Does Ireland need a National Coming Out Day?
As I cast my mind back on my gay days of yore, I recall that Ireland once marked National Coming Out Day. I remember the Keith Haring illustration on the cover of Gay Community News – back then produced in newsprint! It may have been in 1998. I don’t remember the event being marked in Ireland since then.
On my way home from work yesterday, I was quietly thrilled to see a happy female couple walk hand-in-hand through Smithfield in Dublin. (A happy couple, and a brave couple!) And I do get a little smile any time I see a couple together like that, in public, in Ireland. But should it really be this way? Do straights get a little buzz of joy when they see other straight couples canoodling in public? It’s unlikely.
It’s unlikely because not only will they not risk their dignity or safety by doing so; moreover it’s just so utterly taken for granted. A peck on the cheek between him and her? You wouldn’t look twice. But the exact same act between two people of the same sex? Why, it’s remarkable! Raunchy! Repugnant! Revolutionary! It’s definitely not normal, though.
Not only is heterosexuality deemed to be the norm, but there’s almost a presumption of heterosexuality: unless you positively come out to every person you meet in your day to day life, it’s quite possible that they will all assume you’re straight. (Unless, of course, you’re making it blindingly obvious, such as doing your weekly shop with a buzz-cut while wrapped in a rainbow flag. Which is okay by me, by the way.)
But perhaps to a point that’s exactly what’s needed: to challenge those assumptions, and to keep challenging those assumptions until they’ve been erased as much as possible. To keep coming out. To say it to friends, colleagues, family (where possible). To tell your local and national representatives: councillors and TDs. To keep doing so until everyone realises that their friends, their neighbours, their colleagues, their children may be LGBT. And that LGBT isn’t “they” but is “we”. We are part of the communities in which we live.
[Research conducted by Dr Duffy found that] when lesbian nurses worked abroad they were out, but when they worked in Ireland they were closeted. I think I found one person who was out in their practice, and they were out by default rather than by choice. And that’s what was interesting. What they found was, because they weren’t out, because of the fear of being out – it goes back to what feminists wrote about in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the notion of “the glass ceiling”: can women get through, and get up the ladder and be the CEO of companies? Lesbians think the same way: if I’m out and open about who I am, does that stop me?
Another thing that became interesting was where those interviewed talked bout break times – tea breaks, lunch breaks. And they found it very difficult with the conversations because they couldn’t be part of those conversations. Those conversations were about family; the younger generation talking about their children. But they couldn’t be part of that [...] So, some of them became “listeners”. They became really good listeners, but they never shared anything about themselves.
This seems to be how it is for some, if not many, gay people in Ireland. But is this how it should be?
In their interview with us in 2008, Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan summed up what perhaps many of us feel:
Katherine Zappone: [...] if everyone in the morning who is lesbian or gay was completely open about that it would be a whole lot easier to change the institutions that are closed to us or the lack of security or the laws that are there.
An Louise Gillgan: It just would! They would have to! See, I think there are distinctions between what people think about homosexuality and what people feel about it homosexuality.
In other words, I think that there are huge numbers now who know in their head that sexuality is a continuum. This is known by medical science. It has been known since the classical Greek period. Plato wrote about it extensively. People are who they are: a minority is homosexual, the majority heterosexual. But there has always been this continuum and there are people who are bisexual. So most people know that [...].
Rationally, I think people have advanced in their consciousness but it’s the affect of – the feeling – that we need to think about, especially among people who are heterosexual. Because I think that discomfort – the failure to change what they feel about homosexuality – allows them to either fail to support in a very active way full equality because there is something in them which continues to feel, “There’s something in this that I’m not comfortable with.”
But maybe that’s their problem that they need to get over. That’s not that there’s something with people being homosexual.
KZ: What helps the transformation of that feeling is being with others, having an engagement or some sort of intimate relationship with people, knowing that those people are gay and lesbian. I’m convinced that’s the only thing that can transform that because the head can’t do it by itself.
ALG: That’s right.
Annie Aura: So unless more people come out, we’re just going to hold ourselves back?
ALG: I think so. The more gay and lesbian people, in relationship with the wider community, well then that affective piece of resistance, of feeling of discomfort around of homosexuality – because, of course people’s minds were held in a mind-clamp for a very long time about this. They really did believe if you were part of the Catholic Church that this was all very wrong – now, intellectually, they’ve moved beyond that but I think the affective bit has to change.
What Katherine says is absolutely accurate, the more ordinary, everyday people they meet who happen to be just different on the scale of sexual identity. Who cares? Really, who cares?
But I do think, yes, it is about people just saying “I’m not hiding it. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m an ordinary human being.” We all are different. [...]
Come out, come out, whoever you are!