Tuesday 25 June 2019

Alex White's mother will be voting Yes - and it's not just for her son, the minister

Communications Minister Alex White with his brother Seamus and his mother Agatha. Photo: Damien Eagers
Communications Minister Alex White with his brother Seamus and his mother Agatha. Photo: Damien Eagers

Lise Hand

Communications Minister Alex White was ensconced at a table in the Merrion Hotel alongside his brother Seamus and their mother Agatha.

Over pots of tea and cups of coffee, the trio were recounting how Seamus - who is the youngest of seven siblings - came out to his mother as gay. And he really picked his moment.

"I told her on Christmas night 1988 when we were at my sister's house," he explained. "It was about 10 o'clock in the evening, when he had a few beers on board," added Alex.

Seamus grinned. "It was our very own 'EastEnders' moment - we almost expected to hear the dramatic music at the end," he said, as all three laughed.

It's obvious that the White family are a close-knit clan. Agatha still lives in the house in Marino where she reared her children - tragically she was widowed at the age of 45 when her husband Bob died at the age of 53. "She did a brilliant job," agreed her two sons.

"We were a normal Irish family - of course, there was lots of noise with six boys in the house," said Agatha. Seamus reckons he had an easy time of it growing up. "By the time I arrived, our mother had dealt with all sorts of behaviour from the rest of them," he said.

Seamus was 19 years old and studying politics and economics in Trinity College when he made the decision to come out.

"I kind of knew I was gay from a young age, I admitted it to myself when I was 13 or 14. But I was in Copenhagen with friends for the summer in 1988, and maybe because I was away from my own environment, I felt a bit freer and braver," he said.

But it was several months before he began to speak to members of his family about his sexuality. Just before Christmas, he came out to his big brother Alex, who was 10 years older, in what is the traditional Irishman's confessional - a pub snug. "He told me over a pint in the Stag's Head pub in the city centre," said Alex. "I wasn't necessarily surprised, but I was worried for him, not in the sense that it was a catastrophe for him, but just concerned what it meant in terms of his future life."

Then he broke the news to Agatha on Christmas night. "We went for a walk around the housing estate, just the two of us. There were a few tears," said Seamus.

His mother's reaction was one not uncommon among loving parents.

"I just remember thinking, 'Oh God, he's going to be on his own for the rest of his life'," recalled Agatha. "And also that I'll never get rid of him now," she added, as the three laughed again. Seamus is well aware that the immediate acceptance by his family made his coming out much easier than that faced by so many young people.

"I was always quite matter-of-fact about it. And like many typical Irish families, we didn't generally talk about matters relating to sexuality, either straight or gay," he said. "So after I came out we didn't really talk about it - not because anyone wanted to suppress the issue, but because it was just accepted and everyone got on with their lives."

Agatha admitted she had no inkling that her son was gay. "I don't think I had any sense of it - but then I wasn't really thinking about it - and he had a lot of female friends," she added.

Alex nodded. "We couldn't believe the amount of women he had around him. It was a source of great jealousy among his brothers."

Last year, Seamus entered a civil partnership with his partner of four years, and coincidentally, they celebrate their first anniversary next Friday, May 22, on the day of the referendum.

"We want it to be our last civil partnership anniversary," he explained. "We would definitely get married if the referendum is passed. We don't want to be sitting at the back of the bus - we do want to get married like the rest of my siblings."

And this simple desire lies at the heart of why his mother has been walking around her locality with a Yes badge pinned to her coat. For Agatha, the referendum is about children - in this case, her youngest son. "Why shouldn't gay couples get married?" she asked.

"Why should six of my kids have the opportunity to get married, but my seventh hasn't?

"I'm a mother, a grand-mother and a great-grandmother at this stage and I'd like to think that all my children and their kids have equal rights and opportunities. It's as simple as that," she stated.

As the Labour Party's Director of Elections for the referendum on Friday, Alex agreed that having a gay sibling "adds an extra dimension" to his hope that it will pass.

"But it's just as my mother has said, it's about all our brothers, sisters, workmates and friends, people we've known throughout our lives that we want to see having the same rights and life chances and joy and happiness," he said.

The minister's mother dismissed the sweeping generalisation that all the electorate over a certain age will vote No.

"I think it's some people a bit younger than me that are having difficulty with this - people in their 60s and 70s," reckoned 81-year-old Agatha.

"I might call in to a few neighbours before Friday for a bit of a chat."

Irish Independent

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