Hundreds of people gathered in Cork city centre on Thursday night to protest a decision made by the owners of a popular gay bar, Chambers, to remove LGBTQ decorations for Freshers' Week, which marks the return of students to college.
Chambers Bar on Washington Street has been a firm favourite with the LGBTQI+ community for the past 18 years.
The protestors gathered on the steps of the Courthouse across the road from the venue amid heavy rain on Thursday night.
Attendees held placards and chanted: "We're here to stay, you can’t paint the gay away."
In a statement, UCC Students' Union expressed their dissatisfaction with what they described as the "rebranding" of Chambers to Sinners for Freshers’ Week.
"We have seen the discourse online and heard from students who are quite upset and shocked at this decision," the students' union said.
"We're here to stay/You can't paint the gay away! " - Cork's queer community brave the rain in big numbers to protest the decision by profiteers to close the city's only queer venue. pic.twitter.com/0g7UI56YZR
— Mick Barry TD (@MickBarryTD) September 14, 2023
"We understand that Chambers has in the past hosted 'Sinners' nights during the big college weeks, but to go as far as to rebrand the premises and eliminate any LGBTQ+ flags from the exterior of the building is a step too far.
"Students are upset about this decision and are frustrated that the only queer bar and queer nightlife space in Cork city has taken down their LGBTQ+ decor in a clear attempt to make the premises seemingly more palatable to non-queer students."
Cork Pride also issued a statement in which it expressed its disappointing in the decision.
"Just a little over a month following the Cork Pride festival, they have chosen to completely erase any semblance of being an LGBT+ focused venue.
"This decision blatantly disregards the talented Queens who grace their stage and the LGBT+ community they target for their business," the group wrote.
"Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this situation, it is essential for our community to recognise and support venues that genuinely stand with us, rather than commodifying our identities when convenient, only to cast us aside when it doesn't serve their interests."
Meanwhile, drag artist Krystle Queer told the Neil Prendeville Show on Cork’s Red FM that Chambers has always had a loyal following in the gay community.
"It is the one safe place we have in the city where we can go and be absolutely ourselves.
"If you go on to Chambers website it says 'Chambers is the heart of Cork drag in the city'. I know business is business, but ethics and morals need to be brought into the question.
"Yes, this is a business, but this is the one queer place in the entire city. You have morals to uphold, and you need to be taking care of this community."
They added: "The theme of Chambers is gay so why are they covering it up completely, changing the venue, posters of us removed and putting us back in the closet for the sake of a few bucks off students?"
Former Ms Gay Ireland Stefanie Fogarty told the show that she was heartened by the large turnout at the demonstration last night.
"We did it in a peaceful manner. We were full of hope and love because of the amount of people supporting us, people were beeping, we had a couple of councillors and TD’s show up. It meant a lot.
"[Chambers] is the only place I feel comfortable going clubbing and dancing. To not have access to dance and be myself is heartbreaking."
Not just for Christmas
It is understood that eight drag artists who regularly perform at Chambers no longer plan to work there following the controversy.
Cork Labour councillor John Maher says pride flags and LGBTQI+ safe spaces are not just for Christmas or the August bank holiday.
"They are not just a seasonable bauble that you can put up and take down without drawing attention. Chambers' actions are disappointing and smack of greed and profiteering to me. Now more than ever the community needs real allies and proper safe spaces."
Cork Solidarity TD Mick Barry recorded a video message at the protest, stating Chambers cannot take money from the gay community for 51 weeks a year and then "turf" them out for a week in order to cash in on Freshers' Week.
"Putting profit before the gay community," Mr Barry said.
"On the 52nd week turf people out, take down the rainbow banners, tell the drag performers maybe come back in a few weeks because they think they can get bigger profits during Freshers' Week.
What a night in Cork! More than 500 members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies put the Rearden's Group to shame over their decision to close the city's only queer venue. pic.twitter.com/XZecJQukU3
— Mick Barry TD (@MickBarryTD) September 14, 2023
"We need safe spaces for the Queer community in the city," he added.
The owners of Chambers have been contacted for comment. Management old Red FM the 'Sinners' student nights were introduced in Chambers a few years ago.
"As has been the case since 2016, we've hosted student nights at 'Sinners' for all students during the third-level terms.
"So just in case anyone is worried, nothing has changed, and Chambers will be as it has been every weekend, since the day we opened our doors 18 years ago."