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Billy Keane: Allowing gay people in Ireland to marry is a basic human right ...

HE was an old man. How old I couldn't tell you. To the very young, the old are older than the Ice Age. We were afraid of him though. Wondered how fast he could run. Was that snail-slow, flat-feet walk without backswing a ruse to lure us young lads into his deadly embrace?

Joe wasn't his real name but that's what we'll call him.

We were scared of Joe but there was the thrill of being chased, which we saw as no more than another street game like 'hits' or football.

The young lads would call out "queer" and then run away as fast as they could in case old, slow Joe would grow wings. Joe worked in the town and wasn't married. He lived in a tiny flat over a shop.

The man was never charged with anything but, as a small boy, I believed in the primacy of rumours. Possibly the poor man was gay. A man who knew about such things told me so.

It was Ireland in the late 1960s and it happened in Everytown. The taunting, the sniggers behind pointing fingers and the crude jokes.

We can only guess at how many gay men and women lived an underground lie of a life. Their sexuality stifled and sullied by the treacherous old cabal of church and State.

Homosexuality was a crime and a sin. The same church that ran an in-house travel agency for parish-less paedophiles, condemned homosexuals as perverted outcasts.

For those living a secret life it must have been something like the Jews hiding out for fear of the Nazis.

There was a gradual liberalisation of Irish society in the 1970s. I was in the company of a gay pal in a pub one night when an ignorant man asked my drinking companion if he was gay, only he didn't use that word. The expression I think was "are you a pillowbiter, so?"

I cringed for my friend. We all knew he was as gay as Christmas and none of us gave a damn.

The pub stopped talking, in the same way as when a low-type gunslinger enters a Wild West saloon and the piano player hides under his chair.

Our friend's reply was the first time I ever heard a gay Irishman admit his sexuality.

"I just help out when they're busy," he said. The pub erupted in a spontaneous outburst of supportive laughter.

Back then we all watched a show called 'Are you Being Served' starring a very camp actor who had the funny walk and the swan-a-drinking bent hand gesture. His catchphrase was: 'I'm free'.

Gay people walked funny and talked funny on TV.

The stereotyping was the cause of one poor lad I knew 'having the gay-ness bate out of him' by his brothers.

There was the 'gay walk game'. You pretended there was a coin between the cheeks of your bum and the winner was the hero who kept the imaginary 50c in situ the longest. I don't think this was homophobic because we weren't, it was just messing -- but there must have been closeted gay people watching and how tough that must have been for them.

That was then, and now the State has broken from the unholy alliance. It took until 1988 and even then it was Europe that forced us to decriminalise homosexuality in the Norris Case -- but the church and the infallible Pope are steadfast in their beliefs.

Yes indeed homosexuality is still a sin in the eyes of the church. Note that's the church. Jesus, I would like to think, wouldn't be as harsh on men and women who are different just because the roulette balls in the hormone game wheeled into different chambers.

I had the great good luck to be in the company of the kindly Ryan Tubridy on the morning of the first civil ceremony. The civil ceremony is almost a gay marriage. I was waiting to be interviewed. The two lads were chirping away to Ryan and then without warning he asked me if I would like to wish them well.

What was I going to say 'sorry for your troubles' or 'you walk up to the altar owning 100 acres and come down with only 50?'

Of course, I wished them all the best and, as I did, it dawned on me they wouldn't be allowed up to the altar and, strictly speaking, they weren't married either in the eyes of the church or State. I thought of Joe and thousands like him.

And the couple for all their love, fussing and excitement weren't really getting married. The distinction is only straight people of the opposite sex can get married in Ireland.

The Dublin Pride week is just over and gay-ness was celebrated in all its diversity but there must come a time when there will be no need to highlight gender differences.

Some of these gay events bring us back to the funny-walk days. We tend to concentrate on the outrageous, the flamboyant and even the exhibitionist. The ordinary gay men and women can be genuinely embarrassed by this. It's not that they want to hide their sexuality. It's more a question of, as one man told me: 'I'm gay, so what'.

The ban on gay marriage is a form of institutionalised apartheid.

On Sunday, the Tanaiste said he would support a referendum which would legalise gay marriage.

Gay people should be allowed to say the words 'we're married'. It's no more than a basic human right.

We owe that much at least to Joe and all the Joes.

Irish Independent