For many decades, Irish families, especially the ambitious bourgeoisie kind, regarded it a badge of honour if a son or a daughter committed to a religious life. A son ordained a priest, a daughter consecrated a nun — invariably Catholic — conferred a status unimaginable today, now that embracing a religious vocation is almost an act of rebellion.
That pursuit of position occasionally superseded any longing to serve a high ideal, and goes some small way to explain the horrors of our past. The economic advantages of a vocation, even one loosely felt, were significant too. Parallel to that process there was a second, less popular but every bit as pressing life choice that was not celebrated but more often than not hidden away.
Virtually every family has one member, maybe more, who chose not to live in this country because their sexuality meant they were scorned as a threat to conventional stability though that was was more a repressive, hateful darkness. Uncle Michael or Aunt Maureen lived in Berlin or Seattle and though remembered fondly were hardly ever spoken of.
They missed funerals and weddings because they “travelled a lot”. All too often, they stood like ghosts, present but absent, in family portraits. What a price these exiles paid for the randomness of sexuality. Some may have had full, liberated lives, but it is hard not to imagine this outcasting did not exact a toll on at least some of these sons and daughters of Erin.
Soviet Russia sent those who challenged its orthodoxies to Siberian gulags, we used the whole world as our gulag for those who stood beyond norms we imagined sacrosanct. Tempting as it may be to reject any comparison with Soviet terrors, that denial would perpetuate the dishonesty behind this sorry, heartrending strand of our history.
Not all of those alienated because of sexuality could, or felt obliged to, seek refuge elsewhere. Many stayed and some, hopefully, found happiness. Others, more than we might acknowledge, took refuge in alcohol, travelling a path more acceptable to this society than their sexuality. That we tolerated alcoholism more readily than we recognised homosexuality offers a chilling insight.
An even more chilling one is that some of those, an unknowable number, resorted to suicide, replacing shame with grief in their family’s psychosis. That trend sadly continues among today’s LGBT citizens where suicide rates are above the norm.
It is hard, in a country with a proudly gay Taoiseach, to imagine how doors closed, careers ran into the deepest sands, and individuals were ostracised because they were not heterosexual. The rejection of that inhumanity spoke, in an Irish context, loudest in May 2015, when we voted for marriage equality. That journey began a long time ago and often faltered — it may again.
Today marks a significant anniversary in that journey. Fifty years ago, on June 29, 1969, the riot that followed a police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, lit a fuse. That boiling-over became the energy behind making LGBT rights one of the human rights issues of our time.
Sadly, that journey has not begun in many countries — eight still see homosexuality as punishable by death. Homophobic and transphobic hate crimes have doubled in the UK in five years. Two EU countries — inevitably, Hungary and Poland — tacitly and unacceptably encourage homophobia and, like Russia, warn of a worldwide gay campaign to undermine tradition.
As ever, history offers a lesson. In the Europe of the 1920s, Jews began, after centuries of persecution, to feel assimilated. The scale of that misjudgement can hardly be imagined even now. In today’s world, the unexpected — Trump, Brexit, Johnson — seems a tightening noose so we may have to do much more than celebrate inclusion and LGBT rights.
We may have to make real sacrifices to protect and extend them so Cousin Michael or Cousin Maureen can live, safely, happily, respected and fulfilled in a country that not so very long ago sent Uncle Michael and Aunt Maureen into exile lest they bring shame on their families for being nothing other than what they are — human. Just like everyone else.