Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Day in May: Testimonies of LGBTQ Irish People About Marriage Equality Vote — "I Believe God Did Work Through Us on That Day"

In two postings a month ago (here and here), I pointed you to a book by Irish journalist Charlie Bird — A Day in May (Newbridge: Merrion Press, 2016)— about how the marriage equality battle was won in Ireland. The book came out in June, and I've just finished reading and wanted to share some notes about it with you.

After the Irish people voted by a significant majority (62% v. 38%) to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2015, Charlie Bird began interviewing LGBTQ Irish people and their families. His book provides a moving set of statements — firsthand testimony — from queer Irish citizens and their family members speaking about their lives as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people in Ireland, about their experiences of coming out of the closet, and about what the marriage equality referendum has meant to them. In an introductory essay, noted Irish writer Colm Tóibín observes,

[T]hese stories collected by Charlie Bird, filled with bracing honesty and heart-breaking personal revelation, make clear that being gay in Ireland was perhaps a more essential aspect of Irish history and Irish reality than anyone was aware (p. xii).

As testimony after testimony notes, one primary effect of the sizable vote for marriage equality in Ireland is, quite simply, to make queer citizens of this heavily Catholic nation feel equal — for the first time in their lives. Many people who told their story to Bird say that coming out in a culture that did not engage issues of sexuality openly, where religion often played a role in keeping people silent and closeted, was extraordinarily difficult. Yet, now that a majority of their fellow citizens have affirmed their equality, they have every confidence that they themselves can be more open about their identities — and that doors will open for younger queer Irish people to come to terms with their sexual identities in ways less painful than those evident in the lives of generations before them.

Here are some tidbits of testimony that caught my eye. I'm trying carefully to identify where these LGBTQ Irish people and their families grew up and where they live now, because one unavoidable conclusion that has to be reached by anyone reading this book with open eyes is that queer people are everywhere in Ireland (as they are everywhere anywhere else we go in the world). The people who tell their stories in this book did not all grow up in an Irish city. To the contrary, a majority of them are from tiny towns and villages throughout Ireland.

And their testimony is all the more extraordinary and moving as a result.

Here's Jenny Hannon, who grew up in Dublin but now lives in Limerick, where she works as a social worker addressing addiction issues, speaking about the significance her mother saw in the marriage equality vote:

This was something that my Ma said to me. She felt that the day after the referendum if there was a gay person walking down the road, and someone gave that person hassle there's a whole load of people now that will turn around and defend that person, and say to that person, "You can't treat that person like that." It's not only one person now because Ireland has decided that homophobia is not OK (p. 52).

Galway musician Steven Sharpe, who grew up in Tipperary town, talks about coming out to his father:

I didn't tell my Dad at first. He is a very devout religious man, very GAA, a soccer-playing Irish dude. He was always a bit annoyed that I was such a wimpy kid. He always tried to get me into football and his way of doing that was plastering my room with Chelsea posters. So I just developed a crush on Roberto di Matteo. 
I came out to my Dad when I was twenty-one. I had fallen head over heels in love with a guy, and I was like this is a part of my life that I should tell people about. So I told my Dad in a fit of like, "I need to . . . I have something to tell you." I was shaking. We were in his car. So I said it. And he was, "Oh, thank Christ. I thought you were going to say you have AIDS or something." He said he always knew I was gay from when I was a seven-year-old. I was running around in a batman outfit chasing other fellas. He said, "You are my son, I love you, it's not a problem." He took it best out of everyone (pp. 109-110).

Kathleen Sharkey from Tory Island in County Donegal, who has a gay son, recounts a painful story of losing her brother Anton to suicide. Anton married a woman knowing that he was gay, and the marriage broke up when he realized that he could no longer live pretending to be who he was not. He then went through a series of failed relationships with men and eventually took his life.

Kathleen Sharkey now lives in Derry (I think: this was not wholly clear to me). She talks about her experience going door to door to ask people to vote "Yes" in the equality referendum:

I was at one door, and I met a young lady with a young family. She said to me, "Well I was all for this 'Yes' vote but the parish priest in a sermon said differently and now I don't know what to do." But when this lady came home her wee girl — it was very funny, listen to this — her wee girl just said, "Oh Mum, sure the priest always says, we all must love one another." The wee girl was only seven years of age. And I said, "Give her the vote," I told her, "I will be voting 'Yes' for my son and for, God rest him, Anton, and all the other gay young people out there. I just want to see them happy in life, because that's what it is about at the end of the day." There's nobody perfect in this world. I go to Mass seven days a week, but I'm not a saint (p. 141).

Bartender Mícheál ÓRíordáín from Kilnamartyra in County Cork, who now lives in Cork city, recounts his experience coming out to his mother:

When I said that nobody ever thought I was gay, maybe my mother had an inkling. Mothers always do. It was funny, I came out to both my parents in the car. Separately. My mother was driving into Macroom, and she kind of said it in a roundabout way. Kind of out of nowhere. She brought it up like, saying, "whenever you settle down, no matter who it might be, I hope you will be happy." She said it in a gender neutral way. And I was like, "yeah, Mom, if I do settle down it will be with a man." And she's like, "Oh I was thinking that alright." (p. 151).

Gillian McKenna, who grew up in Dublin but now lives in Enniscorthy in County Wexford with her wife Lora Bolger, a garda, speaks of her grandmother's reaction when she came out of the closet:

My Mam went around with rainbow flags and all this kind of craic, buying rainbow candles, rainbow blankets and everything. I remember my Dad told my Nanny. She died in 2014, but when he told her, she just said, "God she must have had an awful weight on her shoulders. Like she must feel a weight lifted now that everybody knows and she can be herself." I thought that was brilliant for an older lady to say (p. 157).

Brian Sheehan from Kilrush in County Kildare, who is executive director of the GLEN network and now lives in Dublin, explains why he was passionate about securing equality for queer citizens of Ireland in the 2015 referendum:

For me, it was always about the fourteen-year-old me. For that young person, it was impossbile to countenance losing the referendum. Because for the frightened, scared fourteen-year-old me, and those fourteen-year-old LGBT people all over the country, the idea that the Irish people would say "No" we couldn't let happen. That was the primary motivating thing for me, we just couldn't let that happen. So whatever it took to win was going to be the ony game in town (p. 181).

And he goes on to observe,

I think the people of Ireland have probably done more than anything we will ever do as activists in their generosity and with their sense of fairness. Through the size of the majority, and with every single political party saying "Yes" the Irish people have told us that we, finally, belong in Ireland. Now that doesn't necessarily impact on the midset of some young man who is fourteen, who hasn't told another human being that he may be gay and who may be struggling, but it does change for the better the environment in which he discovers who he is" (pp. 182-3).

Colin O'Mahony from Dungarvan, County Waterford, who now lives in Waterford city, speaks of his father's surprising reaction as Colin campaigned for the referendum:

My Dad is a big burly man, and he wouldn't talk about it. And, the funny thing is, I honestly think that if he was in company and people started making jokes about gay people I don't think he would actually say anything. I don't think he'd stand up and go, "Hang on a second, I have a son that's gay." I think he'd let it slide. So when he did arrive down I was very happy especially because I actually didn't make it to Dungarvan. So I left him and my mother there all on their own. But he was happy out. I think he was surprised at the amount of other local people that came out in support. And, I think, he kind of felt part of something which was great. There was a picture of him in the local paper holding up the big "Yes Equality" sign, and that's a really proud moment for me (p. 193).

Noted Irish journalist Ursula Halligan explains why she chose to come out of the closet in a public way in advance of the referendum vote:

My denial was so deep though I needed something like a gun to be pointed to my head before I would do anything. The referendum turned out to be that gun and as the campaign got going, I was listening to the arguments for and against, and found myself getting quite exercised about the whole thing. Then, midway in the campaign I read someone analysing the campaign, and saying, if the "Yes" campaign wanted to make a real impact it needed people to come forward to tell their stories. And while a few people had done so, they needed more. That pricked my conscience. I thought, "How can I sit back now and leave all the work for others to do?" (p. 216).

And then she goes on to say that, though she's not religious per se, she has faith — and she sees these as two different realities. She has "deep faith, a complete trust in a wonderful, loving God who exults in the diversity of his/her creation and loves all of us equally gay or straight." And though she feels anger at the institutional Catholic church for its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, there's also this:

I will never forget that the vast majority of people who turned out on Friday 22 May 2015 and voted "Yes" were Catholic. And I believe they acted in accord with gospel values. I believe God did work through us on that day (p. 219).

Finally, Síona Cahill from Colehill in County Longford, now at Maynooth University, states: 

When I had come home from America he [Síona's father] would have preferred that I hadn't got involved in LGBT campaigns. Not that there was a problem with me being gay. He was protecting me. He didn't want me to get hurt. And then nine months later he was standing outside the "Yes Equality" bus in Longford. That was such a big deal (p. 228).

Queer people are everywhere. Queer people always have been everywhere, even in societies that savagely stigmatize and attack them. As Ursula Halligan notes, queer people are everywhere and always have been everywhere because God exults in the diversity of God's creation, and loves all of us equally gay or straight.

The inability of many leaders of faith communities around the world at this point in history even to  speak the names of people God chooses to make queer is scandalous in the extreme. It undermines the moral (and doctrinal) credibility of the faith communities led by such leaders. When the top pastoral leaders of the Roman Catholic church cannot even bring themselves to speak of LGBTQ human beings following an act of mass murder of LGBTQ human beings, the witness of the people of the strongly Catholic nation of Ireland to gospel values becomes all the more important . . . 

Since it's important, for the well-being of both the world and the church itself, that the church proclaim the good news of Christ.

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