Even two years on from the marriage equality referendum, a café filled with families doesn’t seem the best place to talk about being gay in Ireland. Even Leo Varadkar’s recent victory in the Fine Gael party leadership, which made him the first openly gay leader of a political party in Ireland, doesn’t guarantee the odd comment going astray.
Firstly, the place is crowded and we are forced to sit close to other patrons. A family is next to us: a mother, father and two young children. We can hear their conversations clearly. No doubt they will hear ours. “Would you care to go somewhere quieter?” I ask him. “No,” he tells me. “It’s fine. I don’t mind if anybody hears.”
For a 28-year-old gay man, John* seems sure of himself on this account. And so I turn my recorder on and began the interview. “I don’t mind people insulting me about being gay. I can handle it because I know who I am,” he says. Though that knowing took some time to surface for the Limerick City native.
“I became close with the supervisor in the counseling center I worked in.” He smiles at the memory. “She knew before I did that I was gay.” Having just finished his counseling degree, John was working with clients one-on-one and having to face some difficult sessions. “I had been having clients who were straight and married but were telling me about their feeling towards the other sex. Listening to them was very uncomfortable but at the same time comforting to know that other people were going through similar things.”
Finally, at age 23, he came face-to-face with a realization he had been denying for years. “I remember going home and being in the bath and thinking: either I run from this and get married and live a straight life and probably end up topping myself because I would be so unhappy, or I bite the bullet.” John smiles. “So I decided, screw it. It’s time.”
It was a road paved with dips and rises. And while his mother and siblings were supportive, his father struggled with the news. “My Dad had never faced something like this in his life. He had rugby, soccer and religion and here I come and I want to be with men. It’s like everything he was told was completely wrong.”
I ask him if the marriage referendum has made things easier for families to accept their gay members? He frowns. “It frustrated me that people were voting to make me an equal,” he says. “What is wrong with me? You’re voting to say that I’m okay? It pissed me off that other people (non-gay) had that power to stop me from marrying someone that I loved.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by fourth year journalism student Sean Lynch (21), Co-President of Out in UL, a LGBTQ+ society at the University of Limerick. “It was strange. I was only 19 at the time and had only been out for a year. Then suddenly I was going door-to-door, person-to-person, campaigning for a basic human right that we all should have.” He sighs. “Even now it feels uncomfortable that we had to do that.”
For some, the referendum seemed like the big victory that would “solve” gay rights issues in Ireland for good. But Sean says it was only the beginning, especially on issues affecting other members of the LGBTQ+ community, like bi-sexual and trans people who were often erased from the campaign.
“I remember sitting in a different campaign meeting and asking if we can bring up that it affects more than just lesbian and gay people and I was told no, we couldn’t talk about that.” He was told there should be “no mixed messages.” It was to be a gay issue only. “It was all about winning. Though granted if we had lost, that would have been too much to bear.” He smiles. “But now that the buzz around winning has gone we can focus on educating people. I guess it’s just not the immediate change people might have expected. And perhaps they shouldn’t have expected it. From a 60 percent voting turnout, 38 percent cast their ballots for no. And in some towns, like Claremorris in Co. Mayo, that position was acutely felt.
“All I saw in my town was vote NO posters,” says Megan Thornton (19). “I was 17 and coming to terms with being gay,” she tells me at the UL library café. “I hadn’t fully accepted it yet and hadn’t told anyone, and there I was surrounded by these NO posters.”
“The posters said, ‘a child needs a mother and a father.’ Firstly, this is about marriage and not every gay person who marries wants to have children. Secondly, what about single parents? You’re basically insulting every single parent with that poster.”
Like John and Sean, Megan feels like the referendum was something that people who weren’t gay or LGBTQ+ shouldn’t have voted on. But now that it has passed, she believes Ireland should focus on better representation of the community. “Some people are too scared to change the attitudes they grew up or were raised with,” she says. She adds that these attitudes and micro-aggressions are the problem now.
And small-town mindedness. Having told her parents and some family about her sexuality, the town doesn’t know that Megan is gay. Not even her beloved granny. “She’s my best friend. She’s not ultra-conservative but she’s very religious. Mostly I think she just cares about what other people think.”
It’s a mentality that has a stranglehold on many gay men and women who worry about being ostracized in their community if they come out. But Megan recently told her father she wasn’t going to be closeted when returning to Mayo this summer. “I imagine it will cause quite a scandal,” she says. “Last year, someone went to a hairdresser for their communion and her plait fell out. It was the talk of the town.” She laughs. “So I’m sure everyone’s going to have a field day when they find out I’m gay.”
Her confidence is refreshing and though the marriage referendum cannot be the only reason for its vigor, it can’t have hurt as a boost. As John says, “The ones against this issue are in the minority now. So many people are connected in one way or another to a gay person. And those connections make it harder for people to cling to the older ways.”
The café is quiet now, emptier, but that doesn’t stop John from raising his voice in a declaration and saying: “If I want to hold my partner’s hand, I can do so. I don’t have to put up with the abuse anymore, even though it still exists.” He smiles. “Perhaps it’s a forced change for some people, but that’s not a bad thing.”
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