Two years ago, I appeared on an Irish radio show to discuss how Ireland’s gay sons had suddenly become “the new daughters” – under pressure from their wedding-obsessed mammies to get “married”, ever since civil partnerships became legal in 2011.
That I was able to talk about civil unions in such a trivial, jokey manner was a measure of just how far Ireland had come in its attitude toward gay people.
It’s difficult to convey to those who didn't grow up in Ireland how momentous this week’s marriage referendum is. Coming of age in the '90s, I’m the last generation to grow up in an era when homosexuality was something we were told to fear, to be ashamed of.
I was a relatively late bloomer. Even though, from age 12, lads in school referred to me as “bum-boy”, “poof”, and “queer”, I always told myself it was because I didn’t play football, watched Melrose Place, and wore an old blanket as a cape pretending to be Mandrake the Magician from Defenders of the Earth.
I didn’t understand my sexuality until I was 17. And when I did, I tortured myself like the good, repressed, self-flagellating Irish Catholic I was.
Back then – it’s not long ago, I’m 33 – there was no space in which a gay person could imagine a happy, contented future. At least not without moving country, cutting yourself off from family or, saddest of all, denying who you were to fit in.
In this vacuum, internalised homophobia spreads. Everything about me felt wrong or bad. My adolescence was spent – wasted – denying and suppressing my natural urges. The only respite from the deafening silence around homosexuality was the constant static noise of homophobia from the church, from school, from pop culture and, although often inadvertent, from my family.
Every week a new item was added to the list of things that I’d have to pre-emptively grieve: finding a partner; any kind of professional job, as surely nobody would hire me if they knew my awful secret; and, most painfully, having children of my own.
I feared I’d lose access to my nephews and nieces, whom I adored, because, as a particularly insidious Irish attitude had it, gay people were paedophiles or “kiddie-fiddlers”, brainwashing recruiters or family embarrassments who couldn’t be trusted around children.
Amid this fear and grief, I retreated into silence. The only way to survive was not to say or do anything that would give me away. I went into denial, focusing instead – to an unhealthy degree – on getting good grades at school, getting to university, and escaping somewhere, anywhere.
More than once I wished myself dead. This felt preferable to facing a future in which I would be rejected by everyone. I couldn’t imagine a life for myself beyond the age of 30 or 40. In my more optimistic moments, I could see myself just about getting through my twenties if I had a relatively decent job and some friends, but that my life would somehow come to an end before I passed the age where not having a love life or a family became suspicious.
My older brothers were getting married and having children during this period. Each time they passed one of those milestones, I’d experience that familiar feeling of a knife not so much cutting through my heart as scoring it, piercing the outer layer just enough every time so that pain could be absorbed more quickly.
That same sensation would come every time I saw my siblings and friends go on dates, fall in love, even walk down the street holding a boyfriend's or girlfriend’s hand.
I was 26 before I walked down a street holding a guy’s hand. To this day, that was the most romantic moment of my life. It made me fall in love with him, if only for a short time. The smallest gesture can change a life.
If only I could have foreseen all of this at age 13, the only time in my life that I kept a diary. One night, while babysitting my newborn nephew Jamie, I wrote a list in it of what I’d want to have achieved by 30: things like “having a nice house”, “a nice wife”, “a good job, maybe as a teacher”, “three children”, and “lived abroad”. I tore the page out, put it in a sealed envelope, and wrote, “Not To Be Opened Until 2011” on the front.
Four years later, I came across that letter, and read it again. Such a wish list seemed like science fiction. I was embarrassed, furious I could ever have been so stupid. I told myself I now had to destroy those kinds of dreams, those ambitions, because I was gay. I tore it up.
Now, today, I wish I hadn’t. Although the “nice wife” thing clearly needs some revision, the rest seems more than achievable.
Thanks to some great friends, I began to emerge from my cocoon of silence and solitude. Gingerly coming out to those close to me helped, including, eventually, my family, whose collective reaction was, “Erm, obviously. Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t you know?”
I would like to think gay teens today would not feel as desperate as I did then. But I’d also wager most still feel like there’s something “off” about them. Culture has progressed, making life as a gay person easier, but there’s a sense that any wider acceptance is fragile, polite; a new iteration of the evasion and aversion in which previous generations lived.
This is why I am so nervous for the same-sex marriage referendum: I’m waiting to discover what my countrymen really think about me.
For this referendum is not only about marriage. If it passes, it will disinfect prejudice – not all, but some. It will throw sunlight onto the terrible shadows in which so many exist, rather than live. And it will, I am convinced, trigger a colossal institutional shift that will trickle down through every part of society, for the better.
The No side in this campaign has long relied upon The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy’s cry, “Won’t someone please think of the children?!” And, on this one point, I agree with them, though not in the way they intend.
If this referendum passes, any child born after that day will never know a world in which same-sex marriage isn’t normal. Opponents of same-sex marriage don’t seem to have considered how profound, how powerful that will be. Such progress can’t be measured straight away: This isn’t just about gay kids coming of age in 2015, but in every decade and century to come.
Only marriage equality has the ability to imbue gay life with an ordinariness that will go a long way in neutering the prejudice, bullying, self-loathing, and terrible sense of otherness every LGBT person has experienced.
The latest polls suggest the proposal will be carried decisively – if young people turn out to vote. This is the only chance the next generation will have to demonstrate, unambiguously, what they consider to be the fair and equal way for their society to be.
I only hope, with every fibre of my being, that the answer is yes, one so loud and so joyful that it will send the No campaign and every opinion, every experience the word represents, scurrying back to the silent shadows of history where it belongs.