SOAPBOX: Setting a different lead – Presbyterians for Inclusion and Equality #dublinpride

People holding a Presbyteriand for Inclusion and Equality banner at a previous Dublin Pride paradeSteven Smyrl is a professional genealogist who lives with his male spouse in Rathgar, Dublin 6.

Saturday (24 June) marks the final day of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, held each year in Belfast. In former years I would have been attending as my congregation’s representative elder. But not this year. Instead, as an out-and-proud gay man (albeit an intensely private one), and in open defiance of the Church I was a member of for more than thirty years, I will be walking in the Dublin Gay Pride Parade. I’ll be joining with others from our church community behind a banner proclaiming ‘Presbyterians for Inclusion and Equality’.

There’s no denying that the ‘lot’ of people like me has improved immeasurably over the past forty years, right across society. Thankfully, the homophobia I experienced as a boy and a teenager is no longer the norm. At school, I was the slightly girly, skinny boy, who many suspected was gay. Nancy, fairy, poofter, pansy, queer were just a few of the offensive words I was baited with. Constantly the butt of every joke, I was taunted, bullied, physically attacked, humiliated, and ostracised.

I recall a school trip in 1980 to Liverpool which turned into a day of terror. A small group of lads on the trip pursued me all day long. Inside the Anglican cathedral, they dangled me over a wall hundreds of feet in the air. Eventually hauling me back, they sneered, threatening that “another day we’ll kick the f*cking sh*t out of you, bumboy”. I was left in a heap, with damp eyes and wet trousers, while the teachers – the adults – looked the other way.

The immediate question that springs to mind is why did other boys believe it was acceptable to verbally and physically attack me simply for being different? Of course, the answer is blindingly simple: because they followed the lead set by adults.

Such experiences inevitably leave deep psychological and emotional scars, but as an adult I gradually allowed myself to believe that those days were far behind me. That is, until April 2019, when I became the subject of a sustained attack by some ordained members of Dublin & Munster presbytery (a constituent part of the Presbyterian Church, for which I had been ordained an elder in 2007).

What had I done? In 2018, I exercised my constitutional right to marry the person of my choice, my same-sex partner. At the time, neither I nor my spouse could have anticipated the frenzy of media coverage that would follow, culminating in our marriage being front-page news in several newspapers and even subject to editorial comment in The Irish Times.

My marriage led me to be removed as a church elder in September 2019, though first I was subjected to a dehumanising and gruelling, quasi-judicial process, one which I subsequently realised was a show trial, a warning to others. The proof of this was, that to effect my removal, all the evidence they needed was a copy of my marriage certificate, and I subsequently discovered that they’d had that all along.

From the start, the process waged against me was confrontational and oppressive, designed to degrade and humiliate. My protestations were swept aside, formal complaints side-lined. In the aftermath, recalling how I had cowered before those boys in Liverpool forty years earlier, I found the inner strength to fight back. Normally a rather private person, I decided that I was done with cowering, and I went public, giving rise to protests by supporters from within the church, considerable media comment, and formal complaints to the Gardai and the Data Protection Commissioner about alleged breaches of legal rights and entitlements.
None of it has been without cost. In April 2021 I was admitted to hospital in Dublin with a suspected stroke, which my GP is convinced was brought on by the relentless pressure to which I had been subjected. To date, there has been no public acknowledgment, let alone any display of remorse, by those Presbyterian ministers who pursued me with such tenacity and vigour. Worse still, they fail even to recognise the damage that their campaign has done to the wider reputation of the Presbyterian Church.
Homophobia may now be less prevalent, but it hasn’t been eradicated. Last year two gay men were murdered in Sligo and another viciously attacked in Dublin. In Northern Ireland, the PSNI reported 462 homophobic attacks in the period 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022, an increase of 34%.

As a society, we won’t beat homophobia with laws alone. Progress will only be made when those who see themselves as pillars of society recognise that they too must change. If defying the Presbyterian Church by taking part in Dublin Gay Pride 2023 plays even a small part in bringing my former church’s leaders to recognise their own homophobia, then, whether an intensely private man or not, I will gladly parade my happy gay life for all to see.

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