When Ireland voted in marriage equality with a resounding ‘Yes’ in 2015, many saw the historical day as a turning point for the nation’s LGBT+ community. When the tally was read aloud in Dublin Castle, it felt like the heteronormativity of Mother Ireland had been cast out, and in its place stood a new nation that promised tolerance, and enshrined every person’s right to unashamedly feel pride in themselves.
Despite the feverish victory felt that day, exclusion and isolation remain a reality for a large proportion of the population. After all, over 700,000 people voted against same-sex marriage on that same day. The Catholic Church’s hold on modern Ireland may have loosened over time, but its damage has left a scar on some people’s minds and attitudes.
I talked to a number of members of the LGBT+ community and found that in many parts of rural Ireland, LGBT+ people are welcomed with open arms, and are treated with the same respect and compassion as their neighbours, while in other areas some LGBT+ people still encounter hostility on a daily basis.
I spoke to Mark* who has lived in rural Clare all his life. Without any resources for LGBT+ people in his locale, Mark feels isolated, not only from the LGBT+ community at large, but from his own neighbours, family members, and those he once considered friends.
Since he was a teenager, Mark knew that he was gay, but due to societal pressure he only felt comfortable coming out in his mid-30’s: “When I was 16, I knew I was different to other boys my age. I denied it to myself all throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s.”
After coming out, Mark found that those he once considered friends no longer wanted to be associated with a gay man: “When people found out - people I knew all my life - I was just shunned. People stopped talking to me. They’d stare at me if I walked into a shop. If there were people there that knew me, they’d stop talking when I walked in. Any of my straight friends - we never spoke about it. They’d know, but they never said it to me. Many of them wouldn’t talk to me at all anymore.”
After marriage equality was won, Mark acknowledges that he felt a little more at ease in rural Clare, but adds that hostility still prevails. One factor in particular has been influential in the prejudice he encounters:
“The Church are responsible for gay people being victimised, even though the Church has nothing to be proud of themselves. I think a lot of people link being gay with being an abuser. That ignorance is there, but it’s not the case at all.”
Due to the overwhelming amount of hostility Mark has faced, he finds it hard to reach out to his community at any level: “I find myself isolated, I spend a lot of time on my own. You just don’t know how people will react to you - sometimes they’ll say hello, sometimes they won’t at all.”
While Mark admits that it is hard to remain optimistic when faced with such open prejudice, he believes that a change is coming: “Teenagers in secondary school are coming out earlier. There’s more education about it these days - which I’d say is a great thing, because the LGBT+ teenagers are being educated, but the straight teenager is being educated too. They’re more open-minded.”
Elsewhere, in Co Offaly, lives Eddie, a member of the LGBT+ community who found confidence, solace and connection in exploring his gender expression openly around his town.
“Most people I meet, they know me and they say fair play to you and get on. People know me now, and they don’t mind. If they’re nice, they’ll always come over and talk.
That’s most people though, 90 percent of them anyway. If I meet someone that doesn’t want to say hello, I don’t bother. I keep going, I mind my own business. There’s always one or two.”
When his marriage broke down 15 years ago, Eddie found it hard to leave the house, let alone be open about his sexuality and gender expression:
“It was 2004 when my marriage broke up. I didn’t do anything for a couple of years. I didn’t dress up or even go outside the house for five or six years until I had the courage. And then I never looked back.”
Eddie began wearing women’s clothing, as well as men’s clothes around his town, living as both Eddie and Eddina. He is met, for the most part, with acceptance from his community.
“Most people will say ‘Hello’, or ‘How are you keeping?’, whether I’m in working clothes, or dolled up - which is weekends. I do dress up and go into town, but I’m not going to buy anything in the hardware store.”
Eddie continues: “They always say ‘You’re looking great!’ They give me great remarks.”
Eddie found that his community not only celebrated him, but helped him on his journey. “My hairdresser calls me ‘Eddina’ all the time, I bought some wigs off her - she’s very good. Any shop I go to - even if I haven’t been in a long time - they check in on me. I love fashion, and I like to do it right. It takes a bit of work, but I’m in my 60’s now and I still get great comments. I must be doing something right. I always get great tips off the girls too.”
Eddie disagrees with labels, and feels comfortable identifying generally under the LGBT+ umbrella. ”No one should be labelled, really. I’m definitely a member of the LGBT+ community and I support them in every way I can. And rightly so, I’m in the same boat. I love seeing people happy, and being themselves.”
Eddie encounters some prejudice in his town, but only very rarely. “Some people still think you’re weird, or dangerous, but I keep well away from them. Younger people used to laugh at me, but now they don’t bother me at all, they say hello. Attitudes are changing, especially since the marriage equality referendum, but there’s a lot still to be done.”
Eddie is emboldened by a principle that has given him strength over the past decade: “I just get on with it, I don’t let people think I’m bothered by what they think. It’s about your own courage, and your own beliefs. Be happy in how you feel, and how you dress. I know where I am, where my heart is.”
Eddie adds, “Being nice costs nothing.”
Down the line, Eddie would like to see a Pride in every village in the country, but for now, he’s content in his expression, and tells me that he’s never been happier.
Up in Donegal, Jen who lives with her partner and their three children has seen nothing but warmth from her community since moving there a few years ago. Prior to moving to Donegal, Jen and her family lived in Dublin. “We’ve had an incredible amount of warmth and acceptance in both settings.”
Jen and her family were embraced at every level of society -from friends to co-workers and neighbours. “It’s comparable to my straight peers. It’s not like there’s anything extra being made about our children in comparison to other people’s children. There’s acceptance here in Donegal. It’s lovely.”
Jen does acknowledge that when Ireland voted on marriage equality in 2015, it wasn’t a landslide ‘Yes’ in many parts of the country. Donegal included. While she was disappointed and saddened by the voting statistics on paper, she feels that the everyday reality of being LGBT+ in Donegal is far from indicative of the ‘No’ votes.
“The reality is that I don’t get a lot of negative vibes in our community. I don’t get a sense of that at all, and I think you pick up on people’s energies. I know that it wasn’t 100 percent a ‘Yes’ vote for equality, but we have not had any bad impact of that attitude. We experience lovely warmth and acceptance as a community.
“I didn’t actually know any gay people growing up, but I know gay people now, and they are held in good regard in the community. They are very well spoken of - just as straight people are. There’s nothing exceptional about being gay here, even though it’s not as common.
Even though we’re the only gay parents in the area, there’s nothing exceptional made about that, which is lovely. I have real conversations with teachers about things that matter, real conversations at work about things that matter. Being gay does matter, but it isn’t the most important thing we talk about as a family. It was the same in Dublin.”
While Jen and her family have received nothing but a warm welcome from their neighbours, she acknowledges that single LGBT+ people may experience the community differently.
“For someone who is single and gay, if you want a chance to meet someone there’s definitely less opportunity for that. For people coming out in Donegal, or in rural Ireland, naturally it’s going to be a bit more difficult. That’s not necessarily about negative attitudes towards people, but because there’s less opportunities and less openly gay people.”
Ireland’s LGBT+ youth outreach organisation BeLonG To is currently in operation in Donegal, which Jen welcomes. She would like to see more opportunities for LGBT+ people, particularly on a social level. “It’s nice to feel part of a community. BeLonG To is the beginning of something good.”
Indeed, attitudes towards LGBT+ people oscillate between warmth and acceptance to open hostility and social exclusion throughout rural Ireland. One common thread among these narratives is a demand from the community in general to see a shift in the amount of social opportunities available for LGBT+ people across the country. The general consensus is that increased visibility and resources at a local level will foster community, boost spirits, and ultimately, embolden LGBT+ people to openly be themselves.