That’s Men: Why I will be voting Yes to same-sex marriage

For decades gay people in Ireland were invisible and could not contemplate coming out

Back in about 1970, James Joyce put his hand on my leg in Rice’s bar in Dublin. He wasn’t the real James Joyce, but he looked like Ireland’s greatest writer, and that’s what I christened him.

This came into my mind when I was thinking about the sheer invisibility of gay people at that time compared with now. And I was thinking about that in the context of the referendum on gay marriage, a concept that probably had not been thought of when my James Joyce was trying to pick up fellows in Rice’s.

I had been sitting in Rice’s having a pint when the man I called James Joyce started a conversation with me. I answered out of politeness. Then he put his hand on my leg and asked if I wanted another pint. I muttered an excuse, and left.

He wore a curious suit which I would describe as canary yellow with a green check pattern. For some time afterwards I assumed that all gay men had really, really bad dress sense.

I hadn’t known at the time that Rice’s was one of Dublin’s “gay- friendly” bars, to borrow a phrase from the excellent Come Here to Me! blog, comeheretome.com.

Not that the word “gay” was used at the time. I probably thought of James Joyce as homosexual or queer.

As far as I knew, he was the first homosexual man I had encountered. No mention of homosexuality had been made by teachers throughout my school years.

As secondary-school boys we had our own crude jokes about “queers”, but that was as far as it went, and I think we assumed such people existed not in Ireland but in places such as England or the US. The Christian Brothers steered well clear of the subject.

Gay men were invisible

Back in the 1970s, gay men were basically invisible. The gay scene was Rice’s and Bartley Dunne’s pubs, unless you count the public toilets in the city centre, where a man wearing a cap once waved his penis at me.

Outside Dublin, there would have been no concept of a gay scene; certainly not in the dreary rural towns.

Gay men, I presume, married and kept quiet about it, or lived alone and kept quiet about it. Many must have led lives of isolation and quiet desperation. There must be many who, after decades of hiding their sexual orientation, still feel unable to come out.

As for gay women, they were more than invisible; they were beyond invisible. I think it might have been the Late Late Show that brought lesbians to our attention and I think it was assumed you got people like that only out around Montrose.

If gay men had come out – if there was even a way to do that – I expect it would have been the end of them, socially and as far as employability was concerned. If they were teachers, it would have finished them.

Like me, until I met James Joyce, many people in Ireland must have assumed that they had never met a homosexual and perhaps even that there were none in our Catholic paradise. People talk now about Hilton Edwards and Michael Mac Liammóir as a sort of nationally accepted gay couple. Actually, I’m not quite sure most people even realised they were gay.

All of this should give you some understanding of the incredible bravery of David Norris who, in many respects, was Ireland's first "known" living gay man.

And I know this sounds ridiculous but I have no doubt that some people thought he was Ireland’s only gay man.

I mention all this because as the gay thing becomes fashionable, with a referendum coming up on gay marriage, I just wanted to make the point that within my lifetime and within the lifetime of a great many people, gay men were entirely invisible and could not contemplate emerging from the shadows.

I will be voting for gay marriage, but I expect it’s too late for James Joyce.

pomorain@yahoo.com Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.