One in four Irish people define themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. In a survey carried out by The Glen and Belong to groups 70 percent of those under twenty five said they had seriously thought of taking their own life.The results show a harrowing reality of being gay during one’s teenage years.
The conclusion of the study portrays that those over twenty five report a good self esteem. It was time to investigate. I speak with two individuals from two different generations. Senator David Norris (72) and Cathal O’ Gara (26) illustrate a vast discrepancy between their experiences.
I meet with Senator David Norris in his beautiful Georgian home, a former Irish presidential candidate and a civil and gay rights activist. This man was partly responsible for the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993.
Senator Norris offers me an insight into a world that was and is not accepting. I ask him what it is like to grow up gay as he makes me a cup of tea.
Can you tell me what it was like to be gay in your twenties?
It was a different world, I mean I grew up thinking I was a perfectly ordinary person and then I started gradually realizing there was something different about me.
There was something extremely dangerous because in my day, if you were gay, you were automatically a criminal and that was very frightening, you were also subject to social discrimination.
The church said you were wicked and sinful, the state said you were a criminal. Society said you were undermining the family and you were a pervert. It was really, really difficult.
When Henry the 8th grabbed the ecclesiastical courts as he was taking over, homosexuality made the transition from sin into crime.
Cathal O’ Gara, 26, tells me that he faced few to no issues in being himself over brunch in the Dublin City Centre. Despite the generational gap between Norris and O’Gara, they both entered this world uncaring and oblivious to their differences.
Well I, came out of the womb tap dancing.
The interesting thing with kids is they never think of themselves in terms of differences until those differences are pointed out to them by peers or adults. You would never think about those until other people would project those differences onto you.
I think I always knew, you always know. You don’t think about it in sexual terms but you realise know that you’re slightly more flamboyant maybe.
And how were you treated growing up gay?
This is where the differences start to become clear.
I thought I was some kind of monster and that I was the only one. You’ll find that people of my generation all had that experience of thinking they were the only one and thinking that there was something really disastrously wrong with them.
It was always an accepted fact. “There’s Cathal listening to Britney, like that’s just totally normal.”
What was your favourite Britney song?
Does acceptance come with being in the right place at the right time?
Psychiatric professions described it as a mental illness.
I was absolutely silenced. I missed out on all of the experiences of young people. Holding hands at the back of the cinema, going to the cricket club dances, all these sort of things. They meant nothing to me, absolutely nothing. I’m delighted that young people today, don’t experience that kind of loss.
No, I think I was lucky to grow up and be in my teens in the 2000s because it was a much more accepting place than if it had been the 90s or even the 80s. I think that it’s always benefited me, you can always get away with murder just with like a little sashay of the head or a little smirk. I would say however, that the majority of gay people flock to cities, where it is more accepting.The Central Statistics Office shows that last year over three quarters of same sex civil partnerships were couples based in Leinster.
Homophobia, have you experienced it?
I have experienced very strong homophobia in the last ten years. I mean if we look at the presidential election, one of the elements of the disgraceful attacks upon my character was a strong streak of homophobia in the media. The headlines they used, the things that were said on RTE radio for example, “Norris would like it up the Áras.”
They wouldn’t dare say that about a woman. The headlines, the stories that were manufactured, the attempts to portray me as somebody that is soft on paedophilia, it was utterly disgusting.
These emotions were stirred up by the press and the radio, I was shouted at, I was physically attacked and I was spat at in the street.
Like, I’m sure, it’s been said behind closed doors. Possibly friends of friends who are quite small minded. I’m sure that happened, but never to my face, no one would dare.
David, will I take you out to The George and we'll find love?
Bahaha, Oh no thank you, no thank you. I don’t tend to go out as much anymore, because of the liver cancer, I don’t really drink you see. I like to relax instead.
What do you think of The George, Cathal?
The George was the first nightclub I graced on arriving to Dublin. I have been going there ever since. It’s the best gay nightclub in Ireland. There’s a sense of community, a sense of fun and a certain etiquette you don’t see in other nightclubs.
It was time to check it out for myself.
How is homosexuality being portrayed in the media?
There was, a certain amount of fear because there was no knowledge. I mean, the word “gay” never appeared in the press, never appeared in the media, it was literally unspeakable.
Five years ago, it you picked up the daily mail, and there was a murderer, the biggest word if the murderer was gay would be LESBIAN KILLER and that would be like the biggest word on the entire page, the fact that she was a lesbian, not the fact that she had murdered two children.
The “Daily Fail” made earlier this year shows that what Cathal describes is still happening five years later, that is a horrendously long headline regardless of its content.
The legalization of same sex marriage in Ireland makes Norris believe that Ireland is, as he says, an island of sanity.
Yes, it’s quite a big jump for a country to make. If you put it in the global context, it’s a terrific advance. I mean in the majority of countries on the planet, Soviet Union countries, the Islamic countries, it is very dangerous to be gay because you are subject to very severe discrimination up to and including torture and death so I mean we’re a little island of sanity really.
Cathal on the other hand, doesn’t think much of the referendum, saying it was something to make heterosexuals feel better about themselves.
I think straight people are more comfortable with themselves. The marriage equality referendum, in my view was more about making ‘normal’ people feel good about themselves than actual equality for gay people.
I myself am not interested in dating in archaic old institutions that limit people. I’m sure that there are some very interesting gay accountants that would be interested in that kind of lifestyle, I mean it’s not even a lifestyle. I guess you’re not allowed to use that word anymore, that’s not what my lifestyle is about. So like, it didn’t affect me.
And what advice would Cathal give someone who is thinking about coming out?
Wait till you’re ready, don’t let anyone force you to come out, always make sure it’s a safe environment, make sure you’re comfortable in the environment, if you feel like you need support, bring your best friend who might know you and who you might have come out to.
If you’re unsure about coming out to your family, don’t, there is nothing that says that you have to.
If you feel like you are obliged to come out to them, to live your authentic self, to be who you are, that’s okay too. If you fear that you won’t be accepted, prepare for that rejection because there is 50/50 chance that like they won’t immediately be ready to accept you for who you are.
If you’re lucky enough to be like a macho guy who could pass as straight then whoever you are coming out to might be genuinely surprised and it might not be homophobia, or conservatism, it might just be a confusion at the start where they just can’t accept it, just give them time.
If they still can’t accept you at the end of the day, it’s their loss.
David and Cathal despite their varying experiences share similar words of wisdom on coming out.
The lovely David plays me a tune on the piano and we end agreeing that love and laughter are the ingredients in achieving true happiness.
Every human being is different, but in general terms, I would say, think about it. Come out in your own time, when you are ready.
Make as many contacts as you can. An organization I used to be part of can probably still be contacted, the Outhouse on Caple street was for people who were just nibbling at the edges of the gay scene and were a little bit nervous, most of them of course were young.
I think contact with a group like that and just sitting down and having a coffee, it’s amazing how much that relaxes people.
In the early days of the gay movement we would put an advertisement in the local newspapers and we would hire a room in a hotel and we’d be down there and we would talk with people. I mean it was just extraordinary, the way for them, meeting another gay person for the first time, the shame and the misery and the isolation and the loneliness, you could see it just melting away from them and that was just a really exhilarating feeling.
Because they realize they’re not alone anymore?
Exactly, they realize that you could be successful, you could be happy, you could have a balanced life, all that sort of stuff.
The previous picture of gay people came from court cases and from scandals. People were left with the impression that for a gay person, life consisted of a few furtive encounters in the lavatories or being arrested by the police, it was just dreadful.
So there’s hope?
Oh there is! People should just be themselves and have good humour, I mean I think laughter is the most important thing in life.
Laughter and love?