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'I wouldn't even let myself think anything gay'
Irish Examiner 22/06/2006

by Pol O Conghaile

For many, growing up gay in Ireland isn't getting easier: Pol O Conghaile talks to two men from different generations about their experiences.

Kevin, 18: I moved school at the age of 10 and never really fitted in. It was mainly because I was quite different. Also, my friend revealed my penchant for Barbie's to the entire class. I was off to a fabulous start. It was always a vague type of bullying, but it wasn't until sixth class that they got to the reason I was different - they were getting interested in girls, and I suddenly realised it was unusual to like boys. Like every gay guy or girl, I grew up hearing "gay" and "faggot" as derogatory terms - the most insulting thing to say to someone, besides insulting their mother of course.

During school, I spent every minute monitoring what I was saying and doing. I wouldn't even let myself think anything gay. Then, after school, I'd spend my time being paranoid that I'd slipped up on the act. I would do anything to get out of classes, from pretending to be sick to actually making myself sick when I was too scared to face even the prospect of going in. Now I can see there were certain teachers I could have talked to about it. But the teachers that went out of their way to embarrass me cancelled out any trust I had for people at the time.

Things got worse in fifth year with the bullying becoming more physical. People would try to feel me up in the corridors to take the piss, which was a bit humiliating - especially when teachers saw and would ignore it. It was also unnerving to have people I didn't know saying disgusting things in my ear during classes. It felt really degrading to be defined by these gay sex jokes. I found it hard to make friends because people who talked to me were gay by association. If anyone even sat beside me, the amount of crap they'd get during the class made sure they wouldn't do it again.

It felt stupid to tell a teacher or principal. A few comments could be considered jokes, a few looks could all be in my head, and how could I prove who wrote stuff on tables about me? The whole notion of LGBT students being recognised by my school was non-existent. The biggest mention we got was about being more likely to contract Aids, which led to the chant. "You're going to die of Aids."

I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only gay guy out of 300 students. I first went to (youth project) BeLong To when I was 16. I will never forget my amazement at meeting all these friendly people. I felt I didn't have to hide, justify or explain myself. After years of sitting by myself in school, this was the first time I was able to sit in a room with people my own age and feel comfortable. Some of the people I met in those first few weeks have turned out to be my closest friends.

Ciaran McKinny, 46: I was absolutely miserable during the summer of 1978. I was 19 and was working in the Netherlands and sharing a house with three young Irish women; my girlfriend from the age of 14-17, that I'd dated through first Year College, and the classmate I'd " got off" with while we were away. They were all angry with me and I realised I was hurting them by pretending to be something I wasn't: straight.

I began my second year at UCD in September 1978 by coming out to my friends and classmates and have never looked back. I took a few years before telling my parents. My experience of coming out was so positive that I was encouraged to get involved in gay activism (now LGBT activism) because I realised I was very fortunate with my family, friends and lots of other people in my life. I have never felt consciously picked on or discriminated against because of being gay. Both my parents were supportive as well as my siblings, and boyfriends and partners have generally been made to feel part of the family. There was one area of my life, however, that was more challenging than most and that was my faith and involvement with the church, in my case, Catholic. It took me years to reconcile what some people would say is irreconcilable, but I remain a Catholic, and was very involved in my parish in London, where my being gay was not an issue.

Since moving back to Ireland I have not yet found a replacement for that parish experience, but remain optimistic. There is so much misunderstanding of sexuality and sexual orientation in the Church that I understand why many LGBT people feel angry and hurt and why they leave. I moved to Amsterdam in 1987 and subsequently to London for further studies. Neither move had anything to do with my sexual orientation. I was "happy in my skin" living here in Dublin, I was not tired of the poor pay and lack of work opportunities in the mid-to-late 1980s.

I was pleased to move back here six months ago and am enjoying working at GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) and getting to know Dublin again. Ireland has changed enormously in the years I was away, with the decriminalisation of gay sex and the introduction of equality legislation. I would like to imagine that it is easier for young people today, but suspect that for many "found out", rejected and discriminated against-which is why we should never be complacent. I remain optimistic, however that LGBT people will continue to achieve equality in all areas of life and that being a member of the LGBT population will be just like being left-handed; slightly different, but normal.