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Irish Examiner 24/06/2008

by Declan Cashin

In a week when Dublin celebrated Gay Pride, homosexuality might seem like no big deal in Ireland these days. The truth is it isn't that easy, says Declan Cashin.

There's a fantastic scene in an episode of the British TV drama series, Queer as Folk, in which gay schoolboy, Nathan, is being taunted for being 'queer' by classmates, while the teacher ignores it and continues calling the roll.

When he gets to Nathan's name, the student responds with "queer" rather than "here". The teacher becomes furious, which leads Nathan to coolly ask him: "How come you can hear me when I say that word, but not the others?" The flustered teacher has no response.

Nathan's small triumph is fiction. In reality, few gay secondary school students, here or abroad, would have the confidence or support to stand up to homophobic bullying. It's a topic that is covered in a new documentary provocatively entitled Faggot, Dyke, Freak, Whatever, which will be broadcast on Newstalk 106-108 next weekend

It makes for distressing, though, unsurprising listening. One contributor, a transsexual named Danielle, tells of how she was driven to suicide attempts, before dropping out of school, while another, Stephen, recounts how the bullying extended beyond school hours in the form of abusive phone calls to his home every night.

The timing of the broadcast is significant, just after the streets of Dublin came to rainbow-coloured life with the annual Gay Pride parade, and two weeks after the international, gay rugby world cup was stage at Dublin City University to wide acclaim.

Last week also saw the Irish Queer Archive, a collection of material charting the tumultuous campaign for gay rights over the past four decades, being transferred to the National Library of Ireland. While this was a hugely symbolic move in terms of the Irish State officially making gay heritage part of the national narrative, the stories of discrimination and prejudice contained within that archive are anything but a distant memory for some gay people in Ireland today.

Nobody can deny that massive advances have been made in gay rights in this country, but serious problems, like homophobic bullying in schools, for instance, are a cold, harsh reminder that we still have some ways to go. As a 26-year-old, proud gay man, I sometimes marvel at just how much this country has changed in a very short space of time. It may seem hard to believe, from the vantage of our post Will & Grace era, that the same Victorian laws that were used to persecute Oscar Wilde in the 1890s were still on the Irish statute books until June, 1993 - 15 years ago to the day, in fact - when homosexuality was decriminalised by the then Labour-Fianna Fail Coalition government.

Since then, equality legislation has been overhauled to provide rights and protections to gay citizens, while the huge increase in gay representation in the media and public life, for good and for bad, has done a great deal to 'normalise' homosexuality in the popular imagination. But, for a lot of gay Irish people of all ages, none of the above matters. It's easy for me to say that life for gay people is rosy, living in a large city with an ever-diverse and lively gay scene. That's not the case for thousands of lonely and scared gay people, living in less open or supportive environs around the country.

If I had to pick one word to sum up how it feels to grow up as a gay person, it would be fear: the fear of realising you're not the same as everyone else; fear that you will let your carefully maintained guard slip and that someone will find out your secret; the fear that life will always be lonely; and the fear that nobody, ever will really understand you. Let me tell you, that's enough to drive someone mad. That's why I tell people now that I didn't 'come out' so much as crack up. I couldn't keep up the facade any longer - it was exhausting.

I gradually 'came out' to a select group of friends, and, after a few years of building my confidence, I told my parents and brothers, who to put it mildly, were not in the least surprised. In fact, they seemed a bit hurt and even insulted that I hadn't told them before, something which hadn't even occurred to me. It was all very calm, as I had consciously made a decision not to tell them until I felt fully comfortable with being gay, which I think reassured them and allayed whatever fears they might have.

However, that all happened in my early 20's. Getting to that point was extremely difficult. I was lucky not to have met the kind of horrible violence suffered by some of the contributors to the Newstalk documentary, but the stories of name calling, the sneering and the constant barrage of passive aggressive taunting were all too familiar reminders of my days in an all-boys secondary school.

IN my experience, humiliation brought on by verbal abuse is the minimum a gay secondary school student must put up with. Looking back, sometimes I think I'd have preferred a punch rather than be called "bum chum" in the middle of religion class. These were my options, apparently.

In 2006, a Dublin City University survey of 364 teachers found almost 80% were aware of instances of homophobic bullying, and 16% reported physical bullying of students perceived as being gay. It's been eight years since I left school, and seemingly little has changed. If these same statistics related to ethnic or religious-based bullying, there would be a national outcry. The word 'gay' is thrown around schoolyards as if it's the worst insult imaginable, and even adults, who should know better, casually fall back on the term when they want to describe something naff.

On the upside, gay people are coming out at an earlier age today than ever before. For many of them, it's no big deal. That's a great advancement, but one with a crucial paradox at its heart. Homosexuality is more accepted but that seems to have created the impression that there are no hurdles left to overcome. Legislation can change laws, but not hearts and minds. They are a lot trickier.

Since listening to that documentary, I've been haunted by the voices I heard on it. To those young gay men and women, and others in similar situations, all I can say is this: when I was 16 or 17, I never imagined that I would - could - ever write about being gay in a national newspaper, but here I am.

I can also say that I love my life, and sincerely wouldn't change it for anything. That's another thing I thought I would never say when I was 16 or 17. My point is that school is not life. It's not always going to be that way, but I realise it can be hard to grasp that there's a big, diverse world out there when small minds keep trying to belittle you. My hope is that in 30 years time, gay Irish pupils will come across that documentary in the Queer Archive - and not be able to relate to a single word of it. As a nation, as a society, surely we will have learned our lesson by then.