1988. During my student days, while volunteering as a night liner for Queen’s University listening service, it became abundantly clear we needed two phone lines because the one line was jammed with the sheer volume of gay people needing advice, help and support.
I took a few of those calls, mostly from young men. Some called in person during the early part of the evening and talked about their pain, the lengths they went to cover up being gay, how they were coping, or not, in a world of hostility and fear. Others rang late in the night, their voices trembling, threatening to end it all and crying so hard they were not fit to speak. Many did not want to be gay. They were unable to accept how they were feeling. The isolation, fear and shame they were experiencing was preventing them to be true to themselves. A rollercoaster of negative emotions raged inside them. They were afraid to come out. They were being bullied, taunted, and excluded by others because of their sexuality.
Back then, lesbian and gay issues were relatively new to me. I came from the back of beyond, at least that’s what the city slickers thought—a bit like what Newstalk reporter Henry McClean thinks about Donegal. Buncrana has since put the record straight. Likewise, that type of thinking didn’t hinder me from accepting folk exactly as they were, from all walks of life.
As a young straight female student, I doubt I was able to fully understand exactly what a young gay man was going through or indeed if I was helping at all. The most I could do was listen and be there in a non-judgemental manner for anyone who came through the door or called on the phone. It was during those volunteering years I witnessed the impact of prejudice on the gay community and the destruction caused by individuals in society who remained ignorant and misinformed about people who feel different. Being ‘different’ seemed to get misinterpreted as wrong. They are wrong and we are right. We are normal and they are not. Views that fly in the face of equality.
We consider ourselves a more accepting and equal society now. Gone are the archaic prejudices and suppression of the past that prevents anyone regardless of gender, faith, or belief, to live at peace in our utopian society. At least, that’s what we like to think, but this referendum debate has unravelled some steadfast views that remain woven deep in the fabric of Irish society, views that are unyielding, erroneous and prejudice by nature when the heart of the matter is about two people loving each other and committing to marriage so that they can share the same benefits of any other married couple in society.
Throughout this debate we have been subjected to many mixed messages and distorted images, confusing those who are perhaps less informed or have limited understanding of the inequalities experienced by gay communities. What isn’t confusing in this debate is that marriage equality will acknowledge the gay community as full members of our society who are entitled to civil and human rights as well as having the right to declare their love for each other. Love knows no gender, it has no boundaries, yet every day many in the gay community have experienced hate and little acceptance, not for who they are but for who they love. To love, to acceptance, to equality and to the memory of many tormented and fearful young people I tried to help in the late ‘80s who felt excluded from society I vote YES.