Two Ceasefires and a Coming Out: A Memoir

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I’ve been thinking about coming out. There have been a few horror stories doing the rounds recently: Vicky Beeching’s harrowing life and those of Lyra McKee’s friends. It’s made me think about how it was for me, all those years ago. If I’m honest, it was a banal tale set against a bizarre backdrop.

Maybe it’s just because I’m home, for the first significant amount of time since Chris died, sleeping in the room where I came out to my Mum, and this all happening on the 20th anniversary of the first IRA ceasefires, but I can’t pull the threads of my coming out from the tapestry of mid 1990s Belfast into which they were woven.

1994 is starting to be a long time ago. It was just before the internet arrived; it was a year that started with the last whites-only government in Africa still in office, if only marginally in power. John Major was the Prime Minister, and his government was consumed with moral panic about illegal acid house raves. It seems like a different world, with the tiny details often being the most dramatically different. There were more pubs and fewer pawn shops. Newsagents near schools were wreathed in the fug of chainsmoking Sixth Formers at 4 p.m. There was no Tesco or Sainsbury’s in Belfast, only local supermarkets like Stewart’s.

In Northern Ireland, 1 September 1994 was a great watershed. It is still the most logical point at which to divide recent history into a ‘now’ and a ‘then’. Before, The Troubles simply were and, to my generation, always had been. My memories are of an endless succession of road blocks and traffic jams; of young men in uniform in patrol, with English accents and heavy weapons which would be aimed at you, following you down a street; of dead people on the news and footage of haggard young women in black crying at funerals; of heavy wood beams put across the front door at night, to buy possibly vital seconds in case an assassination squad broke it down with a sledgehammer; of an acute awareness of where was ‘safe’ and where was ‘dodgy’.

We tried to hard to pretend it was normal. Even growing up in a Republican area, there was annoyance and bemusement at foreign news reports that implied we spent every night hiding under sandbags and dodged snipers’ bullets on the way to the corner shop. No, it wasn’t as bad as that, and yes, life went on. I developed a horrifically scruffy mop of hair and a penchant for black jeans with ridiculously sized turnups, and along with it a taste for The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy – although I was always too desperately uncool to actually be a Goth. I played Warhammer Roleplay and Call of Cthulhu and discovered that I was gay. I went to school and did exams and started to work out what I wanted to do at university.

Was it normal? One can pretend to oneself that almost anything is normal, if it lasts for long enough. I never remember hiding under sandbags, and I was never even caught up in a bomb. But we did have that heavy wooden beam across the door and I did get a morning off primary school every other week for three years so we could visit my Dad in jail. People I grew up with as a kid died, usually at appallingly young ages. Seán Lavery (21) and Peter McBride (18) were the ones I knew best.

Before, all this was a given reality and probably an unchangeable one. Afterwards, even in the worst of times, it was always believable that the bad times would pass quickly enough, and that another world was possible – usually defined by the slippery concept that is ‘normality’. Afterwards, things in Northern Ireland were always more-or-less as they are now.

Memory plays tricks with one’s perception of the past, especially in periods of rapid transition when reality changes on a daily basis. The six weeks between the IRA and Loyalist ceasefires were confused, sometimes very dark. There were two particularly sensless and random sectarian murders of Catholics, long since forgotten. There was, inevitably, Unionist paranoia and, almost as inevitably, it had only been fuelled by a masterpiece of Sinn Féin spin and street-theatre. The tricolour-waving pageant of black taxis down The Falls was the keystone of a Republican rumour campaign imputing that the Brits had accepted that changing demographics made Irish unity inevitable, and had made major concessions.

Of course, it was nonsense, and the radically different perceptions of reality that were alive that day continue to feed the poison in which Northern Ireland politics seeps. There was a lot of nonsense and propaganda in the air at the time. 1995 was defined by the government’s saccharine and sanitised “Wouldn’t it be great” ads, with cheery shots of happy families in Ulster beauty spots as Van Morrsion played in the background. For a few brief months, reality almost matched the hype, culminating in Bill Clinton, that master showman, giving a speech at Belfast City Hall in front of 50,000 on a crisp Advent night, the first US President to visit Northern Ireland. Of course, the euphoria passed. It always does.

I tried to come out at St Malachy’s when I was in Fifth Year, so that would have been maybe 18 months before the ceasefire. I am still embarrassed by how clumsy it was: I pretended I was bisexual because I thought that might be somehow more accpetable. I’m not sure if anybody quite believed me, or disbelieved me either, so I took the opportunity to retreat back into the closet for a while. But I started to work out how to meet other gay people, and started to have my first boyfriends. I had my heart broken and then broke somebody’s heart. In a deeply divided city, gay friends could come from anywhere, held all sorts of political views, and went (or didn’t go) to all sorts of churches.

I finally came out a few years later, at University, still living at home – two short bus rides across town or a 20 minute bike ride to Queen’s. Starry-eyed ’95 was long in the rear view mirror by then. Clinton’s visit was followed within two months by Canary Wharf, then the repeated gazing into the abyss at Drumcree, and eventually the return, albeit at a lower tempo, of assassinations to the streets of Belfast. In the gay community, the murder of Constable Darren Bradshaw at The Parliament reminded us we were not immune to the hatreds of the society that reared us.

I told a few close friends first, then I had a coming out party with about 30 people at home when my parents were on holiday in Blackpool. Then I came out to my Mum. It was a Sunday night in June, bright long after the late sunset in the way that June in Belfast is. We were both very drunk. It wasn’t how they say to do these things in the textbooks, but it did what is necessary. I never actually told my Dad, my Mum did that – after a while they just made me aware that they both knew, and that they both thought it was OK. It was hardly a surprise to either of them. I was always a loved child and it didn’t change that. Abandoning the family political tradition and religious conversion were much bigger shocks to them and, indeed, far more likely to scandalise the neighbours.

The story of the normalisation of homosexuality is often told as a middle-class tale by middle-class people: watch ‘A Taste of Honey’ for an example of how wrong that already was half a century ago. By the 1990s, gay lib was going mainstream. I was one of thousands of working-class kids born in the ’70s and ’80s, growing up on the estates of North Belfast or West Dublin or South Manchester, who came out to their parents after the end of the AIDS panic and at a time when gay relationships were being actively normalised by the soaps, and found it was quite alright. I don’t remember having even the briefest of cross words with family or neighbours; I don’t remember ever being abused on the street, or being beaten up, or finding that being known to be gay affected my job prospects. You always feared things like that might happen, or heard stories of them happening to friends, but homophobia, for a long time, was something that happened to other people and that was true for a surprising number of the gay people I knew.

It might sound strange to say it, but I found Belfast in the mid 1990s a remarkable time and place to be young and alive and, indeed, to be gay. At least if one was born into a family that accepted it. One constantly found oneself pushing against doors that one worried might be locked, that just a few years before had been firmly locked, and finding they were open. Gay lib and a nearer approximation to ‘normality’ arrived at the same time. I was in my late teens when all this happened, and it was exhilirating.

I suppose part of the the reason I wanted to write this was to affirm that not only do things get better, but they often aren’t as bad as you think to begin with. The internet is full of horror stories of rejection and anger and even violence towards people when they come out. It is important that these stories are told. But it’s just as important to say that they no longer reflect ‘normality’. Normal is coming out to your Mum and her saying “Well of course we always knew. We want you to have a happy life and share it with someone you love.”

17 year-olds being chased out of their home because they’ve told their parents they’re gay? That is not normal. It never was normal. But one can pretend to oneself that almost anything is normal, if it lasts for long enough.

Too many young people still endure things on coming out that aren’t only abnormal, but frankly sick. One of the last things I did as an active member of the Church of Ireland before moving to England last year was attend a fringe meeting at General Synod. A young man, 15 years younger than me, told his story of coming out in Belfast in the late 2000s and early 2010s. He told his pastor and his family that he was ‘struggling with same-sex attraction’, so he was advised to put a rubber band around his wrist. If he had dirty thoughts about a boy, he should give it a quick snap and the mild pain, the theory went, would act as a sort of amateur aversion therapy. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Within six months his arm was a rotting mass of bruised flesh, and he was starting to self-harm more seriously. The torment never stopped, until he got out, abandoned his family and indeed his faith.

This didn’t happen in the “then”; this happened “now”. Right now, somewhere in Northern Ireland, a young man is in despair and having his education wrecked because he is couchsurfing long-term around a set of friends after his parents threw him out. A teenage girl is asking tentative questions on a Christian internet forum and being told that what she feels is sinful and change is possible. And then, because she isn’t changing no matter how hard she prays, she is taking a stanley knife to her forearm, so physical pain can obliterate the mental pain.

Euphoria never lasts forever, and it didn’t for me. So eventually I did discover that not only can homophobia screw up other people’s lives, it can screw up mine. The sad reality I must bear witness to as a professing Christian is that, with one exception, every time I have encountered homophobia directed against me, the perpetrators were either Christians or the institutional homophobia of the church.

Of course, many Christians aren’t homophobes and Christian attitudes are changing. I wouldn’t have been without the love, prayers and practical help of Christian friends when Chris died: still less would I have been without the Faith that we shared. I wouldn’t have been without the friends and everyday encounters with the Divine we had as a very odd gay couple, two generations apart in age, in the churches we worshipped in together. We were just another couple. My employer, a Church of England Diocese, gave me exactly the same care and support they would have given me if Chris had been short for Christine rather than Christopher. Things do get better.

But they don’t get better all by themselves. There are a lot of people, especially in Christian circles, who claim they have ‘repented’ of the maltreatment of gays by churches in the past while remaining silent in the face of the maltreatment of today. Repentance isn’t about saying the Confiteor or General Confession before receiving Holy Communion, or going up to be saved at an altar call. It’s about a radical change in how one lives life, and it often means speaking out where one had previously been silent. No matter what people think about the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships, it surely pales in comparison with the moral unacceptability of children self-harming and being thrown out of their homes, or of grown men and women having to pretend to their families that the most important person in their lives doesn’t exist.

That stuff needs to stop, full stop, right now.

 

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  • Gaygael

    Gerry. As a fellow north belfast boy with much of the same background and only a few years difference I just want to say thanks for this. My own working class experience was not hugely different. I have rarely had a negative reaction or experience to my face. And I am loved affirmed and supported by my family, friends and community. This is becoming the new normal for lgb people. For the T, there is still a long way to go.
    I send my sympathy for the loss of your partner and can’t imagine how hard that must have been, but I’m glad that your faith was such a comfort in that tough time.

    The core premise is that homophobia and transphobia kill. Suicide and self harm rates within the lgbt community are unacceptably high, and when you are silent in the face of such injustice you are complicit.
    Far too many of our politicians and faith leaders are silent, (some even do what they can to exacerbate intolerance, prejudice and the resulting mental health inequalities that come with it), but the cultural changes on these issues are moving hugely. Ask the demographic under 40 or 30 and equality for lgbt people is a no brainer. Any political standing against this and hoping for longevity is onto a loser.
    Almost everyone has an lgbt friend, family member, colleague or neighbour, and most people have more than one. Harvey Milk was right, being visible is our strongest political tool. You cannot deny us equality when you know us.

  • mickfealty

    Not much to add on a personal level, except to say thanks to Gerry.

    Strictly as a sidebar, and only if people have time, last night I came across this reading by the comic writer Alan Moore of a piece he’d written as an attempt to write a longitudinal history of homosexuality…

    It starts from, here: http://goo.gl/p9aevL

    It was written in response to Section 28, a government attempt in 1988 to close down the teaching of anything deemed to be pro homosexual in schools.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Gayagel, knowing your family as I do, I would have expected a good reaction and am delighted it was so. I think it’s also important to note, in both your family and mine that reaction would have come from people who included some very conservative Catholics. I know there are also people in the Evangelical community who don’t and won’t agree with us on marriage equality who despise the sort of religious bullying in the post above.

    If some people did want to step into that space, I would welcome it. I keep coming across real horror stories across NI, and not just in deep rural areas. I know young people from Belfast who have turned up at St George’s looking for a church after they were thrown out of their homes and churches and were couchsurfing with friends. I know the LGBTI service organisations and support groups see a lot more cases like this. I think there are conservative religious people who think this is shameful, and want to stop it. I think this is the time for some church leaders to stand up and lead: there are Bishops and Moderators galore who have told us they abhor homophobia. Time for them to do some active abhoring. It could save lives, and it will certainly stop families being split apart.

  • MalikHills

    A beautiful piece, thanks for that Gerry, and may I offer my sympathies on your sad loss. I am sure your faith, friends and family are all of immense support but at the end of the day handling bereavement is essentially a burden we can only carry ourselves.

    You evoke a strange time in our collective lives; the day before yesterday. It’s not the past of the 1970s and 80s which we can all remember as being way back then, an era in history, a different place. But the 1990s, that still seems like only yesterday but as you say was remarkably different. How did we cope without mobile phones, the internet and Tesco? So much has changed but so much seems the same.

    May I also thank you for the line in your comment:

    “I know there are also people in the Evangelical community who don’t and won’t agree with us on marriage equality who despise the sort of religious bullying in the post above.”

    I am not of the Evangelical community, not by light years, but it is nice to recognise that some people who have reservations about gay marriage do so for reasons other than ignorant bigotry and hate. It has long been a subject that I have simply not bothered addressing, although I have strong political (because essentially I regard it as a political issue) opinions on the matter, because I get sick of the “homophobic” card being slammed down on the table with self-righteous triumphalism as if nothing more need be said.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this piece, one of the more thoughtful threads on SOT for a while.

  • Michael Henry

    Good read- was not expecting two ceasefires and a coming out- maybe it was three ceasefires Gerry and you could at last take your balaclava off and let your family and friends know who you really were in your own words- even if they already knew the bold truth-

  • Somewhere in the middle

    I am not gay, however I have always felt I supported gay rights sometimes stronger than some gay friends.

    I am also not religious but I have always respected religion where tolerance is shown by some sectors of the Church.

    Gerry this article is remarkable. I usually never comment but it was very moving and I commend you for sharing it.

    One day society will get there and maybe then we can have a Northern Ireland’s coming out party to put this nonsense all to rest.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Brilliant, Gerry. I remember that coming-out party well. (Though memory, always a tricky beast, suggests to me it was in late 1996 – I moved to Bosnia in January 1997. Or did it happen to be during one of my visits home?) Those were incredible times to be alive and politically engaged, and I’m very glad that we shared them.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Late summer of 1996 would make sense as a party date!

  • Comrade Stalin

    Gerry, I was at your coming out party, your parents were on holiday. I wasn’t at QUB yet, and I think you were, so 1996 sounds right.

    I never heard homophobia at home. There was a lot of it in school, of course, and school kids are good at dishing out pain, perhaps in many cases not understanding the harm they may be causing. I wonder how much of that has changed now.

    My memories are much the same as yours, although living further up the Antrim Road we were exposed to little of the troubles. Recalling now, I remember a murder on Chichester Park outside St Therese, on a school day, and vague memories of Pat Finucane’s murder at around the same time; and bombings of hotels all along the Antrim Road. It is amazing that many of these people managed to stay in business (and understandable that many did not).

    The day the ceasefire was announced was bright and sunny and there was an air of optimism after a period of around a year where the persistent ceasefire speculation seemed very far fetched. Sinn Féin had spent the months running up playing for time, asking the British Government for “clarification” of the Downing Street Declaration. The British still refused to meet with SF in public.

    The Belfast Telegraph reported within a day or two of the ceasefire that the police were leaving their flak jackets off. The army were still on patrol but wearing helmets. All of that was very new to me. My parents talked, for the first time that I remember, of the period before the troubles which, in the same sense that you have described, must have seemed like a different world to them.

    The ceasefire took a lot of people by surprise. That day, or the day after, a group of loyalists held a protest at Carlisle Circus, believing that the IRA had done a deal with the British government. Initially loyalists and unionists reacted with suspicion; the “Combined Loyalist Military Command” (they love their Rambo movies) called it a recipe for civil war, apparently not anticipating the announcement at all. Cooler heads later prevailed and they followed suit later.

    I also remember the speculation among nationalists that this was the beginning of the end of partition. I heard many different people say that with the IRA stepping back the police and army would now focus on the loyalists. That concern is probably what led more than anything else to the loyalist ceasefires but of course none of it worked out that way.

    It didn’t take long for the optimism to drain. Sinn Féin held talks with Patrick Mayhew and his officials. I imagine they asked for a timetable for a united Ireland, but obviously the British refused. Talks were not even on the agenda as it quickly became apparent that the UUP had John Major’s nuts in a vice, as it were. Albert Reynolds set up the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, presumably in an effort to try and shame the British into movement, and John Alderdice led an Alliance delegation there. It produced the notable commitment from the SDLP to the principle of consent, but at that time SF were not ready to move.

    Looking back I think SF had told their supporters that a ceasefire would lead directly to a united Ireland within a period of years. Frustration that this turn of events did not happen is probably what weakened the Adams/McGuinness leadership within the IRA, which in turn led to Canary Wharf. Ed Moloney documents the double-dealing and chicanery that the Adams camp engaged in to wrest control back from the dissident camp and return republicans to the political process, and ultimately the agreement in 1998.

  • tmitch57

    Gerry,
    I distinctly remember having a conversation in the late summer of 1998 with a young Alliance member who had converted to Church of Ireland/Anglican because he joined Alliance. I think it was probably you, because I definitely had interviewed you earlier that summer at the Alliance office. Although coming out can be emotionally difficult and tricky, it is still pretty common. I still don’t understand why you felt compelled to convert to Church of Ireland when there are so many practicing Catholics within Alliance. Maybe that might form the basis of another blogpost.