#Marref Soapbox: Séamas’s story – ‘Can we talk?’

Séamas de Faoite writes in favour of the Marriage Referendum and relates his own experience to illustrate the ongoing anguish faced by young gay people in their decision in how and when and to whom they can ‘come out’. 

‘Can we talk?’ – it was the refrain of one of my preferred comedians, the ever polemic Joan Rivers, before her untimely death in 2014. She used it as an opener to her more controversial sketches; almost asking the audience’s permission to push the boundaries on humour and what was acceptable in the public arena.

You may not have always agreed with some of her statements, but you have to admire Ms. Rivers’ canny device – asking the audience for their permission to be as brash and as bold as she wanted to be. ‘Can we talk?’ put the audience in control, it made them comfortable and they always said yes, eager to hear what she had to say; the controversial commentary that was usually left unsaid in an effort to seem polite.

As a tool, the question holds more strength than we might give it credit for. It will come as no surprise to many that I am supporting a Yes vote in the Republic’s upcoming referendum on the issue, but when it comes to the debate around the referendum, I have to pause, and ask you, the reader: can we talk?

Can we talk about the No campaign and what their leading figures and personalities have said so far on tv, radio and in print media or the malicious rumours and lies that have been spread by mysterious groups that have sprung up; offering flyers and pamphlets containing their unproven, unstudied and completely inadequately researched theories about legalising same-sex marriage?

Can we talk about the horrible posters that have appeared, telling us that gay people are incapable of being loving parents or that a child brought up without a mother isn’t as worthy as a child that has been and the consequential attacks on infertile couples or those who choose not to have children because the No campaign have continued to tell us that marriage in their eyes is solely about procreation?

Can we talk about how all of this negativity will impact on the growing mental-health crisis amongst our young people and how, if we’re not careful, we’ll allow the message to get through to LGBT+ young people that they are less of a human than their straight brothers and sisters; worth less in the eyes of the law and deemed not worthy of equal treatment?

Can we talk about how the messages now being used by the No campaign are the same ones that have driven young people to self-doubt, depression, self-harm or even suicide, for decades?

I know I’m asking a lot – this has already been a long and protracted campaign. By the time the first votes are cast on May 22nd most people will be tired of hearing the same talking points that have dominated, but there’s still more we have to discuss before then, because without having these conversations, we risk putting another new generation of young people through the same anguish that many, including myself, have come through before coming out.

I’m gay, and I’m asking you – ‘can we talk?’

It’s not something I’ve ever shared with many people – there are a few close friends and family members who know, and that’s been it. Many people will see that as being closeted, but I disagree; I’ve just never felt an overpowering reason to out myself, that is, until now.

In the future I think that’s the way things will be, and should be- but until there isn’t a need to come out, there’s a few things about this campaign I’d like to talk about.

I’ve taken the decision to be more open about who I am because I am deeply concerned about the effects this referendum is having on young gay people in Ireland. I am fearful that the rhetoric from the No campaign will do untold damage to the precious minds and personalities of confused and frightened young people.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a loving and supportive family, who have done their best to be there, despite my own stubbornness and determination not to talk about boyfriends or romantic interests.

Understandably it has been hard for them in some way – expectations change and my parents in particular have had to come to terms with the reality of my life- one which is not 100% protected under the law, or accepted by everyone.

I have also been blessed with a group of caring and encouraging friends, that I have come out to, who have never once made an issue of my sexuality, although they’re not the biggest fans of gay bars. Whilst both have undoubtedly made the process of accepting who I am easier, they haven’t stopped the demons from getting in – doubt, denial, self-loathing and despair.

I vaguely remember as a child hearing an extended family member making derogatory comments about gay people and their “lifestyle”. Whether I realised it or not, this would be the first instance I’d recall of experiencing hate – I didn’t properly process it, I was only a child, but it stuck with me, it informed my own early opinions on sexuality. Not a great start.

It is because of my own experience and struggle, despite my supportive upbringing that I worry so much about the consequences this referendum will have on young people who are growing up in families that may not be as open to difference as my own.

I fear that if we allow the No side, and all of their fear, to prevail on May 22nd that we will wake up to even more tragic news – more young LGBT+ people taking their lives because the electorate has chosen to err on the side of an argument that makes us out to be less human than straight people.

I know what the crushing burden of depression feels like, particularly depression caused by fear and confusion about my sexuality. That black dog has stalked me since my early teens, but thanks to good friends and family and my own sheer stubbornness I’ve managed to pull myself back from the brink on several occasions.

Worryingly though, I know not everyone will have the same fortunate circumstances or personality.

Since the campaign has begun I have spoken to, or read about, countless other young people who have faced the insecurity of discovering their sexuality and the impact the world around them had on that process.

They are only the people who have been brave enough to come out. It must be truly soul destroying for the young people who haven’t yet made that leap to observe the debate occurring during this campaign.

We’ve been told that gay couples can’t be trusted with children because they’ll abuse them, that we are unnatural, that our relationships are not worth the same legal guarantees as straight couples and that we are trying to force our own morality onto Catholic Ireland.

The No campaign has changed the parameters of their assault on my commonality as a human being so often that it has now become difficult to assess exactly what their grounds for discrimination are. First it was that Marriage is strictly between a man and a woman (the supposedly observant Catholics in the No campaign have forgotten God from this equation).

Recently, in a fit of collective amnesia we’ve had voices from the No campaign remind us that the Republic has Civil Partnerships, so why should gay people need marriage? They’ve conveniently forgotten that they opposed the introduction of Civil Partnerships.

Now, a week out from polling day and they want to turn the debate into one about surrogacy and the rights of the child – both issues which are irrelevant to this debate having been previously settled in a referendum and the recent Child and Family Bill.

These issues are so removed from what will be on the ballot paper that the Independent chairman of the Referendum Commission has felt the need to make their irrelevance known.

This is just the surface of the efforts to secure a No vote next week. Go online and it’s very easy to find the more insidious efforts of some to associate gay men with paedophilia, child abuse and sexual assault.
I am very glad that Twitter was not a thing when I was 14- confused and frightened. I simply cannot imagine how young closeted people must feel upon seeing these baseless and dangerous accusations on social media.

In a week’s time people across the Republic will be going to the polls. I do not want to wake up on May 24th, the day after the count, to an Ireland where young gay people have been told they are not valued as 100% a person in the eyes of our constitution- that the meaningful relationships they might have will count for nothing in the cornerstone of our legal and political system.

That outcome will only lead to more self-doubt, self-harm and worst of all; an overwhelming feeling from many that they might take their own life. We have a once in a generation chance to change that narrative completely.

I asked you at the beginning of this piece if we could talk. After this is published I’ll have to have a conversation with some close friends and family members whom I haven’t yet told. I’ll begin by asking them ‘can we talk?’

Unfortunately I know that there may be some people in my life who will not take it well, but I still have hope that by talking to them we can overcome their misconceptions. I am still the same person.

We’ve a week to ask as many people as possible the same thing- ‘can we talk?’. Be brave, pluck up the courage- ask your Grannies, Grandads, Mammies, Daddies, Aunts, Uncles, Brothers or Sisters. Remind them that this is about the lives of people we know and trust.
Tell them how close this referendum may actually come to not passing- divorce only passed narrowly after weeks of leading in the polls. Make it perfectly clear to them why we cannot accept the No campaign’s premise that only straight people can share in the commonality of being human; of being equal.
Ask them to vote Yes.

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