Gay couples feel ‘a little safer’ holding hands since referendum

‘Changed atmosphere’ for public displays of affection as a result of marriage equality vote

“I do feel now that if I got abuse the majority of people on the street would be on my side,” says Seamus White, pictured with his fiancé John O’Sullivan. Photograph: Alan betson/The Irish Times

“I do feel now that if I got abuse the majority of people on the street would be on my side,” says Seamus White, pictured with his fiancé John O’Sullivan. Photograph: Alan betson/The Irish Times

 

Walking out of Dublin Castle the evening of May 23rd, hand-in-hand with his fiancé John O’Sullivan, was, says Séamus White, “the most joyous day of my life”.

Since that day, when 62 per cent of the electorate voted Yes for marriage equality, the couple say they feel “a little safer” with such a simple act as holding each other’s hand in public.

It may just be impressionistic, and impossible to quantify, but gay and lesbian couples who have spoken to The Irish Times say people feel a little safer in making public displays of affection – or PDAs – since the referendum was passed.

Neither White nor O’Sullivan felt they needed to actively hide their identities before May 23rd, but would be careful about PDAs.

“When you grow up gay,” says O’Sullivan, “you never really expect to be able to be publicly affectionate, or kiss your partner in a pub. You’re okay with it, you accept it as long as you can come out and be safe around friends and family.

“But since the referendum we’ve seen two girls walking on Liffey Street holding hands. On Moore Street I saw two young fellas, their arms draped around each other and they shared a kiss, something that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.”

The result has given them a “little more” confidence to do something as simple as kiss each other goodbye on the street, as they go their separate ways to work.

Habits

“We did one morning last week,” says O’Sullivan. “But still my immediate reaction was to check my surroundings, check who was around. Habits take a long time to unlearn.”

“But I do feel now that if I got abuse the majority of people on the street would be on my side,” says White.

Aoife O’Driscoll (33) has always been determined she and her partner, Anna McCarthy (32), shouldn’t be deterred from such acts as holding hands, although she has been harassed by strangers for doing so. “I’ve been called lessie or dyke. I was spat on once in Temple Bar.”

McCarthy, perhaps as a result, is more cautious. “For me, I prefer to be safe, so it would be very situation-dependent. We hold hands in town during the day, an act of love straight people can do without thinking. There is constant vigilance about where we are, the time of day or night, who’s around.

“It becomes second nature, but it’s tiring. It takes a little bit out of you each time. Sometimes you just don’t feel up to having to gird yourself that little bit, so you don’t hold hands.

“It’s a minor thing to hold someone’s hand, but it’s a huge thing. You are coming out to every person you pass on the street.”

Asked if she can be more relaxed now, she smiles. “Just a little bit more. I have seen more male couples holding hands in the last couple of weeks – that shows there’s been a shift because guys are more likely to fear a physical attack. To see that, that’s really heartening, that’s wonderful.”

Laura McGann (29) and her partner Anne Marie Connolly (30) say they would not be inhibited holding hands or putting an arm around each other because they would not be bothered by an adverse reaction.

But they do note a “changed atmosphere” as a result of the referendum outcome.

Totally acceptable

“It feels totally acceptable to be gay in Ireland now,” says McGann. “It never bothered me as a young lesbian what people thought. But by the time of the referendum, when people were giving us thumbs when we were holding hands, and smiling at us, and there was such support, I thought, ‘My god, that’s really lovely, and it really does matter.’ I was surprised at how happy those positive reactions made me feel.”

All couples speak of how emotionally wearing the campaign was, of having had to make themselves vulnerable while canvassing, effectively asking strangers to “be okay” with them.

“A lot of things were said, articles were written, airtime was given to views that I think would be unacceptable now,” says McGann.

And all are sanguine about how much has actually changed. They point to ongoing homophobic and transphobic bullying, systemic discrimination in some workplaces and the fact violent homophobic attacks will likely continue, particularly against gay men and transgender people.

“I think there’s a lot of euphoria right now,” says Connolly. “People are incredibly happy with the result, but in the cold light of day people realise we haven’t woken up in Utopia.

“There’s still a lot of work to do. But we realise we have a lot more allies than we thought. That will help to start healing the scars and the hurt a lot have experienced.”