'I couldn't tell anyone that I suspected I might be gay because society didn't let me'
Justin McAleese on the marriage equality debate and the reality of growing up as a young gay man in Ireland
St Vincent's beat Castlebar Mitchels in last year's All-Ireland Club SFC final. In his victory speech in the Hogan Stand in Croke Park the St Vincent's captain, Ger Brennan, said thank you to the "girlfriends and boyfriends of the players". That's what equality sounds like - but what does equality mean?
In May, you will have the opportunity to vote for equality - marriage equality - 22 years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
I was eight years of age then and was presumed heterosexual. My family didn't know that I was gay (neither did I) and had no idea of the positive, life-changing impact that decriminalisation would have on my life.
The average age to discover you're gay is 12 and the average age to come out is 21. Keeping that secret for almost nine years takes its toll; it weighs heavily on you during your formative years. A 2009 Irish study, 'Supporting LGBT Lives', found that 50pc of young gay people (under 25) have seriously thought of ending their lives and 20pc have attempted suicide. Imagine how much worse these statistics would be if homosexuality hadn't been decriminalised in 1993. Imagine how much better they'd be with marriage equality.
The first few weeks of this debate have rightly been focused on children's rights. This referendum is about protecting children and their future. Just over 72,000 babies were born in Ireland in 2012. Approximately 7,200 of these children will discover they are gay by 2024, keeping their sexuality from their parents until 2033. This referendum is about protecting these children. It is about creating an environment where they can discover and come to terms with who they are with the important guidance of their mothers, fathers and family. A 12-year-old child should not have to deal with this issue on his or her own.
You might ask me this: "What difference will marriage make to a 30-year-old gay man?" To answer that question I need to look back at my childhood. I knew I was different when I was 11. I didn't have the words or knowledge to know then that I was gay, but I knew that society's expectation for me was to get married to a girl. All I wanted to do was fit in.
At 14 I couldn't tell anyone that I suspected I might be gay because society didn't let me. When I was 16 a girl, who I didn't know, asked me directly: "Are you gay?" The panic, the shame, the fear. How did she know? What did I say or do or wear that made me gay? Three years later, I'd just started second year in UCD and was on the verge of coming out when a well-known Unionist official married his boyfriend in Canada. The story was widely reported in the media at the time. I was in the company of friends who laughed and joked at the notion of two men getting married. Unknown to them, they were belittling my existence and my dreams because they thought they were in safe company.
Ian Paisley Junior said at the time - in reference to the gay former secretary of state to the North - "at least Peter Mandelson did not promote his relationship to this degree that he would go away and get married or create a civil partnership in it… The catch-all is that I find this sort of relationship both immoral, offensive and obnoxious".
He went on to say "I am not speaking from a position of hatred. I don't hate gay people". Perhaps he wasn't speaking from a position of hatred, but he was able to use the institution of marriage to belittle my existence, my dreams and my ambitions. And the sad thing was that other people went along with it and didn't challenge that view. So I stayed in the closet for another 18 months. Language matters, words matter, marriage matters.
Perhaps I was too sensitive, too naive, but that is what happened. I don't need people to tell me about how I should or shouldn't feel - that's how I felt. For 10 years I kept my sexuality secret and was sensitive to every word and uttering that in my head was having a dig at who I was.
We can't do anything about the past, but we have the opportunity to change this for young children being born in Ireland today - to create a country where children can talk and be guided about these issues by their parents. Again, a 12-year-old child shouldn't have to deal with this on his or her own.
You might also ask yourself: "What does this referendum have to do with me?" Maybe you think you don't know any gay people or you don't have an opinion one way or the other.
But how do you know that your niece, nephew, son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter isn't going to be one of those 7,200 children born now who will have to come to terms with their sexuality in 12 years' time?
What would you rather have for them - a country where they are not afforded the same marriage rights as their heterosexual counterparts? Or a country that embraces their sexuality and allows them to express their love in the same way as their straight brothers and sisters?
It is estimated that gay men and women make up approximately 10pc of the population, so anyone who thinks that the "gay community" can rail-road this referendum through is incorrect. We don't have the numbers - all we have is you.
We are your children, your family and your neighbours - we are your community.