Living in a rural area isn’t easy at the best of times. Lack of public transport, social opportunities or access to third-level education can make some people itch to leave in search of more. But that experience is even more complicated when you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Coming to terms with your identity in a small town or village – and eventually coming out or transitioning – can be enormously challenging. As a result, many LGBT people flee to cities at the first available opportunity, and don’t look back.
I saw Dublin as an escape, a place where I could finally be myself. But after five years in the city I’d had enough. I wanted to go home
But this isn’t the full picture. Plenty of other LGBT people opt to remain living in rural areas, or decide to return later in life. Their experiences are complex and multifaceted; many are happy living in rural areas, and have created support networks for themselves, while others are waiting for their chance to escape to an urban centre.
I relate to both of these experiences. I left Roscommon when I was 18, six years after I first realised I was gay. Two years later I came out. I saw Dublin as an escape, a place where I could finally be myself. But after five years in the city I’d had enough. I wanted to go home. I have now been back in Roscommon for more than a year – and, to my surprise, my sexuality has not been an issue or a talking point, as I once feared it would be.
Those fears naturally took root in 2015 when Roscommon-South Leitrim, my home constituency, became the only one in Ireland to vote against same-sex marriage in the marriage-equality referendum. I was devastated at the time, but I have discovered that the people of Roscommon are no more or less homophobic than those anywhere else in Ireland.
I have also discovered that I am not the only LGBT person in the county. Many others are living happily and comfortably – and not just in Roscommon but in rural areas across Ireland.
Will Keane, Co Roscommon
Will Keane is one of those people. The 39-year-old moved back to his home village of Knockcroghery in 2014, to take over his family’s 40-hectare (100-acre) farm after his father died. He first moved to Dublin when he was 18 to study television and video production at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology. He later worked in the industry in London, before returning to live in Dublin.
He gave it all up to move home to Co Roscommon, and says now he couldn’t be happier with his decision. He is full of praise for the “incredible” community in his home county.
“There’s no issue with me being gay,” Keane says. “I’m gay; that’s a fact. People just move on and are so encompassing of me and my partner. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Keane spends his days working on the farm – an experience he says has given him a new appreciation for Roscommon. “There’s a sense of nature that you get when you’re working on the farm that, until you’re doing it, you don’t have an appreciation for,” he says. “Just to see the seasons turn as you walk around the farm and do the fencing and all the various things you have to do, it gives you an appreciation of rural life. It was an appreciation I didn’t have before I went away, and it’s an appreciation I wouldn’t have except for making this decision to come home and work the land.”
A year after moving home, Keane led Roscommon Yes Equality’s efforts to advocate for marriage equality. Despite Roscommon-South Leitrim’s infamy for voting No in the referendum, Keane says the people of his county are not homophobic.
“I think attitudes changed on the day of the result, to be perfectly honest,” he says. “We had a small team of no more than 20 people canvassing the entire county, and any door I went to, I had no harassment. Everyone I talked to was genial. There were some who said no and that was fine. You make your arguments and you move on, and if you can’t change minds you hope the conversation might come up again at the dinner table.”
In the five years since he returned Keane has had just one negative experience. While standing in a queue in a post office three months after the referendum, a woman recognised him.
“She said, ‘You’re that gay fella, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then she said, ‘I didn’t agree with you then and I don’t agree with you now.’ For anyone who was looking, it was a funny interaction to say the least. But she’s entitled to her own opinion, as were those who decided to vote no.”
While Keane loves living in Roscommon today, he admits he felt a need to leave as a young gay man in the late 1990s. But he believes that things are different today for young LGBT people in rural areas.
“Young people are now growing up in a country – and a county – that is tolerant and welcoming to them,” he says. “I don’t see any difference between being gay in Roscommon, being gay in Athlone, being gay in Kildare town, or being gay in Dublin.”
Ruth Tynan, Co Meath
While things may be easier today for young LGBT people in rural areas, coming out was still a challenge for Ruth Tynan, who is from Athboy, in Co Meath. The 23-year-old loves where she grew up, and lived there until recently. She speaks fondly of her family home and the landscape of the area.
Tynan realised she was a lesbian at the age of 12 but didn’t come out until she was 22. Throughout her teenage years and early 20s, she had a number of boyfriends, a move she now says was to protect herself. Although she loves Athboy, she admits that coming out in a rural area was a frightening experience.
“Leading up to [coming out], I was so anxious because, in rural Ireland, you kind of think what’s everyone going to say. Everyone knows everyone. I like that about rural Ireland. People care about you, and people know if you’re having a rough time of it, but at the same time, you’re, like, everyone will find out in five minutes. That was something I was worried about.”
A year on, Tynan says that everything was fine in the end, and there was no backlash from locals. She is also increasingly comfortable with her sexuality; she even took part in Dublin Pride in June with Macra na Feirme.
While Tynan relocated to Maynooth recently to be closer to work – and is planning a move to Canada – she says she would like to settle down in the Irish countryside later in life. “Going to Canada is going to be exciting, because there might be more chances to meet people, but at the same time you can be living in a big city and be so lonely as well.”
She happily recommends that other LGBT people consider living in rural areas – although there are some drawbacks. “Your Tinder might not be great – you might have the same people popping up a few times – but that’s the only issue,” she says, laughing. “I think it is a challenge to be gay anywhere in the world, whether it’s in a big city or in Athboy or somewhere else. At the end of the day, if you’re happy and confident in yourself, even if people do say stuff about you, you won’t care.”
Day, Co Tipperary
While many LGBT people are happy living in rural areas, the lack of tailored services, from health to social outlets, is a concern, says Aifric Ní Chríodáin of ShoutOut, an organisation that offers workshops in schools across Ireland on LGBT issues.
“In our cities, there’s a better range of options in terms of community spaces, cultural activities and hobby groups,” Ní Chríodáin says. “Galway has Teach Solais, Belfast has the Belfast Trans Resource Centre, and Dublin has Outhouse, but in more isolated areas it’s difficult to find these social outlets. It’s also harder to access crucial supports like sexual-health services, LGBTQ+-friendly GPs and counsellors, and trans healthcare than it might be in larger cities.”
For trans and nonbinary people, the lack of services and social outlets in rural areas can be particularly challenging.
Day, who is gender nonbinary and prefers not to use a surname, lives in Clonmel, in Co Tipperary. Their perspective on living in a rural area is very different from both Keane and Tynan’s.
“Rural Ireland in general is a pretty poor place for the LGBT community,” Day says. “I think my advice would be to get to Dublin as soon as possible and dig your claws in and don’t let them drag you out of there for anything.”
Day grew up in Clonmel and started to identify as nonbinary when they were in their mid-20s. They do not conform to any one gender and use the pronouns they and them instead of he or she. Day says they are often misgendered, and people struggle to understand their gender identity. “Sometimes, and especially in areas like Clonmel, it’s just easier to sigh internally and just roll with those sorts of punches,” Day explains.
Day does not hide the fact that they are nonbinary, and says they are rarely asked to explain it. Sometimes, when they wear a “they/them” badge or the nonbinary flag, people will ask them what they mean, and Day will happily explain.
“But if someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey dude’, I don’t really want to expend the effort to have that conversation,” they say.
The 34-year-old plans to move to Dublin as soon as it becomes “financially feasible”. So far, they have struggled to find a job that pays enough to live in the city. If they lived in Dublin, they could take advantage of some of the services and social outlets that are available to trans and nonbinary people.
“The range of services are not great in Dublin itself, but they truly die a death outside of the capital,” Day says. “You’d be spending a lot of time in Dublin as a young trans person anyway if you were trying to get access to services through the HSE.”
Aoife Martin, Co Louth
While Day is hoping to escape to the city, Aoife Martin, who is a trans woman, is happily living in Faughart, outside Dundalk, in Co Louth.
The 49-year-old started telling people that she is transgender three years ago. She initially told friends online, and gradually worked up to tell others. Since then she has transitioned at work, and says the experience has been positive.
Martin is aware that living in a city like Dublin would place her closer to other trans people, but she is happy with her apartment in the countryside.
“I like where I live,” Martin says. “I wake up in the mornings, I open the back door, I’ve got a view of the Cooley Mountains, and I’m 10 minutes from the seaside as well. It’s nice here, and I have no compunction to go and live in a big city. Dublin’s far too expensive anyway, I think, and I don’t think there’s a lot that would entice me there. I love Dublin – I love what it has, like museums and art galleries and cinemas – but then you look at the rent, the traffic and all the other things that go against it.”
If she were to relocate, she would go “somewhere romantic”, like west Co Cork or Galway. “If I did move anywhere else, it would still be quite rural, I would imagine.”
Although her experiences living in the Co Louth countryside as a trans woman have been positive, she says transitioning in a small town or village can be a difficult experience for many trans people.
“Sometimes you can feel like you’re the only one,” Martin says. “Being visibly trans can be very difficult in rural Ireland. It’s difficult anyway in big cities, where you’re much more anonymous, but in rural Ireland, if you’re living in a village where people know you and know that you’re trans, you can feel a lot more visible. You might think that people are staring at you a lot and talk about you a lot more.”
However, she is also wary of the stereotype that rural people are less accepting of social change. “If we look at the result of the abortion referendum and the marriage [equality] referendum, that’s not the case,” she says. “We can be a bit snobby about rural Ireland sometimes, and we forget that these people are a lot more accepting than people give them credit for.”
There is, Martin says, “an awful lot of ignorance” about trans people, and it is not limited to rural areas. “I think that’s why I’m visible about being trans. I want to normalise this and say, look, this is our experience, and it’s okay to be trans. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
But it is not just up to LGBT people to improve the lives of trans and nonbinary people. Communities across the country must put in the effort to educate themselves, says Keeva Carroll of Transgender Equality Network Ireland.
“Simple things, such as referring to people by the pronouns they use, both in their company and while talking with others, and always using the name they are going by rather than what they were called before, are vitally important,” she says.
“Many trans people, especially those who are just starting out, can be very nervous and anxious inhabiting gendered spaces, and so reaching out and encouraging trans people can really make a huge difference. Providing a listening and nonjudgmental ear if and when needed can really help someone who is struggling.”
She also recommends that people do their own research, and not rely on trans and nonbinary people to constantly explain their identities. “The most important thing anyone can do for trans people is to ensure that they know they are accepted, included and welcome.”