It’s funny what you remember – and what you forget. Especially on days when the world shifts.
I remember growing up in Dublin. I remember being surrounded by love; my family was a small unit, but a solid one. It was us against the world and the weapon we had to protect us against whatever the world threw at us was our love for each other.
I forget when I first knew I was gay.
I do remember when kids told me I was a sissy, a pansy, a poofter, a Nancy boy, a faggot.
I remember spit on the back of my black wool duffel coat; huge green globs of it left there by kids who’d followed me home from school, who were calling me names and challenging me to react.
I remember the fear all the way home, and the shame of having to explain the mess to my parents without telling them why the mess was there.
I forget how I survived growing up in a culture where people like me were either invisible, or there to be laughed at, spat on and abused
I remember leaving the place I grew up in and going where I could live the life I wanted to live.
I forget when I realised that, although you can leave the place you grew up in, that place is going to be with you til the day you die.
I remember my pride when Ireland – the backwards, priest-ridden country I’d left – passed a law that finally – more than a century after English law instituted it, and almost thirty years after Britain had repealed the law – decriminalised Homosexual activity.
And I remember, in a way that makes me cry even as I type these words, the twenty-second of May 2015.
The Irish government wanted to repeal the section of the constitution that described marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. There was overwhelming interest in the country – both pro and anti – in the topic, but one of the problems was this: The terms of the constitution, designed to prevent future governments enforcing amendments against the wishes of the population, expressly stated that no such amendment could be made without the majority of the electorate voting in favour of it.
So Ireland, this country which in my adulthood had moved from socially conservative – not to say repressive – to finally honouring the equality it promised in its declaration of independence, had a problem: Human rights would have to be voted on.
And this was a huge problem and a huge risk. Imagine if slavery was something that could be repealed or allowed to remain based on the wishes of the majority. Imagine if Universal Suffrage – the right for everyone above a certain age to vote, regardless of their wealth or their gender – had been decided by a male landed gentry that had a vested interest in keeping women and the working class disenfranchised.
Imagine how these issues – which we now see as some of the key Human Rights discussions in Western History – had been put to the vote. Human rights – the very equality enshrined in the Irish constitution – was being voted on. A “No,” would cause a crisis for the government and – for people like me – deliver a clear message: You’re not one of us. Some of us might be alright with you, but most of us are still the boys jeering and spitting.
But a vote had to be had, and – as you might expect – the fight was on. But this wasn’t just a skirmish. This was a War. On one side, for the soul of a country and, on the other, for the freedoms and right to equality that had been promised one spring morning in 1916.
And for me, it was a battle against the boys who spat on me, the teachers who told me I was lesser. On the people – the ones I’d met and the ones I’d never meet – who had made it clear that they viewed people like me as unnecessary, degenerate, worthless.
On a blisteringly hot day in July 2006, in a town called Midhurst, the shy boy I’d met in a disco in 1990 and I got civil partnered. My whole family. His whole family. People who’d flown in from almost every continent on the planet, attended our wedding and I cried through the whole thing because I realised at the exact moment they opened the doors and the two of us started walking up towards the officiant that I’d been keeping one thought locked inside my whole life:
People like me were never going to have this. We might love, but we’d never be loved. We might find someone to be with, but what we had – what we were – would never be celebrated.
And here it was.
And yet. And yet. It wasn’t marriage.
The spitting boys were still able to sneer and remind me that I was not the same as them. Not as good as them. Not entitled to the same joys as they were.
Then Ireland announced the Marriage Equality Referendum.
Just as my life fell apart.
My mother had been ill for a long time. I’d convinced myself that a long life of illness awaited her; that we’d adjust the pace of her visits to my husband and I, but that she’d be back for Christmas like she always was. Then, at least I wouldn’t have to argue with her about who was cooking Christmas Dinner. But from the end of the summer before it had become serious.
COPD, then cancer. Pneumonia. Sepsis.
And I was still planning Christmas. And she was still going to be there. And it was all going to be alright. And it was impossible – absolutely fucking impossible – that it would all be anything other than alright, because I was doing everything I could to make it be okay.
I wasn’t praying; I’d stopped praying a long time ago.
But I was working; I was planning. I was cleaning and visiting and doing. I was fixing. My whole life – even as the spitting boys in my mind told me how worthless I was – I found worth in fixing whatever needed fixing.
Except, here was something I couldn’t fix.
And so the Marriage Referendum war went on largely beyond my tunnelled vision. I knew about it, but I couldn’t look at it. I posted Facebook posts and I tweeted, and I cried my eyes out when Panti Bliss took the Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre after right-wingers had turned on her and homophobes had been allowed to explain what people like Panti were – and weren’t – allowed to call homophobia. But what could I do? I couldn’t fix the biggest crisis in my life. I couldn’t make it right.
And I couldn’t bear a “No” vote. I think that would have done for me. I think the spitting boys would have overpowered me at that point.
So I let it happen, remotely. Until the day of the vote.
I was working at an Investment Bank in Canary Wharf in London. Like most banks, they block access to almost all social media via the company systems. And so I had my iPad open on my desk from 0700 when I arrived. I had Twitter open. I surreptitiously hit refresh. I refreshed again. I found the #HomeToVote tag.
I hit refresh. Repeatedly.
I cried. Oh Jesus, how I cried. At my desk. Without shame. Without fear. With pure joy.
People came back. Voters flew in from every corner of the globe. <Inner editor’s note: Do globes have corners?><Authors note: Fuck you Sharon. You’re not the boss of me. I’m giving this Globe a series of corners> People took trains planes cars. They hiked. The national airline had to add extra flights.
And I kept crying. Because– despite my already being Civil Partnered in England – this still really really fucking mattered. No other boy was going to feel as unworthy as I had.
But we might lose. What if all those returnees were outnumbered by No Voters? What if my homeland once again chose to tell me I was not entirely worthless, but Worth Less? What then?
Two stories I keep close to my heart but I want to share here today:
My dad. Paul. Mid morning. Walks from his house to the post office to get his pension. He’s going to vote then go to visit my mother in hospital. He walks from Leonards Corner up the South Circular Road past Griffiths Barracks.
It’s a bright sunny late spring morning. He passes what used to be the South Circular Road Synagogue on the right, past the Dublin Mosque on the left, and he turns right, at a crossroads, onto Donore avenue. As he passes the old Church of Ireland Chapel, he’s thinking of his vote.
Then something slaps his hip. Hard.
It can’t be a bullet, though it feels like one. And as he processes the feeling, his eyes register a car passing him, wobbling away from him, curling into the road he’s on and crashing, definitively, into the bollards in the road ahead of him.
The young woman in the car is being attended to by an army of people who are trying to make sense of the situation, and my father has only one thought: ”I don’t have time to wait; I need to vote.”
So he passes the car. He votes. And only later – much later – does he realise he’s been hit by a car.
Inches another way and he could have been seriously injured. Or worse. The car was travelling at speed. Lives turn on moments like this; worlds shift, and what happened to him – even as he pushed it to one side and focussed on voting and getting to his wife – could have been one of those moments.
He waved it away For my dad, at that moment, it didn’t matter. He had more important things to do.
I called my mother that afternoon. She was in St James’ hospital, and holding the phone was hard, so we’d sorted out the whole answer-then-click-to-speaker approach, and my mother and I talked about nothing. She’d been in hospital for an age, and beyond her room was vague; I was trying to avoid referencing what went on outside, and then she said, from out of the blue:
“We’re voting today. For you.”
And I choked. It wasn’t a vote for me. But it was.
“Have you heard how it’s going?” I asked.
Then, before I could speak, there was noise. My dad arrived in her room, she told him <I imagine she gestured at the phone on the side> that she was talking to me, my dad said “Hello Derek,” and the conversation went something like this…
Me: Hey Dad. Are you okay?
Dad: I’m great. Are you still at work?
Me: I’m home. I left early; couldn’t focus with the vote bothering me.
Dad: <confused> Vote? Oh, OUR vote.
Me: Yes, Your vote. <worried> I hope you voted.
Dad: <Pause> Of course I voted.
Mam: Did you do one for me?
Me: And I hope you voted the right way.
Dad: <chuckles> I voted the only way. Of course.
Mam: <to Dad> And did you put one in for me?
Mam: Did you post a big yes for me?
Dad:<used to years of my mother’s desire being something he could deliver against> No.
Mam: Well they’re not closed yet, are they?
And what follows, via the medium of smartphone, and with the acoustic of a St James’ Hospital room, was a discussion on the concept of voter fraud versus voter intent.
She didn’t get to vote, and a little over a month later she was dead. But my mother got to see the moment. Got to see the change.
And the spitting boys? They didn’t go away, but I learned to turn around and face them. And their sputum right in my face is easier, because I know that the small unit; the family that was us with love against the world, has grown. And now there are thousands of us, who will fly or sail or rail or travel from wherever to be with me.
And I’m mostly good.
The day after the vote I went to lunch with my mate Warren. I still remember we had the most unbelievable short ribs I have ever had. The waiting staff were the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen outside of Tel Aviv.
I remember smiling at them and loving the food.
I remember chatting to Warren about how important the vote was to me.
I forget when it became obvious that my mother would not recover.
I remember the day she died, a little over a month later. And I remember that a month after that David and I – lost and shellshocked and still reeling – converted our Civil Partnership into Marriage as our families and friends surrounded us with Love.
It’s funny what you forget – and what you remember – but here’s what you never forget: LOVE.
And that day in May 2015 LOVE won. The whole country came out in love. People came home from every place they could to vote yes.
I will never be able to forget the spitting boys. But it’s okay, because I will always remember the day a whole country told me – loudly, clearly, and without equivocation – that I was not only alright, but as good as every single one of them.
I remember that. And I will never forget it.