As we sat in Flanagans bar in Vienna on Saturday watching the results roll in, there were emotions being expressed in all forms: screams of joy, raucous cheers and much shedding of tears. You could say that we witnessed again all the emotions that we in the LGBT community have felt over these last few months of campaigning.
You see, for us, the referendum was about more than marriage equality, it was about validation of what we are and full acceptance of us as equal citizens of Ireland. I think Joan Burton summed it up well when she said: “Most of all, I’ll think of the children in every town, village and schoolyard who will now grow up knowing their country accepts them.”
The campaign that led up to Saturday undoubtedly affected the mental health of LGBT people, as, for some of us, it echoed what it was like to grow up gay in Ireland.
Of all the soundbites and quotes I heard, there is one that sticks in my mind, and what from I can see, was little reported in the press.
It was from our beloved David Norris as he spoke to Vincent Browne and said, “Over the last 40 or 50 years of this campaign, so many young people tragically took their lives. And today we should remember them as well.”
Well said, David.
And yes we should remember those people who found the burden of being LGBT too much. Growing up LGBT in Ireland was hard and it affected the mental health of many of us. It affected me.
From the age of 10, I knew I was different, and I quickly learned to keep it quiet as I just wanted to be the same as my friends. I hid my true self. No one told me to do this, but I did so, as I didn’t want to be treated differently as other people were in my school.
And as I grew into my teens, it began to hurt me more, drain my self esteem and destroy my confidence. In other words my mental health was slowly deteriorating. There was no support, no social media and hence no way to express and vocalise how I felt inside. I felt so alone.
It all came to a head when I was 19 and in Maynooth, where I was studying to be a priest. I got so depressed that I attempted to kill myself. I had had enough and just did not want to be gay anymore. All the years of hiding what I was were compounded by the teachings of the college I was studying in.
After my suicide bid, there was so little compassion and support from the authorities in Maynooth. They even went on to hurt me more, when a disgraced former president said “I was a threat to the college”.Imagine that, me, a vulnerable, insecure gay man who had just tried to kill himself, a threat to Maynooth?
But enough about me. The result was amazing but this campaign hurt us.
Yes, those ludicrous ‘no’ arguments and posters hurt us, in fact they hurt many non-LGBT people also. It was not easy to walk down the streets and look at those posters, because they declared us not suitable.
“Anyone else crying a lot?” “My nerves are shot,” “I’m over emotional,” “I feel sick in my stomach,” “I had to shut myself off from the debate,” “Every ‘no’ hurts me,” and “It’s the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life”. I heard it all firsthand from friends and fellow members of the LGBT community.
On the other hand, I also found it a small bit hard to wear my Yes Equality badge, because at times I felt it told the world that I was gay. You see this campaign evoked in me memories of my youth when I feared being found out as gay.
And as I talked to other people in Flanagans bar on Saturday, I realised I was not alone in feeling this way, and that I was also lucky in other ways because I had loving parents who accepted me for what I was, whereas others had no choice but to leave home and/or emigrate.
Twenty six years later, I’m a very different person and much more at ease and happy with myself. At last year’s Eurovision, sick of waiting for gay marriage in Ireland, I took advantage of Denmark’s gay marriage laws and married my partner of eight years, Frank Dermody. It’s a testament to Yes Equality that a year later, we’re at another Eurovision toasting such a momentous occasion.
But as a psychotherapist, my thoughts are also with the many people today who are struggling with their sexuality and/or still in the closet.
Know that it’s ok to be gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans. Know that you are not alone. Know that your country has validated you and treated us as equal citizens. Know that there is plenty of support out there should you need it, from such lovely people as the Samaritans, who you can ring anytime for free on 116 124 and also the National LGBT Helpline on 1890 929 539.
Finally I want to thank everyone who worked hard for the Yes Equality campaign during these last few months, and of course all of you who voted ‘yes’. You are our heroes, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
I’ll end with a paraphrase of a well known quote, “We have fought the good fight, We have finished the race, We have kept the faith in ourselves as equal citizens of Ireland.”