Open by Barra O’Donnabhain

I’ve always known that I was gay, even before I had the language to express that. I’ve also known from an early age that this was something that was problematic, even dangerous.

In Ireland in the 1960s and ‘70s, this was true of all things sexual. There was little or no public discussion of sex or sexuality in general, only veiled, euphemistic language that was full of sin and shame. And that was only for the heterosexual, missionary-position, contraceptive-free, within-marriage stuff!

There was certainly no space to voice the concept of same-sex attraction. Yet there were tantalising suggestions that this existed out there somewhere, even if only on the road to perdition!

I remember as a 10 or 11-year-old, hearing older kids talking about someone being “one of those”, a term that was accompanied by an action involving a limp wrist. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but I knew it was not something you wanted to be. Kids, of course, hate being ridiculed, and like most, I just wanted to fit in (of course I’ve since learned that adults, particularly straight men, are also terrified of ridicule and being different).

As I got older and heard more details, I suspected, dreaded even, that I was indeed “one of those”, though I hoped I would grow out of it. I had good reason to be hopeful as other than the dictionary, the only book I could find at home with the word “homosexual” in the index was Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which mentioned that children went through passing phases of same-sex attraction.

As time went on, though, the hope that I would grow out of it began to wane and a certain dread kicked in. Why would you willingly be “one of those”, when the only role models were men whose very names were bywords for ridicule: Larry Grayson or Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? This was not helped by the fact that most of what I knew about sexuality was gleaned from other kids at school, some of whom had accurate information, but others were way off the mark!

There was very limited information imparted at home, and while the clinical mechanics of reproduction were discussed at school, this was done in the context of a Catholic retreat, so it was all delivered in a very traditional, conservative view of human relationships that left no space for deviation from an idealised, Catholic ‘norm’.

The creeping realisation that I was different didn’t provoke any crises until I was in college. With hindsight, though, I can see that the need to hide my huge secret influenced my behaviour long before that. I was always rubbish at anything that involved kicking or hitting a ball, and in my GAA-obsessed primary school that was not a good place to be. Ironically, as my teen years progressed, I became estranged from those to whom I was increasingly attracted: guys my own age. I felt that my secret was safer if I avoided their company. This structured my friendships in a way that followed me into adult life.

I had a few girlfriends (OK, two!) in my later years at secondary school and one in college. I really hoped with each one that this was the relationship that was going to turn things around and make me ‘normal’. Of course, that didn’t happen, and in college, as my peers started to pair off, I felt that it was harder to hide.

Unfortunately, college also showed me the hostility of the world to gay people. During my first or second year, the Students’ Union had a referendum on whether or not UCC (University College Cork) should have a student gay society. It was defeated in a secret ballot among the students. That ‘adults’ should be conservative was understandable, that kids my own age would also think this way was devastating.

Things got worse a year or two later when a brave young guy called Cathal Kerrigan was elected as president of the students’ union. When he stood for election, people did not know he was gay, but he made it quite clear afterwards and proposed establishing a college society for gay and lesbian students. The university administration refused to sanction it. Not a surprising reaction from officialdom at the time, but it was the reaction of my fellow students that was more disturbing.

One incident a little time after this was like a nail in a coffin for me in terms of my attitudes to Cork and UCC (1). This was the year of the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, and a general meeting of all students was held to discuss the matter. Cathal Kerrigan, who chaired the meeting, started by saying that there was a query about the Students’ Union’s attitude. Well, on the mention of the word query, the place just erupted into laughter. A queer saying query! What a laugh. A proud moment for the future leaders of Irish society, and a moment when one 20-year-old queer retreated further back into the closet and became increasingly desperate about the need to hide.

Some relief came soon after that as I discovered a pastime where I could hold my own with straight guys: drinking beer. This coincided with moving to a postgraduate program, and I was lucky to be in a department with a few other gays and lesbians, even though none of us acknowledged it at the time.

In my early 20s I think biology took over and I gradually moved from wanting to hide to wanting to get it on. Cork was a) a hostile wasteland, and b) where I was more likely to be recognised, so I turned my attention to Dublin, where I had a wonderful cousin and later my brother.

After a few months of pondering and “will I? won’t I?” agonising, I answered an ad in In Dublin magazine. Many of these ads were scary in a number of different ways (highly sexual, desperate), so the one to which I was drawn was very down-to-earth and about friendship. I took the plunge, and while I did not find a boyfriend, within a few weeks I had a circle of gay friends. For the first time ever, I felt like I really belonged.

The Dublin scene in the late 1980s seems almost comical and quaint now, looking back on those times. There were a few pubs with predominantly gay clientele and, thanks to David Norris and others, the Hirschfield Centre.

To realise after your entire life that you are not alone is a very powerful experience, and I felt that I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of growing up and being emotionally involved with another person. After a lifetime of hiding and denial, it was great fun with this new group of friends to spend 90 per cent of our time together commenting on guys. Much of the rest of our conversation was spent talking about who knows, who doesn’t know and who will never know.

There were stories of guys who got beaten up or who were thrown out of home once their secret was out. That was one thing that I knew would never happen to me. I was lucky to be born into a family where I always knew that whatever happened, it would be dealt with in a way that would never involve expulsion! On the other hand, I absolutely cringed at the thought of the process. I came out to my siblings one by one and got positive reactions in all cases.

My parents were the last to know. By then I had lived in the US for five years, where I encountered a much more tolerant society than what I had left at home. By the time I moved back, it seemed a silly waste of energy to keep this big part of me from them. So I sat them down and said there was a discussion we needed to have! All went well. It was one of those situations where, afterwards, I wondered what had all the fuss and dread been about.

My parents and my brothers and sisters have been great allies, and they wholeheartedly embraced my partner Adham when I met him in 1996. That family support has been really important to us both. Our nieces and nephews do not remember a time when we were not a couple, and I hope that has a positive impact on their lives.

I met Martin early in the summer of 1995, and we dated for a few weeks before making a smooth transition from boyfriends to friends. The night I met him, Martin mentioned that his younger sister Edel was also gay. In one of those ‘small world’ moments, I realised that I had already met Edel a few months before. This had happened when I met her friend Owen in a club in Dublin.

He mentioned that he and his lesbian friend had missed the last bus or train home to Dundalk. So they ended up staying in my flat, Owen in my room and Edel on the sitting-room couch. She was very quiet and didn’t say much that night or the next day. I suspect that she was a bit embarrassed about playing gooseberry!

Edel was only 18 at the time and so diminutive that she looked younger, so I was surprised when Owen told me that she was OPEN to her parents and had a girlfriend in Dundalk. Surprised and probably a little bit in awe that someone so young was so brave in her dealings with the world. It had taken me a lot longer than 18 years to get to a similar place. Owen also mentioned that Edel had a gay brother and that their sexualities had caused some distress within the family.

So when I met Martin, I was curious to know how this had all played out at home. It’s very common for gay people to exchange their coming-out stories, and my curiosity was driven by the experience of navigating the process in my own family. Like many gay people, I had spent a long time asking ‘why’ and ‘why me’, so Martin and Edel’s stories brought me back to the question, was it nature or nurture?

When I lived in the US, I knew two sets of identical twins who where both gay, and that for me pointed to nature. Nature was definitely my preferred answer because nurture raised the spectra of fault and blame: an added burden that I did not want to land on my parents.

Nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, questions of nature or nurture seem a little simplistic. I view sexuality now as a spectrum with boundaries that are defined by the prevailing culture. As our society has become more open and accepting of difference, it has become easier to voice same-sex attraction and to act on it.

It’s probably difficult for younger people to realise the anguish suffered by so many around issues of sexuality in the not-so-distant past. Up until relatively recently, Ireland was a harsh, hypocritical place where people who were different in any way had two options: shut up or get out. Throughout the years I have met plenty of people a little older than I am who repressed gay feelings, got married and just hoped it would go away. It’s difficult to contemplate those lives of quiet desperation and the damage inflicted on spouses and children, but this was our society’s preferred option: never mind the misery, outward appearances were what mattered.

For the individual, a life of pretence was preferable to being a queer, a lezzer, a pervert, a fag, a homo. For many, the only context in which you heard anything at all about gay people was in taunts like those. In that atmosphere, homosexuality was totally beyond the pale. Your options were stark: hide and conform or become a pariah and object of ridicule, derision and hate. Not surprisingly, many chose to check out of our society. Tragically, for many that meant self-destruction in its various forms.

One of the things that struck me about Martin in the mid-1990s was how important it was to him to be open about his sexuality: to his family, in the workplace, and with his friends. He wanted people to know the real him, he did not want to hide or pretend. That takes guts.

I have always felt that the caricature of gay men as sissies is particularly unjust because the reality is that it takes balls to be openly gay, even today. Imagine then what it took, say, in the 1950s? We owe a huge debt to men and women of earlier generations who had the courage to be themselves. We can speak openly of the love that dare not speak its name because they dared.

I see Martin and Edel in that tradition of brave individuals, like Cathal Kerrigan and David Norris, who were not willing to compromise their own personal integrity. Their desire to live open, honest lives might not seem now like a lot to ask, but that has not always been the case.

Edel’s short adult life as an openly gay woman was a form of quiet activism, a refusal to lie down in the face of adversity, a trait that she demonstrated to the end.

1. I now live in Cork again and work in UCC and I’m glad to say things have changed.

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