, when contacted by this correspondent, replied that there is not a high incidence of attacks on gays reported at the station. When such crimes are reported they would always advocate pressing charges, they say, but this rarely happens.
One garda source at Cabra characterised three different types of men frequenting cruising areas in the Phoenix Park: homosexual men, often married, sitting in their cars looking for sex; those flogging their arses (meaning male prostitutes); and other gays. The reason homosexual men up there are attacked is because those attacking feel they d be slow to report, he observes. 99% of it s for monetary gain. They re easy targets. Unless they shout you queer, you this, you that, you homo , you can t say its queer bashing.
Chief Inspector PJ McGowan disagrees. They re targeted because they re vulnerable, and because they re gay, he insists. These are hate crimes, obviously caused by prejudice, homophobia .
Nevertheless, it is understood that, in general, Gardam do not believe the incidence of hate crimes against gays to be significant.
GLEN currently lobbies for the outlawing of homosexual panic defence . This would exclude a non-violent homosexual advance from forming the basis of the defence of provocation, in cases of violence against gays. GLEN would like also the following Scotland Yard definition of homophobic incident to be considered by the gardai and the Department of Justice: Any incident for which a crime report is completed and which appears, either to the victim or any other person, including the reporting or investigating officer, to be motivated by homophobia (animosity towards gay and lesbian people) . n