Life

Sunday 16 June 2019

Sophie Donaldson: 'I find it hard to say the word wife'

A new campaign to tackle homophobia is welcome because, writes Sophie Donaldson, bigotry remains part and parcel of Irish life

Wary of hostility: Sophie Donaldson pictured with her wife Veronica in Dublin. Photo: Frank Mcgrath
Wary of hostility: Sophie Donaldson pictured with her wife Veronica in Dublin. Photo: Frank Mcgrath
Wary of hostility: Sophie Donaldson pictured with her wife Veronica in Dublin. Photo: Frank Mcgrath
Brendan Courtney experienced regular threats while growing up
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

In early 2014, drag performer Panti Bliss stood on stage at the Abbey Theatre and delivered a 10-minute speech about homophobic attitudes in Ireland that subsequently went viral. For LGBT+ people, the speech was a revelation, not only for its impassioned censure of the many injustices faced by the community, or the fact that Madonna herself tweeted her support. No, what was so validating about the speech was that she articulated a certain feeling so many LGBT+ people experience, but find difficult to put into words.

Panti spoke about "checking myself", a knee-jerk reaction in which an individual is acutely aware of their otherness, and adapts their behaviour so nothing "gives the gay away".

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I have been married for nearly a year and, in that time, have developed a new way of "checking myself"- I've only brought myself to say the word 'wife' just a handful of times. I have grappled with this single syllable, those four hard-won letters, and it is not myself I'm referring to, but the woman I married. I couldn't have been happier to marry her - she is my true love - but since our wedding day, it has become clear I am troubled by the fact I can no longer hide behind neutral nouns like partner.

Each time I deflect and refer to her as my partner, I feel fraudulent and worry my reticence makes me an ingrate for the fight for marriage equality. I do not swallow this word because I am shy, or embarrassed, or unsure. I save this word, keep it deep inside myself because I am wary. To call her my wife is to blatantly out myself, lay myself and my relationship bare.

To paraphrase the words of Panti, otherwise known as Rory O'Neill, it is very much "giving the gay away".

Any LGBT+ person knows that being 'out and proud' is a liberation that invites the potential for hostility. I am not talking about dark alleys or far-right enclaves. These spaces are taxis; when you are alone and the driver casually refers to somebody as a f****t; pubs you are asked to leave for pecking your partner on the cheek, never mind the 50-something man necking his much younger girlfriend in the corner; your own home, when a bolshie builder eyes the master bedroom and asks if you are sisters, or just roommates.

These are the everyday situations that heterosexual people don't just exist within, but have ownership of, simply by virtue of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

In our seemingly liberal society, in which we voted for the rights of our LGBT+ citizens, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia occur far more often than many people think. A new body of research from the University of Limerick's Hate and Hostility Research Group suggests Irish people significantly underestimate levels of abuse directed at LGBT+ people.

Of the 1,395 participants surveyed, just 36pc believe that violence against the LGBT+ community is "a serious problem" in Ireland. This does not reflect the reality for the one-in-three LGBT+ people who have been threatened with physical violence, or the one-in-five who have been physically attacked in public due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This body of research has launched the new public awareness campaign Call It Out, which hopes to challenge the public's perception and reaction to homophobia. The campaign, a joint initiative of the University of Limerick's research group and Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), also aims to empower LGBT+ people faced with hostility to seek help. Whilst this is well meaning, the sad fact is most of us are already well equipped in dodging any suggestion of aggression.

Broadcaster and designer Brendan Courtney is one of the high-profile faces of the campaign, and has previously spoken about being physically attacked because of his sexuality. Reflecting upon this instance of violent homophobia, he reasons that he downplayed his experience mostly because "we have learnt to live with it".

"From a very young age, from school through to college, it was a part of my life. Walking down the street, I would be abused regularly, up to four times a week, back in the 90s and 2000s. That has subsided and there has definitely been a massive improvement in Irish culture. We have evolved, but those statistics suggest it is still an issue for people."

Heterosexual people would not give a second thought as to whether it is safe to wrap their arm around their partner's waist in public, or rest a head on their shoulder in a train carriage full of teenage boys. LGBT+ people only indulge in these small intimate gestures when it is certain they will not be met with aggression.

Even supposedly safe spaces, like the hip Dublin bar we frequented one Saturday afternoon, can still harbour unseen threats. This is a bar too cool to concern itself with anybody's sexuality, a bar full of staff and patrons many of whom would probably fall under the inclusive umbrella term 'queer'. This is a bar in which we sat, holding hands over the table and chatting over a drink, when a middle-aged man hunched over a laptop beside us leaned over and began to threaten us in a guttural tone designed to attract as little attention as possible whilst inflicting maximum menace.

When we alerted staff, they couldn't have been kinder and offered to boot the offending man out. It was us, however, who chose to leave. We were shaken and upset, and could no longer sit in that same leather booth with the ease so many heterosexual couples take for granted. This was a stark reminder that within our society, there is a cohort that not only finds our existence repulsive, but who will go out of their way to tell us so.

This story is not an anomaly. Almost every single LGBT+ person will have a similar experience, or one much worse, to recount. It is not always physical or even verbal. You become acutely attuned to people's facial expressions, their long, hard stares. Each of these encounters, whether it be a shouted slur or long, heavy silence after you've referred to your girlfriend, builds up like scar tissue.

"People may feel emboldened by what they see happening globally, or by the utterances of far-right and religious-right figures in their own communities," says Stephen Moloney, author of the website masc.life, a collection of profiles that celebrate men in Ireland who do not identify as heterosexual.

"My partner and I would have a heightened self-consciousness if walking hand-in-hand in public. We've let go of each other and have even taken a detour while walking together sometimes if faced with a potentially harmful situation."

So can a suite of billboards and radio advertisements combat a deeply entrenched prejudice?

"I hope it will be effective, in the same way that I hope any effort to tackle this kind of violence will be effective on some or any level," says Stephen. "However, I think it will take more to move towards a much grander, long-term cultural shift. As a matter of urgency, robust sex and relationship education in schools that is inclusive and sensitive towards LGBTQIA lived experience should be seen as essential."

This week marks four years since the Marriage Equality Referendum that afforded LGBT+ people the same rights as their fellow citizens. It was the ultimate assurance that the majority of our society was one of kindness and tolerance.

Whilst attitudes have progressed enormously, there still lies an undercurrent of hostility. It will be a collective effort to fully eradicate these attitudes towards our LGBT+ community so nobody, not even for a second, finds they are checking themselves.

For more information about the campaign, visit callitout.ie.

Irish Independent

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