Celebrate by Kevin Callan

The first time I ever saw Edel was at a non-alcoholic teenage disco in the Fairways Hotel. Studio Eight …till late.

I was 13 years old. I had been allowed to go to this disco once my older brother David agreed to look after me. I think it was my third or fourth time there. It was all still new and exciting. It was early days for me getting dressed up in something I thought was cool, for being out and seeing what other kids were wearing. What music were they dancing to? How did one dance? I was terrified.

At the time I very much fancied girls. I had always fancied girls. I was beginning to notice boys as well, but I don’t remember being completely conscious of that. At that point it certainly wasn’t a concern. The biggest concern of course was the first time I shifted (kissed) a girl. Boys were out of the question at this point. When and with whom would I end up slow dancing? Would I make a total fool of myself? How exactly does one do it? Would I be any good? How much tongue is enough? I was terrified. Basically I remember that being the overriding feeling … terrified excitement.

I had spotted Edel from the beginning. She stood out. She was small and cute, had beautiful eyes and was dressed totally differently to everyone else. She was wearing black jeans, big black biker-style boots, a combat/army style jacket or shirt. She had her hair shaved on the sides, an undercut, with her hair still long on top and tied up in a ponytail.

She was shocking. I mean it. Here I was, faking it until I made it, a country kid still figuring out what these cool townies were doing. I was shocked by her. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but I had never seen a girl be butch. And Edel was butch. She dressed like a little hardass.

Most of the guys there were dressed as ravers or in fashionable gear or whatever. The girls’ fashion at the time escapes me, but Edel was dressed like an attitude-filled, grungy boy. I had never seen anything like it. I recoiled. I didn’t know what to do with the image of her. I found it threatening. I didn’t understand why. I mean, she looked edgy, yes… and I was in awe of the fact that her clothes spoke of coolness, knowledge and “fuck you-ness”.

But I was threatened by the fact that she was a girl and looked like a boy. I guess I had quite a homophobic reaction to the sight of her, though I didn’t quite know that either.

As the night wore on, I still hadn’t had my first kiss. But I was pretty happy I had mastered dancing and was happily resting on my laurels. Edel and her friend Ruth were standing over by the DJ booth when Ruth strode over to me and asked me if I would shift Edel. I was mortified! Of course I was embarrassed because I had never kissed anyone before and wasn’t ready for this brazen ambush.

But mostly I was mortified because I felt that Ruth suggesting that I kiss Edel was some accusation of me being gay, too. It’s funny. I didn’t know that Edel was gay from looking at her. I didn’t know what to call her, she looked so alien. But I knew she wasn’t like everyone else.

I had always been bullied for being gay, even though at that point I didn’t even know I was, but I knew enough to know that being associated with the brazen Edel was a sure way to be singled out as different even more than I was already. I still needed to hide any sign that I was different.

Edel was not hiding. I’ve never really consciously acknowledged this about Edel until I come to write this now … She was so courageous. She made no attempt to hide who she was. I shyly refused the offer of “the shift”, and it quickly became apparent that Edel had had no part in the request. Ruth had done it to embarrass her and me as a newbie on the teen disco scene. And so I didn’t speak to or really meet Edel until about two years later.

I had never fitted in. When I was little I was serious and shy. I was timid and didn’t like to be boisterous. I didn’t like doing things wrong. I was never athletic enough or strong enough and could never see the point in being competitive. I stuck out like a sore thumb. From an early age I was singled out for being a sissy, a woman, and as I got older, a faggot. I preferred hanging out with girls. I didn’t like sports or the things that most lads did.

When I hit my teens I found the social scene. Fuelled by binge-drinking and the confidence it gave, I developed a whole new persona. I had developed likes for the ‘cool bands’. I had figured out what clothes to wear and I was having a blast. There was drinking in pubs and in parks, smoking cigarettes, seeing bands, smoking joints, and basically pretending to look like I knew what I was doing.

I had also had a few girlfriends at this point and was pretty settled on the fact that I definitely fancied boys as well. Either by luck or design, the friends I ended up with were pretty open about talking about same-sex attraction. Among my close friends it was an acceptable part of our alternative persona.

While I continued to be singled out at school and in certain social settings, around my buddies I was comfortable with the fact that I liked boys. At least I could hide the fact quite convincingly because I genuinely liked girls, too.

On another fateful, fun and drink-fuelled night, I bumped into Edel again. This time the situation was much different. A firm friendship was born. I was that bit older (15 to her 17) and immediately recognised what we had in common. We were both different. I had just caught up a bit and begun to embrace my difference a little.

Edel, me and others formed a close alliance. We were all gay, bisexual or experimenting. We all liked music and we all liked to party. I was home. Finally I fitted somewhere. Finally I felt what made me different made me special – at least when I was around my friends, and key among them Edel.

Rights of passage such as school and college, first kisses and love, conflicts with parents and family. All of it was being experienced through a new lens, through the lens of friendships formed with people among whom I could be my whole self. Normal was a dirty word. I loved it.

Edel was out to everyone. It’s not like she went around saying she was gay, but because she was unable to be ‘girly’, it was pretty obvious. I pretended to myself that everyone didn’t know about me.

I knew Edel was out at home and that she felt pretty alienated from her parents about it. She didn’t talk about it much in detail, but I do remember her being very angry. She was angry about their struggles with it. We, in the way you do when you’re young, rolled our eyes at her parents’ silliness that they just couldn’t be cool with it.

Edel definitely reacted against it. Edel wasn’t angry in her manner, but she was moody and frustrated. We had that in common, too. We had both been hurt by people’s lack of acceptance of who we were. It had affected our acceptance of ourselves and our behaviour. Having Edel, with whom to navigate all this, made her my family.

My experience with coming to terms with my sexuality was a mixed bag. I was so fortunate that at a key point in my life I met Edel and others, so I had people to reflect back that what I was feeling and who I was, that I was OK.

When I was 16 I sat down with my mother at the kitchen table. I had something to tell her. I said, “I’m bisexual”. She smiled and said, “I know that, pet … and you fancy him and him”. (I have since settled on the gay tag, but I still believe that sexuality is a gray scale with preferences along it – men are my preference, so gay it is.) I knew my mother would be cool about it.

It was a huge relief. In my teens I had a troubled relationship with my dad, so I put off telling him for another two years. I told him by letter from the safe haven of University in England. He called me and assured me that whomever I loved I was always welcome in his home and that he was immensely proud of me. I was shocked at my reaction. I sobbed with relief. It showed me how afraid I had been of the potential of his rejection.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be rejected by your parent because of being gay. It must have such a profound effect on your whole sense of yourself. Add that to the inevitable feeling of difference you would have felt among your peers.

Many of my friends have had bad experiences with their parents. I am so grateful I was as lucky as I was. All my life, up to that point, I had been told in one way or another by my peers that who I was, was not all right. I was not normal. That had, and still has, a profound effect on how I view myself.

With the benefit of adult hindsight, it is no coincidence, in my opinion, that a central activity among Edel and I, and our mutual friends at the time, was drink and drug abuse. We all drank to excess and continued to do so into our twenties. I can’t speak for Edel, but my experience growing up as gay has definitely had a lasting effect that has taken some work from which to recover.

I have an abiding memory of Edel sitting on the edge of the pool table in one of our favourite bars. It sticks in my mind because it wasn’t like Edel to get visibly upset. She was crying and confided in me that she felt that she would never meet anyone. She felt that as a gay woman in Dundalk she was unlikely to meet anyone. She wasn’t sure what path her life was going to take, and for the time being she would be living in Dundalk. How was she ever going to meet someone? She desperately wanted the same experiences as I, or any of her friends could have.

At the time I secretly shared her fears. I didn’t really know any other gay girls in our area who weren’t already among our friends. Of course, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Edel went on to fall in love and have great relationships. She was a big hit with the girls.

Recalling all of this makes me marvel at just how difficult it is being a teenager. We have all heard it said, but I’ve never realised it before. Edel obviously had a keen sense of how difficult these years can be as she began a career working with troubled teenagers. She was extraordinarily gentle, kind and wise.

Growing up has its challenges for everyone, gay or straight. Everyone, child or adult, wants a feeling of belonging. We want to feel connected and feel like we are loved. It is too easy for us all to find things that make us feel like we’re not good enough and therefore don’t deserve to feel connected. Not liking yourself for any reason is damaging, be it because you’re gay or because you believe you’re ugly or stupid.

Fear of not being accepted is part of the human condition and is not particular to gay people. However, there is a feeling as a gay person that you are at risk of exclusion because you are different. The fact remains that there are a large proportion of people who are afraid of what is different. Homophobia is one of a litany of phobias in our community.

It seems to me that we should teach our children to CELEBRATE what is different about themselves and others. It is through our individual differences that we are all the same.

It has been so good to be reminded of how blessed I was to have had the coming-out experience that I had. It is through my relationships with my family, my friends and lovers, through my relationship with Edel that I have learned to love and be loved.

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