A midst a fluorescent network of conversations and music that fill the bar wall to wall, I hear a muffled ringtone and see my phone screen light up on the table. It’s my sister, and at this point I realise that I haven’t spoken to her at all over the weekend.
Living in my new Berlin bubble, I admit that I hadn’t replied to her text or answered a call. Sitting across from me at the table is an oblivious friend, bathed in the light of her phone as I answer my own. I’m met with a tone of voice from my sister that I’ve experienced before. It’s not critical, or lecturing, but purely panicked concern.
It pulls me by the ear, back to a night we spent together with our friend, in my then-home in Limerick. It involves two grown-up boys we met on the city’s Sarsfield Bridge. It’s a similar experience to that which most queer people encounter on the streets of Ireland. You know the usual criteria; someone’s stare lingers too long on your person; they make a comment, sometimes to whomever they’re with, and oftentimes to you. You know that they like (and almost every time are themselves) trouble. It’s the type of encounter that provokes a reflex within yourself to push down the gayness and hastily butch it up.
On that night, we reach the bridge’s cobblestone steps on the side of the old Dunnes Stores in the early hours of the morning. The approaching pair greet us and ask me for a hug – I decline with that teeth-grinding politeness; then we arrive on the bridge whilst they stay behind. As we’re relieved to finally elude their advances, we turn to find them both pursuing us.
The exchange heats up and boils over when one of them shouts a word that’d probably been on the tip of his tongue since he saw our group – ‘faggot’. It comes out of his mouth with no hesitation, almost sounding rehearsed. By then they had caught up to us, and from there the exchange spirals into a violent and physical altercation. It only lasts a few minutes, though it’s interesting how you decide to take the blame that your identity has invited this violence into the equation. I ask myself the same question that Panti Bliss proposed in her 2014 Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre – “What is it about me that gives the gay away?”
Prior to this situation, my awareness of these events was high, but I’d navigated the world with a sense of baseless naivety. It’s the same old cliche, ‘it just won’t happen to me’ – until it does.
Part of me is conflicted because we did fight back, despite the old maxim ‘violence is never the answer’. Yet these two grown boys weren’t open to reason; all the ‘Love is Love’ chants had fallen on deaf ears. I think we collectively understood these people could be anyone, capable of doing anything. There are only two people that stand between us and our safety. So, at a certain point, you realise that if you can’t beat them – literally – join them.
"I’d navigated the world with a sense of baseless naivety. It’s the same old cliche - ‘it just won’t happen to me’ until it does...
During the commotion of the fight, our friend’s phone is stolen, and then the Limerick Suicide Watch arrive, hauling me into a van to check out the injuries. “It’s really just cuts and bruises.” I decided then that was the only trace of this attack – just cuts and bruises and a stolen phone. Denial is surprisingly easy, and it’s comforting. If you dismiss the experience, you reject the requirement to process it and deny the possibility that it could happen again. Beforehand, I’d have said I lived in an oppression oblivious bubble, which this night burst. That’s a hard thing to give up, so it’s easier to forget it all.
The Gardaí are called and they show up some hours later, to answer the claims about the stolen phone. Our friend takes the lead, because it was hers that was stolen, and it’s almost like we wait our turn to address the hate crime that just occurred. It soon becomes clear that it wasn’t going to be treated like that this time around. Nobody contacted me after, nor were my details taken. So, I decided to go to the station myself in the following days to give a statement, but was told that I couldn’t. The reason – staff on leave.
This past July, queer people and other marginalised communities across Ireland received news of the delay in the progress of the Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences Bill. The announcement came in and dredged up memories of that night and the subsequent inaction by Gardaí at the scene. I take for granted that this inaction is a direct consequence of the missing dedicated hate crime law in Irish statute books. These crimes are ignored by the law and indeed the institutions that uphold it. The Irish government’s de-prioritisation in enacting this legislation vindicates a vital ethos in LGBTQ+ activist circles: equal marriage is not the final leg of queer liberation.
My story is only a microscopic representation of the grievances our community endures in this country. The dismissal of queer issues is not only exemplified by the lack of an appropriate hate crime law, neglect is painfully visible in other areas, namely the protection of Irish trans folk who are bound to a healthcare model that is the worst of its kind in the EU.
By 2018, the Irish Council of Civil Liberties identified Ireland as having the EU’s highest rates of transphobic hate crimes, though that statistic predates the recent surge in persecution against transgender people in popular culture and mainstream media. In many countries, this community’s entire existence has been warped into a political piñata for the far right to whack.
The state’s lacklustre approach to implementing solutions to these problems reinforces the idea that they are not worthy of a solution to begin with. That sentiment has long bled into the roots of Irish society, disseminating from statutes to institutions, sinking finally into the minds of the public. The Hate Offences Bill will recognise that protected characteristics will no longer be fair game for attack. This is something that thousands of people are shamefully left waiting for in modern day Ireland.
Back in the bar, I look up at my friend sitting across from me. She’s a trans woman, whose authentic existence in this political climate is in itself a defiant statement. She’s experienced similar attacks in a much higher volume and more malicious nature. Despite it all, it hasn’t once hindered her determination to live freely, as it did to me.
So over 400 days after my hate-fuelled crime, it’s her fearlessness that motivates me to find my own. With time and distance away from the event and the society it occurred in, I’ve finally swapped the denial and begun to process. I’m able to relive an attack on my very identity without shame, what-ifs, or guilt.
Hopefully, there’ll be a day soon when our community and other protected groups will no longer just have to rely simply on bravery and luck. They’ll be able to find refuge under a law that protects them, as it doesn’t just affect those who are attacked, but also those around them. As for my sister and I, we are in different countries but closer than ever. We’ve accepted that it happened and that in this world there is a possibility that it will happen again. In the case that it does – we will cross that bridge when we get to it.