Coming out. For equality.

Fergal McFerran is the President of NUS-USI, the organisation which represents around 200,000 students in Higher and Further education across Northern Ireland. He tweets @FergalMcFerran.

This weekend I did something I was never sure that I’d be able to do. I got on a train and I went home to see my family. This journey home was different to all of the others I’d ever made though. It was different because this time I went home with the sole purpose of telling my family that I’m gay.

Some people reading this who know me will probably be surprised to hear that I hadn’t told my family until now. For a while it’s been like living two lives; in a way that stopped certain people really knowing who I was. Barriers of fear had been created that didn’t need to be there. My story is not unique. I wish it was.

I come from a rural part of North Antrim and was raised in a Catholic family. I’ve always been incredibly interested in religion and have at various times in my life held what I would call a deep faith. I even studied Theology at Queen’s University for a number of years.

I knew I was gay when I was a teenager, but the circumstances I found myself in and the society that surrounded me had conditioned me to believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I believed that I was a problem that needed to be fixed.

The journey I took home this weekend was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. But it didn’t need to be. My parents are loving and caring people. They’ve provided everything they ever could to ensure I had a good start in life. But the world around them, and the world around me is structured to tell people like me that we are somehow less of a person, or deserve to be treated differently.

I cannot effectively describe the weight of pressure that I felt on my shoulders before I came out to my family. It was a pressure that had been building for years. A pressure that tore me apart at times, and a pressure that only very close friends will know meant I struggled with depression at points of the last few years.

I long for the day when young people growing up in Northern Ireland live in a society that values them regardless of their sexuality, not in spite of it. I long for the day when we can look to the political leaders of Northern Ireland and see a collective commitment to genuine equality.

My position on many social issues has changed over the course of the last few years. They’ve changed because I’ve recognised that being of faith and demanding a more equal world are not things that are in competition, they are not mutually exclusive.

Civil marriage for same-sex couples has been available in England, Wales and Scotland since 2014 and is about to become law in the Republic of Ireland too. Northern Ireland therefore remains the only part of the U.K. and Ireland where marriage equality doesn’t exist. That is a crying shame.

Some in our society would welcome this, claiming Northern Ireland is somehow the last bastion of morality within the British Isles, or that we remain the lone defender of the traditional definition of marriage. I do not share that position.

In extending the right to access marriage to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland, we are not trying to destroy the Church or demand that faith groups carry out wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. We are talking about civil marriage, which is not the same as religious marriage.

Some claim that this issue is a controversial one. I don’t really think it is. Those who try to make it controversial do so because they know that their arguments just don’t really hold up. Scaremongering and diversion are the tactics now used to impede the journey we are travelling to a more equal and happy society.

On November 2nd the Northern Ireland Assembly will, for a fifth time in recent years, debate marriage equality. I will be writing to every MLA in the Assembly to ask them to see me as I am, a human being who deserves to be treated as an equal under the law.

I will be reminding our MLAs that their failure to legislate for marriage equality is not representative of the views of the majority. An Ipsos MORI public opinion poll published in July 2015 showed 68% support for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. There was clear majority support among both men and women, from both Catholic and Protestant community backgrounds and across all urban and rural areas of Northern Ireland.

And I also want to say, as someone who understands the relationship that faith plays in this discussion for so many of our elected representatives, it is nothing short of a disgrace that the Democratic Unionist Party continue to abuse the petition of concern mechanism to veto marriage equality in Northern Ireland. There are people within the DUP who are not opposed to marriage equality – I urge them to have the courage to speak up.

We are consistently let down by the perpetual dysfunction and crisis of Northern Ireland politics. This vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly is an opportunity to show leadership, to say that we are a welcoming and forward looking legislature with the best interests of our people at heart.

My family embraced me with open arms this weekend. They reacted to my coming out in a way that so many unfortunately do not. I was treated with dignity, respect and unconditional love. I hope our elected representatives take the opportunity on November 2nd to do the same.

If you want to write to your MLAs at Stormont and ask them to vote for Marriage Equality you can do so quickly and easily by clicking here.

MarriageEquality graphic

 

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.