For Pride month, we asked some of our members if they would like to tell their story and why they are proud. If you would like to contribute, please email firstname.lastname@example.org Here’s the first of these stories but first, grab yourself a cuppa.
Mo scéal (agus bréaga eile)
le Aindrias MacT
Creepy Christian Brothers feature, of course, when I consider my childhood, along with the motley parade of pervy priests and nuns inevitably involved with my education. A very near miss with rape by a local hard-man when I was about 9 and the usual clutch of cliches of repressed Irish small town life apply also. Yet none of these factors figured much into my formative sexual identity, at least as far as I can tell.
I suppose I was always a bit different. Some of that was from the classic combination of being obnoxiously good in class and bad at sports (though I compensated to some degree through sheer bulk). And some from the fact that my mother was English, which had real resonance in early ‘70s Ireland: I do remember being asked as a 7 year old – by an adult – which side would I take in a civil war. My father died when I was young so my mother was working long hours and both my brothers were much older (not very subtle code for my being a menopausal accident) so I was a bit of a loner, by force of circumstance mostly, rather than choice.
But I don’t think any of that had much to do with my predilection for surreptitiously playing with schoolmates’ sisters’ dolls whenever I could. Nor with me sneaking a read of their copies of Jackie. Nor with my flouncing around in front of the mirror in long flowing garments when alone. Nor with the Bunty annual hidden beneath my bed for regular clandestine consultation. My concealment illustrated the shame associated with these behaviours. But I don’t think I ever felt bad for doing them. Hiding was just a necessary tactic to avoid discovery and censure.
I had learned this early. When I was very small, barely 5 maybe, I dressed up my Teddy bear in a frock and renamed it Mary. I recall this as a very practical matter: there was an unused doll’s frock available, which fit, and my hand-me-down Teddy was a bit worn around the edges, so this was a perfect way to achieve an instant glamorous upgrade. And Mary was a name which imbued a sense of unimpeachable ordinary Irishness that I was also seeking. I have no recollection of being reprimanded for this, though I think I recall some raised eyebrows. So, for whatever reason, Teddy/Mary’s flirtation with gender fluidity proved brief, though one bewitching photo remained in our house to keep the memory alive. When I was a little older, some performing group came to town and put on a workshop for kids, to which I was despatched. My initial enthusiasm to demonstrate my newly learned skill of jumping for joy was quickly dampened by the reactions I received. Again, there was no direct countermand but, even at that age, I could sense that any display of flamboyance caused embarrassment. So I guess I buried it playing rugby and following sports.
When I reached adolescence and my sexuality began to emerge, it was no surprise to me to realise that I liked boys. Again, I remember my response being matter of fact acceptance rather than tortured guilt. But, of course concealment; never let anything show. I didn’t ever want to be straight but I did want to live in a world which would accept me being gay. As sexuality in general was then so repressed in Ireland and I attended an all-boys school, it was fairly easy to avoid being conspicuous with the minimum of feigned interest in girls. It was at that point that I did decide to dismiss my ambition to become a politician as I recognised that Ireland would never accept a gay Taoiseach in my lifetime….
University life provided freedom from the constraints of home and school but not from sexual repression. Only a very few brave souls were out during my mid ‘80s stint in UCD. I had to bring a bit more effort to my attempts to appear robustly hetero but it still wasn’t so difficult in that time and climate to do enough to appear “normal”. I had glimpses of other possibilities through small ads in InDublin, messages scrawled on toilet walls and meaningful glances with various strangers. But it all went unfulfilled. This was the time of the Fairview Park murder and Kerry Babies and the referendum disasters. Ironically, the reporting on AIDS probably served to make gay life and possibilities more visible and real then. They’d simply never been mentioned before. But it was all abroad. Summers working in London and New York had also exposed alternative worlds but they never seemed accessible as I was always surrounded by my cosy coterie of Irish friends and dared not escape. I did enjoy my time in college immensely albeit chastely!
My enjoyment of student life was such that I barely scraped through my degree exams but still, through the twin (actual) gods of luck and timing, landed a very good job on the graduate programme of a major multinational. This entailed relocation to the US after my first year working in Dublin. Even then I was parachuted into an established peer group so I still felt the same kinds of constraints. Finally, in my mid twenties, two years after moving to the US, and now in a small mid-western city away from any friendship group, I finally ventured into a gay bar. It was an odd little scene but in a way very powerful and positive. Because the city was only big enough to support one gay bar, the crowd was male and female, black and white, leather and drag, none of the self-segregation that besets larger gay communities. Of course it had all the rivalries and dysfunction of any family also, all conducted in a kind of parallel world, almost entirely out of sight of mainstream society.
It was another few years before I felt comfortable enough to tell people from my “previous life” and not only did I find widespread acceptance, many of them also turned out to have been gay all along. And almost all of us who had come out were living outside of Ireland. By this time, I had relocated to a relatively large city on the US East Coast where I fully embraced life in the gay ghetto. AIDS was, of course, the big shadow and took many of my friends, including my dear best friend. But the bold and vital AIDS activism of the ‘90s, which did so much to improve visibility and understanding of LGBT issues was ultimately what set the scene for the dramatic shift in acceptance of gay people in the subsequent decade.
I moved to London in the mid ‘90s just as the gay scene went through a major renaissance (coincidentally, of course) and social acceptance of LGBT people started its great leap forward. As my thirties progressed and the millennium turned, I settled into a relationship and ventured ever less frequently onto the scene. I then moved to West Africa and later to the Middle East for work. I enjoyed both of those experiences immensely though they both involved some retreat back into the closet. On the other hand, it was almost comfortingly familiar to encounter clandestine and diverse groups united by our compelling common social transgression. Even in repressed countries with restrictive laws and social norms, the internet has facilitated the development of powerful networks and communities. As a gay expat, you could access aspects of local life and culture often never experienced by the usual expats living in their western bubbles.
Like the rest of the diaspora, from afar I watched the blossoming of Ireland into the open embracing society that it has become (to an extent – don’t mention Direct Provision) with some disbelief. As that shrinking disbelief was finally shattered by the extraordinary result of the Marriage Equality referendum, I think I finally did embrace “Pride”. I was always uncomfortable with the idea of being proud of anything, much less things like my nationality and sexuality over which I had no control. But that event crystallised for me a deep sense of pride that our brave pioneering activists had persisted through all those dark days to achieve this unbelievable, globally significant breakthrough, not just in law but in utter social transformation. As a partnered grumpy old fart back in London and long retired from any kind of gay scenery, it’s nice to be finally unexceptional. To all my friends enduring in less hospitable parts of the world, this is the story I tell over and over: however impossible the journey may seem, there is always a path. And though I have never been an activist, short of attending marches and parades (not always without ulterior motives I must confess), I have always been cheering on our heroes from the sidelines so, so, so fucking proud!