When Ella from Co Sligo went to the Gaeltacht recently, the 17-year-old agonised about whether to tell young people there that, being non-binary, the student preferred to be referred to as “they/them” rather than “she/her”.
“It is a never-ending thing because every time you meet a group of people you have to make a decision: ‘Is this group of people safe to come out to?’ And you have to deal with questions about what that means. It is exhausting,” said the teenager who is also bisexual. The alternative, to saying nothing, was to “feel uncomfortable for three weeks”.
Ella is one of a dozen young people from Sligo and Leitrim who recount their “teen queer experiences” in a new book called Love Is Love, which publishers Kids Own say is the first of its kind in Ireland.
“The book itself addresses discrimination and bullying. That message to find your tribe is key, and that can take time,” explains Jo Holmwood, outgoing director of Kids Own.
She says the other crucial element of the book — which is being distributed to schools, youth groups and libraries in the northwest — is “to be an ally, even if you are straight, to be accepting and understanding”.
Ella says being LGBTQI in rural Ireland can be isolating. “There are not a lot of LGBTQI people in Sligo. You know them all.”
Lockdown was positive because so many things were happening online, it was easier to feel connected. “I think that’s not just a LGBT thing. It’s a thing in rural Ireland,” says Ella.
“I have always felt a bit off. I felt a bit weird in my gender. I knew I wasn’t transgender. I wasn’t really sure what it was. I thought maybe I’m just a bit weird.”
Learning what non-binary meant was a key moment. “I thought, ‘hang on, that makes a lot of sense. Something clicked’.”
Telling friends and family was difficult. “Telling someone you are bisexual does not affect them, but telling them you are non-binary means a big change in how they see you and view you,” says Ella who adds that people have, without realising it, always used “they” for a person of undeterminded gender. “They might say for example, ‘oh someone forgot their hat’.”
The book featuring writings and visual art was a collaboration between Kids’ Own and Youth Work Ireland, North Connaught, which facilitates a club called SMILY where young people can share their experiences of being queer.
“It’s a safe place where you can talk about anything and it is confidential,” says 19-year-old Shannon, who adds that she figured out she was bisexual during lockdown when she was 16.
Like Ella, Shannon was happy to be photographed but did not wish to give her full name.
Shannon, who has non-binary friends, believes it can be hurtful when others don’t bother or deliberately don’t use the preferred pronouns.
“Even if someone does not quite understand it, they can use it. I do understand that sometimes it takes a bit of getting used to. But you can try and educate yourself and try and be more respectful. It could really affect people if you misgender them because you are not seeing them as the person they are.”
Contributors to the book are honest about how difficult it has been for them to understand.
“I personally don’t understand gender,” wrote one. “You know the way when you think about how big the universe is, your head hurts from that? That’s what I think about gender.”
The teenagers also recounted their experiences of bullying. One who was bullied at school dropped out and “I find that they are holding a Pride day, now that I’m gone”.
Ella did decide to be open with the young people in the Gaeltacht but doesn’t always tell people about being bisexual and non-binary.
“With some people I know, I’d have to spend half an hour explaining myself or justifying my existence. Sometimes you don’t want to do that, if you are tired, you feel ‘not today’.”