Gay people have suffered, not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are, writes Fergus Finlay
THERE are people who leave a mark on you. They’re not necessarily big, colourful people who do big, colourful things. When you get to know them, though, they can be hard to forget.
One of them was a neighbour of ours, who became our friend. I will call him Sean — even though he has been dead a long time, he would not want his name in a newspaper.
He lived alone. I would meet him when he was walking his dog, and he always had a friendly word. He loved children, and they loved him. But there was something sad and lonely about him. He didn’t encourage conversation about intimate matters, so I wasn’t sure for a long time whether he’d ever had any children of his own.
Then, quite late in life, he took in a lodger. Michael was a retired university lecturer, and one of those men you knew to be highly respectable the minute you met him. Polished shoes, well-cut tweed jacket, always with a tie — that sort of thing.
I got to know them both well. I’d share a glass of wine with them in their back garden, or stop and chat with whoever was walking the dog. Now and again, you’d see them together, when they didn’t realise anyone was watching. They were quiet, close; they seemed like really good companions.
When Sean died, after the funeral Michael told me that’s what they had been: companions. At least, that’s what they had become. What had started as a landlord-and-tenant relationship had developed into a friendship, and then the idea of living without each other had become unthinkable.
But that’s where it stopped. Michael wasn’t religious, but Sean had been. He had believed all his life that there was something wrong with him, because he wasn’t attracted to women. And the only alternative to that, in his mind, was to live alone. And be lonely.
Michael told me that he and Sean had never had a homosexual relationship. They’d shake hands last thing at night, and that was the most intimate thing they had ever done, apart from those moments in front of the fire when it just felt good to be together.
Those were the days before homosexuality had been decriminalised, of course. And when that legislation was passed, Sean and Michael were already in their 60s, and Sean was in the throes of the cancer that would kill him. He had lived an entire life of denial — denying his own sexuality to himself in order to be able to go to confession — and it was too late for anything except the warm and supportive friendship that helped him to die happier than he had lived.
He left the house to Michael in his will. And Michael — although he wasn’t as fond of dogs as Sean had been — took seriously the responsibility of Sean’s dog.
But then Sean’s will was challenged by a relative of whom Michael had never heard. The first I knew of it was when I saw a “For Sale” sign over the gate. Michael told me that if he had fought it, he would have been cross-examined in court, and they would have tried to get him to say ‘terrible things’ about Sean. It would be put to him that he had seduced Sean for the property, that Sean was capable of being manipulated because he was homosexual.
Michael wasn’t prepared to allow Sean’s memory to be traduced, so he had agreed to sell Sean’s house and give the relative two-thirds of the money. I haven’t seen Michael for years, not since he left our neighbourhood. The last time we spoke, he was still full of regret that he and Sean had never been able to say how they truly felt about each other. They were warm, honourable, decent men. And their lives were blighted by a prejudice they couldn’t change and were never in a position to confront.
I recently told this story, of Sean and Michael, to a young friend of mine who is also gay. Unlike them, he has no difficulty talking about it. But when I told him about the stigma that had destroyed their lives, he shrugged. Why was I surprised, he wanted to know.
“I’m not,” I said. “But it’s easier now, isn’t it? There’s no need for fear now.”
“Of course not”, he said. “It’s much easier now. As long as you don’t mind being jeered at by your friends when you’re a kid. As long as you don’t mind being frozen out of the gang when you’re a teenager. As long as you don’t mind being beaten up once a month when you’re a young adult. And as long as you don’t mind that your Dad hasn’t talked to you in nine years.”
Patrick — that’s my friend’s name — came out to his family nine years ago. His mum was shocked. But after a minute’s hesitation, she hugged him and told him it would be all right. His father turned on his heel and went to the pub. He has never spoken to Patrick since.
But there have been times since when Patrick has needed his father. Like the night he was badly beaten on a weekend home in the midlands town where he grew up. He came home that night bleeding, but never went into the sitting room and didn’t force his father to look at the cut eye and the broken nose. Patrick has actually forgiven his father. “He is what he is,” he shrugged to me. “I guess he can’t help it.”
Patrick, Sean and Michael are Irish men. In a different time, they might have been asked to fight for their country — even to die for their country. To my knowledge, they’ve each made their own contribution to the building of their country.
But they’ve all lived lives of injustice. They’ve suffered, each in their own way, not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are. They’ve known loneliness, pain, discrimination, and even violence. They’ve been stigmatised and bullied, marginalised and humiliated. Just because of the way they were born.
Between now and the end of May we will be debating the Marriage Equality Referendum a lot. If we vote yes, we will become the first country to put marriage equality into our written constitution.
That will be a phenomenal achievement. I’ll be voting for it, campaigning for it, arguing for it everywhere I go. It’s a step towards equality.
But I also see it as the beginning of the end of inequality. It’s a step towards justice. But it’s just as much a recognition of all the injustices of the past.
There are people who cannot benefit from this referendum. They have already lived through the pain and the loneliness. The discrimination against them has left its indelible mark.
But when the referendum happens, we will have it in our power to say ‘no more injustice’. To say ‘never ever again’. That will feel really, really good.
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