Monday 11 December 2017

'My mum thought there must be a cure for being gay and made an appointment with my doctor'- woman (18) on coming out in Ireland

Even though the country voted in favour of same-sex marriage last year, growing up gay in many parts of rural Ireland still has its difficulties. Arlene Harris met some of the participants of RTE's documentary on the subject to find out what it's really like being the only gay in the village

Comfortable in her skin: Shauna Keane (18), from Co Offaly, who features in the RTE documentary 'The Only Gay in the Village', gets her hair done
Comfortable in her skin: Shauna Keane (18), from Co Offaly, who features in the RTE documentary 'The Only Gay in the Village', gets her hair done
Farmer Will Keane, from Roscommon, campaigned for a Yes vote in his home county

Arlene Harris

As she lay on the floor sobbing her heart out, 14-year-old Shauna Keane believed that her world had ended. Her deeply traditional parents had just discovered that their youngest child was gay and after unexpectedly confronting her about the revelation, the teenager broke down in tears.

The Shauna of today couldn't be more different from her young self. Now 18 she is out and proud. Her parents have accepted her sexuality and she is totally happy in her own skin.

But the teenager from Offaly who is featuring in 'The Only Gay in the Village' - an RTE documentary airing tomorrow night (November 9) - says being gay in rural Ireland is still a tough journey to take.

"I knew from about eight years of age that I was a little different to my friends," says Shauna. "I didn't understand what gay was but I knew I had a preference towards girls and, as I got a little older, I realised that I didn't like boys in the same way.

Farmer Will Keane, from Roscommon, campaigned for a Yes vote in his home county
Farmer Will Keane, from Roscommon, campaigned for a Yes vote in his home county

"I believed that no one else in the village felt the same as me and made a pact with myself that I would get married to a man and just pretend to like him that way because I didn't want to be an outsider."

As pre-adolescence kicked in, Shauna became more aware of the fact that she liked girls but felt unable to open up to anyone. Eventually she told a male friend, who while supportive at the time, soon used the knowledge as a power over her.

"When I was 12 I decided to tell a friend that I was gay and initially was so happy to have told someone, but after a few months he started threatening to tell people," she says. "This was so scary as I was terrified that the whole place would be talking about me and I wouldn't be prepared for it.

But at the age of 14, unable to stay silent any longer, she started to reveal her true self both to friends and online.

"I did some research online and saw that I wasn't alone in the world, so began to feel more comfortable in myself and then started telling some other friends. Thankfully their response was more positive and soon I even had kids coming up to me in school telling me that they were gay too but didn't know how to deal with it.

"Then I decided to get involved in an online campaign and post my 'Coming Out Story' on YouTube.

"At this point none of my family knew, but my aunt saw it online and told my sister who then told my parents - it was a very messy way to go about it really as it wasn't a good way for them to find out.

"That day they followed me upstairs when I came home from school and as soon as they told me they knew, I collapsed into a ball on the floor and cried."

Her parents, Catherine and Billy, who have five children in total, picked their daughter off the floor and reassured her of their love, but her mother also revealed her belief that Shauna had a condition which could be cured.

"My parents told me that they would always love me regardless of anything, but my mum made an appointment with the doctor as she thought there must be a cure for being gay," says Shauna.

"Obviously the doctor told her there wasn't and she was really upset for a long time. She had been brought up to follow the Bible, was taught by nuns, and lived in a very rural part of Ireland, so she just had no exposure to gay people at all. She took it very hard and it was quite a while before she came to terms with it. My dad, on the other hand, was very supportive from the beginning.

"Now four years later, everything is so positive. They are both behind me every step of the way - my mum and I even joke about her initial reaction. I have a girlfriend called Jess who lives in Dublin and they are both very welcoming whenever she comes down to visit - so it has all worked out in the end," says Shauna.

The same-sex marriage referendum undoubtedly had a profound effect on how the LGBT population in Ireland is perceived, but Shauna says while this has made life easier for gay people living in rural parts of the country, there is still a long way to go.

"The Yes vote has been very positive and has had a massive impact on our lives and future," says the Leaving Cert student. "It is no longer seen as a huge deal to be gay, particularly in the city, but in the countryside, it's slower to change.

"During the lead-up to the vote, the majority of posters in my area were encouraging people to vote No and there was a Yes poster outside a primary school which was taken down by the principal because he didn't believe in it, so there was a lot of opposition to it locally.

"But once the vote was over, the mood began to change and people began to realise that this is the future. In the past, particularly outside the cities, no one talked about these things and while there were obviously plenty of gay people living around the country, they were having to hide it - so now we are able to be open.

"When I was 14, I couldn't see a future for myself, but now it's positive. I have a great relationship with my family, friends and girlfriend and I'm hoping to go to college in Dublin next year to study zoology.

"But for the young people coming up behind me, I would like to see LGBT groups like Belong outside the cities - even if they only had a meeting once a month or something, it would make all the difference."

While most of Ireland voted for equality for all in last year's referendum, Roscommon stood out as being one of the few places which overwhelmingly voted No.

Will Keane, who also features in 'The Only Gay in the Village', grew up on a farm in the county. At 36 years of age and the only child of elderly parents, he kept his sexuality to himself, only throwing off the shackles of small-town Ireland when he headed to college in Dublin and made a career for himself as a project manager for IBM.

"To be honest, when I first heard the name of the show, I hated it as one instantly thinks of the Lycra-clad character in 'Little Britain'," he says.

"But the title does hint at isolation and if you are different from others, particularly when you are the only one who knows it, this can be very isolating no matter how included you are in the community.

"So it's only when you meet someone like you that you realise there are actually small pockets of difference in every village up and down the country. And it is thanks to the positive result of the marriage referendum that we are a lot more comfortable being ourselves among our peers," he says.

Both his parents are now deceased and after his father's death last year, Will came back to take over the family farm, for the first time living as his true self in the community.

"My father was 83 when he died last year so there was a huge generation gap between us," says Will. "I knew I was gay since I was a teenager, and growing up feeling different to everyone else was a lot to struggle with, particularly as there was no one I could open up to.

"I couldn't talk to my parents about it and it wasn't something I felt I could say to friends so I really didn't come into my own until I went to college in Dublin. I think this is quite common for LGBT people growing up in the countryside - they don't get to blossom until they move away from their small communities and come clean about their sexuality, either with college friends or work colleagues."

His parents didn't live to see the referendum take place last year and Will believes if they had been around, he would have taken the opportunity to tell them that he is gay.

"Not telling my parents was a hard decision to make," he admits. "I was living my true self away from home and felt confident enough to eventually tell friends and neighbours in my own village, but I didn't feel able to tell my parents. My dad died a few months before the referendum and I think now that if he had been alive for the vote, I would have told him and he would have accepted it.

"I was an active campaigner in the lead up to the vote and while I know that Roscommon voted overwhelmingly No, I never had any negative feedback from people. And in fact, when the referendum was over and the Yes vote won, people who had voted No actually came to me and said they regretted their decision and if they had the chance again they would have voted Yes."

'The Only Gay in the Village' is on RTE Two tomorrow at 9pm

Irish Independent

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