Wednesday 13 November 2019

When my 94-year-old gran heard I was gay, she replied 'And? So what?'

Sonya Donnelly and Emer Butter celebrate the Yes vote at a Dublin garden party
Sonya Donnelly and Emer Butter celebrate the Yes vote at a Dublin garden party
EMOTION: Sonya Donnelly and Emer Butler celebrate the Yes vote at a Dublin garden party
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

The word that kept cropping up amid the pop of champagne corks and flutter of rainbow flags was 'acceptance'.

Acceptance from their family, their friends, their country.

As 20 girls piled into a garden party in the Dublin sunshine, there was tears and laughter and love all round.

Their stories were heart-warming.

There was 27-year-old Richael O'Brien and her 94- year old granny.

"My mum finally chose her moment to broach the subject with my granny during the middle of a discussion about the referendum on television. She said 'You know Richael is gay' and my granny turned around and replied: 'And? So what?' As if my mom was the one with the problem," she laughs.

Then there was Louise Kavanagh and her 78-year-old grandmother, who she decided not to tell about her orientation after the exhaustion and emotion of the roller-coaster campaign.

Her wish wasn't to be when word got back to her grandmother through her cousins.

She received a prompt and angry phone call on her way to a tag-rugby match. But not exactly the kind she expected.

"She said to me 'Louise Kavanagh, did you think for one moment anyone in this family would ever vote against you and your ­happiness'. I burst out crying. That feeling of acceptance from everyone was incredible. I said to myself, even if it doesn't pass, at least I have this."

Today, she says: "I feel like I have come above water. I don't feel like I have to hide anymore."

In the sitting room, a visibly emotional Becky Oakley comes in to find her girlfriend Aileen Griffin.

"Your mum just called me to congratulate me," she said. "Oh God, I'm going to start off now," she says, waving her hand in front of her eyes to fan back the tears.

Rebecca came from Wales five years ago to be with Aileen. They had built a house together, bought a dog and today they could finally talk seriously about marriage.

"I was coming over and asking for the love of their daughter and now I am totally part of the family," says Becky. "Her six-year-old niece asked me the other day 'are you going to marry Aileen?' It's just fantastic that it's so normal now."

For those outside the LGBT community, she explains how the past few weeks have been turbulent in a lifetime of commentary about their personal lives.

"People have been saying to me 'we're so sorry you have had to go through the past few weeks hearing all this negative stuff but they don't realise it's been the past 10 years."

Because she doesn't look like what people would assume a stereotypical lesbian should be, she says she is constantly battling with the prospect of challenging casual presumptions. "You'll meet a nice Irish man now, they tell me, and I can't break my heart every time telling them, 'well no, I'm actually a lesbian' and waiting to see their reaction or that look of unspoken shock.

"Usually I just think it's better if I go a long with it and not say anything."

Her girlfriend, Aileen, says her colleagues in work mightn't know she's out but her attitude has changed: "I would never have even spoken to you like this before. I'm an incredibly private person, but now I just don't care," she shrugs. "A few people might be surprised alright," she laughs.

Her friend Amber Wilson, sister of model Vogue Williams, is one of the many girls here who eventually wants to marry and believes a new generation have been politicised because they were met with an issue that was so personal to them: "We have seen in this the 'power of the vote'," she says.

"I feel massively different today. I feel incredibly proud of Ireland. Driving home and seeing the streets lined with multi-coloured flags, people standing on street corners with giant Yes posters and giving them the thumbs-up passing in the car, it's been really emotional."

For 31-year-old Emer Butler the past few weeks have been equally tough: "Going door to door asking complete strangers if I could get married, I felt very vulnerable, but I understand it had to be done."

But she adds: "I only came out to my family about a year and a half ago and just seeing my mam go into work, proudly wearing her Yes badge, that was a really special moment for me.

"A revolution has taken place in Ireland. I'm not usually an emotional person but, going to the polls yesterday and seeing people at the crossroads holding Yes posters, I haven't stopped crying since yesterday."

The girls describe how a group of 13-year-old lads cycled by them on bikes and rather than shout anything derogatory they whooped and cheered. Outside, as they pose for a group photograph in the summer sun, neighbours open the windows of their home, look down at their party and cheer them on.

"Yeeeeeeeeeees," the group shout back.

Eilis McGrath sums up the feeling towards their home country.

"I am emigrating to London in a few days. If the Yes vote hadn't been passed I honestly don't know if I would ever come back to live here. But now I do want to. I want to get married here. I see my future in Ireland."

Sunday Independent

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