Some of you may have already read that 8 Rays Leitrim will be proudly hosting ShoutOut on their ‘The ABCs of LGBT’ tour this year. Its happening this coming Monday in The Bush Hotel at 6.30pm and the talk is open to all but please do RSVP to Bella so that we can ensure everyone has space on the night! I wanted to take some time and explain why a talk like this happening in the North-West is so important to me personally. Who knows my post might help others too.
T/W: bullying, homophobia, self-harm, suicidal thoughts — please don’t read alone if you think you may be affected by the themes discussed here.
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Homophobia: A series of personal experiences
While my grandmother’s family hail from Leitrim, I was actually born in Sligo and lived their until I was 12 years old. My parents met one another in Sligo and it was home, but for me it took on a different countenance when my family weren’t around. I was the tall, gangly kid in primary school with awful coordination so I didn’t really excel at sports. I loved art and reading or writing poetry, already I’m sure you can all see where this is going.
I went to two primary schools in Sligo, the first at the time was mixed gendered until students received their First Holy Communion in First Class. After that I needed to find a new school and so in second class I started a new school close by me. This one was mixed throughout the classes, and because it was closer I could be trusted to get the bus from the end of our estate for the next while. I remember falling getting into the bus and as my hand braced myself against someone else thats when it all started for me. Kids I didn’t know where using words I didn’t understand and yet it mattered to me. They called me “gay” and “fag” and “faggot” in a large chorus and I remember just being confused and mad that I didn’t really know what they were talking about.
These words hurt. They hurt me, my parents and family and I’m sure they hurt others who heard them too. The taunting got worse. More kids where joining in and I was feeling more and more alone because I was starting to work out what they meant by these words. And I wanted to desperately to be able to tell these bullies how wrong they were and that I was ‘normal’ just like them, but something in me recognised a grain of truth in it all. The taunts became daily occurrences and there were days my mask could hide how much they affected me. Yet there were days maintaining the mask was tough. Some days I was attacked and hit. To be honest my attackers names and faces changed to much it was like being up against a legion of hate all aimed at me.
At first my parents tried to teach me to ignore them and let them go away hoping they’d get bored rather than work in shifts [sic], they tried to talk to teachers to get them to help but mostly since I was being abused and attacked outside of school property the teachers were powerless. God help my parents who loathed the idea but in desperation they even started to advise me to fight back — please believe me my parents didn’t come to this unfortunate decision over a series of months even but in fact years and the torment this was having on them was obvious by now. Even my younger brother was starting to feel the impact despite me relying more and more on my mask to protect me.
You have to understand the mask wasn’t ever about retaliating against my bullies but because my self-worth had gone down into the gutter I had started to believe that I was nothing more than a “dirty fag” or “pervy queer”. I believed this because the only evidence that gay people existed in my world back then was in the never-ending torrents of abuse. I was the only queer person I knew and I was ashamed to even know this about myself. Being gay or queer was obviously the worst thing one could be yet here I was.
[T/W] For nearly two of the longest years before moving to Leitrim I would come home, rush upstairs to the bathroom and cry silent tears of hatred at myself. I wanted to die. It made sense, if I weren’t around my family and teachers lives would be so much easier and better off. Certainly the kids in school would be free from whatever the hell was wrong with me too. And I’d be free. I started by day-dreaming of life free from the pain and I quickly realised I wasn’t even thinking of my distant future self, I only saw the blackness and it was quiet. I wanted that.
I was older now, in Sixth Class. I had a blunt scissors in my room but I took my day-dreaming further and further into working out a plan. On several really bad days I took the scissors to my arm and tried to cut into it. It was too dull for that.
End of Sixth Class – roll on Secondary!
I made it through primary school physically anyway. I was an emotional wreck on the inside but my mask helped me hide that. I started secondary in Sligo for four months and truthfully it was a mixed bag, I was away from most of my old tormentors and the few that followed seemed too scared as first years themselves to bother with me, at least for now.
I wasn’t settling before we had to move to Leitrim anyway but within my first week at yet another new school in a much smaller town, and already more boys start ganging up on me outside the school. This time my glasses get broken when one of them throws a bunch after more homophobic abuse. This is DEFINITELY going to more of the same and now in a small town I can’t hide in! I tell myself. Thankfully, my Mom springs into action on this one because nobody really knows how close I came to ending things in Sligo. But word get around school and the homophobic slurs are whispered under people’s breathe a lot of the time in corridors and outside school gates. I’m not a million miles away from teachers or my family but I know from the previous chapter that they are powerless to help. I isolate myself and try once more to batten down the hatches.
Claiming my Own Power!
By the time I’m sitting my Junior Cert, something has changed. A guy in school “comes out” as gay. He comes out to me at the end of school, I still remember how weird I thought it was to see him anywhere near his locker, nevermind talking to me. But he comes out and out of fear I politely accept his coming out and make my excuses as it’s home time. Truth is, while T.V. was beginning to fill in the blanks of how a gay man might look teenagers in schools were still a bit novel.
I decided to risk it. I came out to him a day or so later. I can honestly say that in saying those words of my own volition something wonderful was planted in my soul. I hadn’t thought it was possible to feel even just “okay” with myself or even to think that I might not be alone.
Unfortunately, my friend was out to a lot more people and took a lot of flack for it too. It got to such an extent that he left school a few times because of it. Before the last time he left, when he also isolated himself from me (thus isolating me from the only other person I knew was experiencing similar feelings to me) I came out to some people in my class who were asking questions about our friendship. The news spread like wildfire. This is possibly the only part of my coming out experience I would consider changing. The news wasn’t a commodity for the rest of my school to consume it was a close part of me that I still needed to build up as a positive identity rather than an ideal.
The obvious homophobia dwindled for a short time. People in school started to actually get to know me (for better or worse I shocked myself I was letting people in!).
In Fourth Year, we had a school trip to Paris. I didn’t speak a word of French but I couldn’t wait. Besides it looked like most of the issues around my sexual orientation were dying down. Don’t get me wrong there was still some tension but it wasn’t pulling people’s focus as much, until now. Boys and girls had to sleep separately — as you might expect, but honestly gay, bi or straight I was on heavy meds for my epilepsy by now so I just wanted a room for sleeping in not partying or hooking-up with guys even if they did want to experiment — but none of the lads on tour wanted to run the risk of sleeping in same room with me.
They protested to teachers, and honestly I was too upset and embarrassed to even ask what might have been said exactly. I know that some females friends tried to explain that they were completely comfortable sleeping in the same room but of course teachers couldn’t possibly do that in fairness. During the day I hung out with some female friends the first three days but I was asked to go away basically. I was found wandering street of Paris on my own and actually getting about okay considering I don’t have a word of French by other friends who I hung out with for most of the rest of the school tour.
The problem now was the whole affair had reignited my feelings of lack of self-worth and not belonging anywhere all over again. I put on my mask of protection again, just in case I might need it.
My first attempt at college life in IT Sligo and I was in trouble within the first two weeks of the course. A girl who started late took exception to the fact that I was gay and openly “outed” me to a lecturer (who incidentally decided to be professional and say he was not okay with LGBT people!), by shouting loudly that, “Just because you’re queer…”. The level of hate in her tone was telling enough, this wasn’t simple ignorance though she wanted to pass her outburst off as such when I called her out on it. In her mind, so long as I was funny like a jester as a queer I was fine but if I had thoughts or opinions I was beneath her.
I was dumbfounded that even the lecturer was not challenging her outburst and I felt judged for challenging her myself as the eyes of the entire class bore through me.
I had deferred my place on my course in University of Limerick to take part in this course for people with epilepsy and it did not look like a good start. Already isolated from my classmates, I thought I’d try signing up for the college LGBT Society, which turned out to be only three of us. It didn’t meet very often and often usually at pub venue in town so a few locals met there too but they were very cliquish. I quickly gave up on wasting much time trying to be friendly there.
OUT in UL – My Rise to Glory!
OUTinUL is the name of the LGBT+ Society in the University of Limerick and I prayed to all the gay gods and divas that I would find it in better condition than IT Sligo’s LGBT Soc had been. To be fair it was, even if it lacked a full committee at the time and numbers at weekly meetings were low, the Soc pulled in numbers for events and in recent years as committees have come and gone more effort has gone into the society.
But something that was TRULY inspiring as a gay man was how the LGBT Society – a college society – was so well interconnected with the rest of Limerick’s thriving LGBTIQ+ community. The Society attended LGBT Youth Group meetings so that 17-19 years olds leaving secondary school or other courses and coming to UL would see other LGBTIQ+ people were there and be okay to meet them if they so chose to. The Society was linked into a local sexual health promotion group, the then Red Ribbon Project, currently GOSHH.
Limerick doesn’t have a perfect LGBTIQ+ Community anymore than Cork, Galway, Dublin or Belfast, or even Sligo, but it did expose me to how LGBTIQ+ individuals can celebrate their identities by opening up and sharing with folk.
This is something that I hope comes from Monday night’s talk by ShoutOut. Especially now that we have groups like 8 Rays Leitrim, SAGA Sligo, ITS LGBT Society, Where We Are Now LGBT+ Theatre Festival, SMILY LGBT Youth Project (Sligo & Leitrim) and OutWest all working in the region, we can better support parents, schools, youth projects and centres to help guide and nurture young LGBTIQ+ people as well as combat issues of bullying, homophobia and transphobia which can be systemic in society.