Friday 9 December 2016

Exclusive: 'I hope other gay people don't spend decades pretending' - Ursula Halligan

I feared the worst when I came out, but I've been humbled by the kindness of strangers, writes Ursula Halligan

Ursula Halligan

Published 24/05/2015 | 13:20

Ursula Halligan Picture; Gerry Mooney
Ursula Halligan Picture; Gerry Mooney

I have never been so hugged, squeezed, kissed or clapped on the back as I have been these last seven days.

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Which isn't what I had expected. Until the moment my piece popped up on the Irish Times website, my expectations were somewhere between dread and terror.

The piece I had written shared a secret that had weighed me down all my adult life. One part of me knew it was the right thing to do; another part trembled as the homophobe in my head imagined possible negative reactions from friends, relatives, neighbours and colleagues.

I believed that if it changed one No into a Yes, publishing that secret would be worthwhile. I knew TV3 were behind me. But the thought of being the target of a Twitter frenzy destroyed my sleep.

Either way, I knew I had crossed a Rubicon.

Nothing would be the same again.

Ursula Halligan received this bouquet of flowers, thanks to contributions made by Twitter users.
Ursula Halligan received this bouquet of flowers, thanks to contributions made by Twitter users.

Read more: 'I was resigned to going to the grave with my secret'

At precisely 6.07am on Friday May 15 when the article was published, the first of hundreds of texts and emails of congratulation starting pulsing on my iPhone. A tsunami of love, warm,th and kindness began flowing my way and it hasn't stopped since.

An avalanche of letters, cards, emails, texts, phone calls and tweets descended on me (it will take me weeks to reply to everyone).

Some generous people even sent flowers to TV3 and to my home. Neighbours took in the flowers when I was at work and introduced themselves, arms full of flowers, faces full of kindness, when I returned.

I received invitations to dinner parties and offered opportunities to meet potential partners. I'm told I received two marriage proposals on Twitter.

The scale of the reaction amazed me. I had no idea my story would resonate with so many people. It was like a lid on a boiling cauldron had been blown off. A subterranean world of quiet suffering surfaced. Soul sisters and brothers emerged: fellow inmates locked up in emotional prisons.

On the street young men and women approached me, telling me my story was theirs too. They could especially identify with my 'prison' metaphor. Many men expressed surprise that a woman's account of repressed sexuality could so accurately reflect their own experience. An utterly personal account became a general truth.

Read more: TV3’s Ursula Halligan comes out as she calls ‘Yes’ vote the ‘most Christian thing to do’

I wish I could say I handled it well. I wouldn't have handled it at all without friends telling me how to do it; get out, go to the movies, don't hide.

That advice led, last Sunday, to a moving encounter in The Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin's Smithfield. To be precise, the cinema's communal toilet.

A handsome young father was looking after his daughter in the baby-changing station when he suddenly spotted me. The fright on his face was like he'd seen a ghost. He trembled, went red in the face and stuttered: "Thank you, thank you. I don't believe it's you."

He had read the piece in the Irish Times and said it had touched him to his core. His eyes welled up; the tears tumbled.

Years of buried hurt became visible.

He was a gay father: his beautiful baby daughter gurgled joyously between us.

I hugged him, recognising a common humanity and a shared pain.

I shuddered when I thought of the No side posters: "A mother's love is irreplaceable' and 'Two men can't replace a mother's love'.

To be approved of for something I had anticipated would result in excoriation was confusing. To be spoken of as a catalyst, equally so.

To be written about in kind warmth, at home, by people like Miriam Lord, made me feel welcome, after years of conviction that if people knew the truth, I would never be welcome anywhere.

A Greek newspaper sent me their translation of the original piece: all strange letters with the exception of my name.

But the habits of exclusion die hard, even if the exclusion is partially self-imposed.

When I was approached in Leinster House by staff and colleagues, I flinched, before I realised all I was threatened with was a hug or a handshake or, in one case, a clap on the back so forceful it nearly caused a face-plant.

Then I realised I was moving within a ring of colleagues in TV3 and Leinster House like a protective phalanx. i sensed their anxiety that someone would insult me.

Nobody did.

Read more: The crucial factors that won the Yes campaign

One of the reasons I wrote the piece was to help heterosexual people get an insight into the reality that they are surrounded by invisible gay friends and relatives, living incomplete, small lives, too terrified to accept themselves.

Friends, colleagues in the media and political contacts told me stories of middle-aged people emboldened by the article to finally 'come out'. Others told me that their elderly parents had switched from a No to a Yes vote on the back of the piece. One colleague texted to say that their 86-year-old mother was now voting Yes.

Having seen myself as abnormal all my life, it seemed that for some people I had became the litmus test of normality.

Ireland voting Yes is an ungrudging acknowledgment of equality. But the very fact of the referendum changed the world for some of us.

I spent decades passing as straight for fear of being hated. The day I stopped pretending, I found I was loved.

I hope that's true of other gay people.

And that they don't waste decades pretending.

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