‘Hey, faggot!’: Gavin McCrea on a lifetime of homophobic abuse and violence

A recent vicious assault will not stop the Irish author from walking without fear

Gavin McCrea: “The wonderful thing about visiting something again, though, is that you come at it older and smarter.” Photograph: Eugene Langan

Gavin McCrea: “The wonderful thing about visiting something again, though, is that you come at it older and smarter.” Photograph: Eugene Langan

 

I walk everywhere. By that I mean, the majority of my journeys are made on foot. I don’t own a car or bike, and I take buses only as a last resort. This is true in every city I have lived in, but especially in Dublin where the lack of a metro makes getting around so hard.

I walk everywhere: by this I also mean, there is nowhere that I don’t walk. I don’t avoid particular areas of Dublin because they have a reputation for being rough. I cut through parks. I take shortcuts down dark alleyways. I walk past flat complexes and suburban mansions with the same confidence and ease. For me, walking is freedom; the idea of putting a limit on that freedom – choosing to be “free” only in a set of designated streets or zones – is anathema to me.

This is not naivety. My freedom has been hard earned. I’m not afraid, I believe, because there’s little that can happen to me on a Dublin street that has not already happened. There’s no abuse I haven’t heard. No punch or kick I haven’t felt. Knives, syringes, bottles, torn cans: they’ve all been brandished at me, and were I to see them brandished again, it would simply be the old tape replayed. Unpleasant but not novel. A fright, yes, but one that, by now, is a bit jaded.

Oh. This again.

Getting murdered: only that would be new for me. It happens. Christ knows, it does. But I’m not going to live in my own city as someone already dead; someone afraid simply to walk.

I grew up in the eighties and nineties in the far-flung suburbs of south Dublin: several adjoining housing estates, a park, a petrol station, a supermarket, a bus-stop into town. We, the kids, spent most of our time walking the streets. We identified other kids by what gang they belonged to. Most people belonged to gangs formed in their own housing estates; the gangs from the other estates were the threat. If a “rival” gang entered our estate, it meant trouble. When passing a rival gang on their own territory, we kept our eyes to the ground and walked quickly.

My relationship with my own gang was complex: being the only gay one, I had to work hard to find a way to belong and to hold my own. It was not always easy with them, they did not always treat me well, and I was not always happy, but luckily for me I eventually won their acceptance and love. Five or six of us became close, and we remain friends today.

By contrast, my relationship with the gangs from the neighbouring estates was simple: I was the faggot, and they were the ones who were going to show me the consequences that being a faggot should and would have in the world. One of these gangs hung out on a piece of wasteland beside the petrol station. My walk to the local community school took me past the petrol station. Every day, on the way to and from school, I was abused verbally by that gang. Sometimes they threw stones. Sometimes they followed me and pushed me and threatened me. Occasionally they made incursions into our estate in search of the local faggot – me – to beat up. Once they climbed the trees that lined the end of our back garden and chanted “Gayvin McGay” for a good half an hour until my father went out and dispersed them.

Never, not once, did a teacher intervene to stop this abuse. Which was strange, I always thought, given that the school looked like and was run like a barracks: discipline was applied but, to my eyes, in all the wrong places

Other smaller gangs congregated in different corners of the estate nearest my school; I had to run the gauntlet with them also. In the corridors of the school itself – into which the gangs from the surrounding estates were funnelled – it was the same: the older children bullied me when I was younger, the younger children bullied me when I was older. Never, not once, did a teacher intervene to stop this abuse. Which was strange, I always thought, given that the school looked like and was run like a barracks: discipline was applied but, to my eyes, in all the wrong places.

Already from a young age, 11 or 12, I knew that I had to get away from my suburb. If I stayed there, my spirit would break. At first, I thought that “town” – Dublin city centre – would provide a refuge. As soon as I was old enough, I started getting the bus there to hang out. I was still in school when myself and a close girlfriend started going to the only gay pub at that time, the George.

But soon I realised that in town things were more or less the same as in the suburbs. I was called names. I was chased. I was mugged. I was beaten up. Taxi drivers propositioned me and then, when I refused, threw me out of their cars. Once, walking across the Central Bank plaza with my arm around my first boyfriend – I was no older than 17 – I was assaulted by a gang of girls and boys. They threw cider over me, kicked me, punched me, called me “faggot” and “queer” and (my personal favourite) “rent boy”. My boyfriend and I ran to a nearby taxi, which we did not have the money to pay for, but which kindly spirited us away from the danger.

It was not long before I realised I had to leave Dublin. And leaving Dublin, for me, meant leaving Ireland. Which I did as soon as I could, vowing never to return.

I broke that vow in late 2019, when I came back to take up a one-year position as writer in residence at the University of Limerick. My first day at Limerick was Tuesday, January 28th, 2020. On Saturday, February 1st, I was in Dublin, staying with my mother. At 4pm, at the University College Dublin library, I emailed the final edit of my second novel to my editor in London. At 5.45pm, as I walked back to my mother’s flat, I was assaulted by a group of six boys aged between 12 and 14.

The old tape.

The appearance of the boys – skinny, white, underdressed for the weather, terror in their eyes – was identical to the boys who had attacked me in the past. Their vocabulary was the same. The gestures, the threats, the bravado, all totally familiar. The violence, too. The only difference was that, on this occasion, whatever way they hit me, they managed to break my nose and my cheekbone.

It was a re-visitation. The wonderful thing about visiting something again, though, is that you come at it older and smarter. I can see things now that I did not see before. And, importantly, when I speak about it, I am listened to. That’s new.

The attack has been an opportunity to pause and look around at the people who I have managed to gather around me: a community of big hearts and brilliant minds. Their support has carried me like a wave. I look at them and am in awe of them, and I also know they are a reflection of me.

Out of love, they ask me questions. One is: Did you hit back? The answer: I have never defended myself from homophobic abuse. “Hey, faggot!” What’s to defend? I don’t need to be told what I am. But some people, clearly, get a thrill from having that word in their mouth. And if it’s in their mouth, it’s on their mind. So actually the proper question is: why is it on their mind? Why does that word occur to them as something to say when a man walks past?

There is nothing inherent in me that inspired this violence. I am not the source. The boys used homophobic slurs in order to justify their own pre-existing desire for violence

Another: How did they know I was gay? The answer: They didn’t. This homophobic attack had nothing to do with my relationships or my sexuality. This attack had nothing to do with me at all. There is nothing inherent in me that inspired this violence. I am not the source. The boys used homophobic slurs in order to justify their own pre-existing desire for violence. They needed “difference” in order to perpetrate that violence, and for some reason – the way I dressed or moved or talked, or my unwillingness to rise to their bait or fight back – I fit into the faggot box.

It so happened that they were right: I am a faggot (as they would call me). But even if they had not been right – even if I had been on my way home to a wife and six children – it would still have been a homophobic attack. When someone is called a Paki, is it only racism if that person is actually from Pakistan? If the person turns out to be from India or the Caribbean or Wexford, does it just become some sort of misunderstanding?

A final one: How is this still happening? Whether we always recognise it or not, people of colour, LGBT+ people and women are natural allies because we understand, in way that straight white men cannot, that change is uneven. The nature of change is that it does not come totally formed. If you look closely at systems or governments that have tried to implement uniform change, it becomes clear that, even there, change is partial and contested. Pockets and networks and islands: that is how change appears.

As people of colour, as LGBT+ people and as women, proudly walking this Earth, we can never be certain that our next step won’t land us in a place not yet touched by change. Those who love me have changed and have changed me. There is no suburb of the mind that can’t be made safe.

Gavin McCrea is the author of Mrs Engels (Scribe, 2015), which was shortlisted for the Walter Scott and Desmond Elliott Prizes. He is writer in residence at the University of Limerick and his next novel, The Sisters Mao, will be published by Scribe in 2021.

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