Colm O'Gorman: When I first came out homosexuality was illegal

As we celebrate Cork Pride Week, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, Colm O'Gorman, reflects on why Pride's message of tolerance, acceptance and love is needed more than ever
Colm O'Gorman: When I first came out homosexuality was illegal

And the Oscar goes to... Colm and Jake! Colm o'Gorman at his local beach in Co Wexford, with his rescue dogs, Jake and Oscar. Picture: Mary Browne

I am at that stage of life where when I talk about some of my formative experiences, younger people shake their heads and express their surprise at how different the Ireland I grew up in is to the one that they know. 

A stage of life where what I think of as recent events, are becoming, well, history. It is more than five years for instance since the referendum on marriage equality. Within another five years, we will have a generation of young LGBTQ people who will not know what it was like to grow up in a country where they were denied the right to marry the person they love. Isn’t that a lovely thought? A generation who will never have experienced that sort of state-imposed discrimination.

It is a world away from the Ireland I knew as a teenager. There were no Pride marches then, no expressions of support or solidarity. When I first came out having run away from home aged seventeen, homosexuality was illegal. It would be another decade before it was decriminalised. It was 1983, the same year that Ireland’s first LGBTQ protest march took place when nine hundred people marched from Liberty Hall to Fairview Park in protest at the release of the gang convicted of the brutal killing of a gay man, Declan Flynn. 

Declan was kicked and beaten to death simply because he was gay. His killers walked free from court, receiving suspended sentences despite the premediated and brutal nature of the attack. 

Members of the gang admitted that they had been “queer-bashing for about six weeks before and had battered twenty steamers”. Back then, the idea that Irish society might ever tolerate, never mind embrace its LGBTQ citizens seemed like an impossible dream.

So much has changed. Pride is now a celebration of what we have achieved and of a society that increasingly embraces difference. Pride has always been about visibility. In its early years it was about a refusal to be invisible, a rejection of the demand that we should hide away in shame and live the lonely empty lives prescribed for us by a society that shunned us. It was a protest against laws and social norms that dehumanised and demonised us. It was about protest; loud, colourful, defiant protest.

Colm O’Gorman photographed at his home in Cronellard, Co. Wexford. Photo; Mary Browne

Colm O’Gorman photographed at his home in Cronellard, Co. Wexford. Photo; Mary Browne

It is still about visibility and that continues to matter, because even though so much has changed, we still have work to do. Earlier this month, BelongTo, the national organisation supporting LGBTQ young people, reported that 58% of young people accessing their frontline services did so to seek support with coming out.

Irish research tells us that it takes on average four years for a young person to come out after they have realised they are gay, and that this can be a period of stress and mental health risk. The fear of rejection by family and friends can lead to intense anxiety and depression that can have a lasting effect. Compared to their non-LGBTQ peers, LGBTQ youth in Ireland are two times more likely to experience self-harm, three times more likely to experience suicide ideation, and four times more likely to experience extreme stress, anxiety, and depression.

I understand that pressure, that struggle. Having to hide a core aspect of who you are, feeling like you cannot be your authentic self with the people you love and depend upon the most is a crushing experience.

I remember the first time I walked into the National Gay Federation (NGF) building in Dublin and saw, for the very first time, other gay people being truly themselves. Dancing together, laughing, having fun. It was joyous and it blew my mind. I found acceptance, respect, community and a place to belong, where I could begin to explore who I was, where I was safe.

Pride sends that same message today. It sends a message of not just mere tolerance, but of genuine acceptance and of celebration. That matters here at home, but it also sends an important message out globally.

More than half a century on from the 1969 Stonewall riots which were the spark for the rise of the gay liberation movement across the world, LGBTQ people still face appalling human rights abuses in many parts of the world. It is still illegal to be LGBTQ in seventy countries, and the death penalty applies in twelve. Only thirty percent of UN member states have laws in place offering broad protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation, with only forty precent having laws that offer protection from workplace discrimination.

In many countries, progress has stopped, and we are instead seeing a worrying regression. This is also true here in Europe despite some of the strongest regional human rights protection mechanisms in the world. 

Earlier this year, European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli expressed her concern about the high levels of discrimination LGBTQ people are facing in many European countries.

"More worryingly, we have recently witnessed within the EU anti-LGBTI incidents such as attacks on prides, the adoption of 'LGBTI ideology-free zone' declarations, fines for LGBTI-friendly advertisements and others. Everybody in the European Union should feel safe and free to be themselves," Dalli said.

Colm O’Gorman photographed at a beach close to his home in Cronellard, Co. Wexford with his dogs Jake and Oscar. Photo; Mary Browne

Colm O’Gorman photographed at a beach close to his home in Cronellard, Co. Wexford with his dogs Jake and Oscar. Photo; Mary Browne

But they are not. We have much more to do before we realise that vision. When I march I do so in celebration of those who came before me, of those who fought with me to secure the rights and freedoms we now enjoy, and in loud and indignant protest against governments in other countries who continue to kill and oppress LGBTQ people simply for being themselves. I march as an expression of solidarity with those oppressed people and as a signal of hope to them.

I remember the days and weeks after Ireland voted to enshrine equal access to marriage for LBGTQ people in our constitution. I remember the emails and calls from colleagues and fellow activists from around the world who were inspired and empowered by what we had achieved here at home. If we would do this here, in a country which had only decriminalised homosexuality relatively recently, then so could they. 

If it was possible here, it was possible there. 

I remember my pride and joy as I walked away from Dublin Castle on the day of the referendum result through streets thronged by people who danced and celebrated with unbridled joy. 

I remember the hugs in the street wherever I went for weeks afterwards from strangers, LGBTQ and straight, who wanted to express their joy at what we had achieved together.

It is now twenty-six years since I first walked into the NGF building in Dublin. That was the first time I ever felt accepted and loved for who I was. It changed my life. It perhaps even saved my life.

That is why Pride matters so much today. It is a powerful and public message of love and acceptance. It is a celebration of who we are, all of us, LGBTQ and straight, of a society which has achieved so much. It is also, I hope, a statement of our intention to continue to work for a future where everyone feels free to be their true and authentic self.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up