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Ireland's Incredible Transformation Into an LGBTQ+ Haven

Ireland

This article initially appeared on our sister site Advocate.com. Read the original here.

I was twelve years old when I told my mother I'd commit suicide if she didn't allow me to go away to boarding school. She was set on not sending her youngest child away. For a lot of children, that news would be welcomed, but not me. I knew the public school nearby would be a place of pain. I had heard the rumors and toured the halls. 

One afternoon, I scoured the internet looking for a suitable boarding school because coming home each evening with two black eyes was not the journey I had envisioned. When I gave my mother the disturbing ultimatum, I didn't realize how manipulative I was being; my declaration was baseless, admittedly. I wasn't experiencing suicidal ideation, but I did know the idea of having to go to the community school close by could drive me there.

At the time, I was a 12-year-old gay boy growing up in the Irish countryside and utterly confused. I was still struggling to come to terms with those feelings. All I knew for certain was that there would be no chance in hell of me surviving at the local school. 

I eventually stumbled upon a promising prospect. The sentence of optimism that stuck out on their website promising "a zero bullying tolerance" had me sold. What made things even better was that it was a small school and allowed boarders to travel home each weekend. 

Two months after my 13th birthday, I packed my bags and settled in to my new digs. While I didn't deal with any direct bullying from my peers, the borderline cult-like Catholicism driven into me for the next five years at boarding school definitely affected my mental health. I felt victimized when the teachers talked about how homosexuality was a mortal sin and that those sinful thoughts would eventually dissolve with enough prayer. There were many times I wanted to quit, but I knew the alternative — the day school near my house — would be far worse, and my conscience wouldn't be the only thing getting bruised. 

After five years of boarding school, I moved away to another part of Ireland for college, and once I completed my degree, moved to New York. NYC was always my end goal ever since I was a child, and the eagerness to move there grew immensely as I got older. I always told myself that as soon as I got there, I could finally start being myself and no longer have to worry about being outed or ostracized. Miraculously — probably from all my praying at boarding school — I won the Green Card lottery the first year I entered, which allowed me to move to the U.S. with a 10-year visa. 

Eight eventful years of living my authentic self in New York flew by, and then COVID-19 disrupted everyone's life one way or another. After quarantining alone in my apartment for several months, I decided to put my belongings into storage and go home to Ireland for an indefinite period of time. I knew being with my family was the right decision — at least until the pandemic mollified.

At 30 years old and after spending a two-week government-mandated quarantine alone in my sister's summer house, I moved back in with my parents. 

While traveling during a pandemic made me feel anxious, I was also worried my extended stay in Ireland would excavate old wounds or that all the feelings I had to deal with completely alone as a young gay boy growing up in rural Catholic Ireland would come flooding back. The idea of possibly retraumatizing myself concerned me. 

In the years that followed after I came out to my family, being gay became water under the bridge to them. Discussing certain topics was no longer awkward or uncomfortable. But I still had an uneasy feeling about being stuck back in the small coastal village where I grew up. Besides the summer break during school and college and the week or two that I'd visit home after moving to New York, this would be the longest I'd be spending at home since I was 13. 

For years I had Ireland painted in my mind as a villainous character in my life's story, where its society had oppressed me and made me feel like I was sinful or morally corrupt. After moving to America, I made it a point to visit my family in Ireland at least twice a year, but the lead-up to those trips often had me riddled with anxiety. I never understood why, until now. 

Ireland is where I had spent many nights "praying the gay away." It's where I'd spend countless nights lying on my bed, restless and hoping that I'd wake up the next morning and be "healed." It's the place where I spent innumerable hours wondering what I was going to do with my life, as coming out didn't feel like a viable choice. It's where I spent time contemplating running away and cutting myself off from my family so they would never know my secret. It's where I had to come to terms that people I'd meet in life would hate me solely because of my sexual orientation, that they'd have opinions about rights that they were entitled to but blocking me from having.

When I lived in New York, coming home for a week or two felt like I was like dipping my toes into the Atlantic Ocean; I was in and out. I always looked forward to those trips as I returned to New York refreshed after seeing my parents, siblings, and all my nieces and nephews, and grateful to the city that I had now made my home. But moving home for an indeterminate amount of time had me calculating how I would ration out my Xanax. 

Since coming home, I devoured old books from my parent's library to help give my eyes a break from looking at a screen. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt and The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith are two memoirs that had me transfixed and transformed back to old Ireland. In McCourt's autobiography, he depicts Irish poverty from the eyes of a poor Catholic child growing up in the Great Depression, where Ireland was struck even harder than America. In Sixsmith's biography, he tells the story of an unwed Irish mother being forced to give up her baby in 1952. Both are equally captivating as they are devastating, and both unveil how far Ireland has come as a nation. Although much progress needs to be made, Ireland's society at large no longer ostracizes unwed women for having children or LGBTQ+ people for simply existing. Women who wish to have a safe and legal abortion no longer have to trek over to England for the procedure. And gay men have come a long way since Declan Flynn's murder in 1982

One afternoon, I discovered my sister's old CD collection and stumbled upon Kurt Cobain's last album with Nirvana, In Utero. The album came out in 1993 when I was three, the same year that Ireland decriminalized same-sex sexual activity. I was in awe with the album's liner notes: "If you're a sexist, racist, homophobe, or basically an asshole, don't buy this CD. I don't care if you like me, I hate you." As a teenager, my sister was captivated by Kurt Cobain and was subsequently kept on close watch by my mother in the days that followed his suicide. This same sister handled my coming out the best in the family, and I often wonder if it was as simple as reading Nirvana's liner notes that influenced her to have such an open mind. 

Although the country seems to go in and out of lockdown every few weeks, I've been able to discover a new and improved Ireland, one that seems to be more progressive and open-minded. I'm no longer "praying the gay away" at night or playing out scenarios in my head. It's like the nation has finally caught up to the liner notes on the Nirvana album. Instead of teen spirit, there's now a smell of acceptance in the Irish air. 

Overall, Ireland has made notable transformations from being a country with overwhelmingly conservative views toward LGBTQ+ people to one holding powerfully progressive attitudes in the space of a generation. Even in my lifetime, I'm able to say I have seen a considerable amount of change. In 2010, civil partnerships between same-sex couples were recognized. The following year, the first publicly celebrated civil partnership between a same-sex couple took place. Marriage equality became legal in 2015, becoming the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage through a voter referendum. In 2017, laws were updated that enabled same-sex couples to adopt children. The same year Leo Varadkar was appointed as Ireland's Taoiseach (Head of Government) and became the fourth openly gay head of state/government in the world. In 2018, on behalf of the Irish government, Varadkar issued a public apology to members of the LGBTQ+ community for the suffering and discrimination they faced from the Irish state before the legalization of homosexuality there. 

Even though I met a level of closure that I had dreamt and hoped for as a child, I must recognize the fight isn't over and that Ireland still has some progress to make. Gay sex and kissing scenes in films and TV shows are often censored; there's not enough LGBTQ+ representation in the government, and blood donations from gay men are still considered tainted or contaminated. This type of discrimination is what our future children should be reading about in history books one day, hopefully finding it incomprehensible something so archaic and unfair took place for so long. 

As the world celebrates and turns green for Ireland this St. Patrick's Day, we must remember and learn from its dark past as much as we celebrate the advances and look toward the future. This way, instead of burying the murky history, we're making sure it doesn't repeat itself. 

Alan Diamond is a freelance journalist.

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