LGBT+ Travellers: ‘A lot of the community are ignorant towards the trans issue’

Ruby O’Brien: ‘When I was growing up, I never knew what transgender meant. I only knew what being gay meant.’ Photograph: Joanne O'Brien
Gay Travellers are a minority within a minority. Ruby, who is trans, faces another level of prejudice

Imagine a world where you live in fear, and with each waking hour that fear grows to a point where the only escape comes from the promise of closing your eyes forever. Imagine being born into a life without choice or consultation, without the option of bartering the terms and conditions.

Imagine then, that you persevere through the hardships and navigate your way through the obstacles on a perilous journey that you had no part in choosing. While people from many backgrounds in modern Ireland must make this journey, it is a common experience for the LGBT+ community, who do so without any chart or map.

Martin Warde, who has written a personal article about the death of his grandmother and his life as a Traveller, pictured in Claregalway, Co Galway, where he lives. Photograph: Joe O'Shaughnessy.
Martin Warde:  I had a positive experience of coming out. Photograph: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Martin: ‘My mother asked who else in our town was gay’
I myself was in my 30s when I publicly came out for the first time, and I chose to do it at an LGBT pride comedy event where I was performing. I came out because it was safe to do so, and while it was not the easiest thing I’ve done in my life, it was definitely the most liberating.

I was joined onstage by a friend and fellow performer, Katherine Lynch, who coincidentally was also the same person to bring me to an LGBT venue in Dublin for the first time, back in 2006.

Within days of my story reaching the local newspapers I was inundated with messages from the Traveller community, some nasty and homophobic, but the majority messages of support and hope. One mother wrote to me to tell me that her daughter was gay, and that if more Travellers came out, it would do a lot in stemming suicide amongst LGBT Travellers.

I was lucky, privileged even, that I had such a positive experience of coming out. The worst I got from my mother was asking me who else in our town was gay. A typical “Irish Mammy” response: “Gimme the gossip, son.” Of course, I chose not to indulge in that bonding session with my mother, as the idea of outing other people was a stretch too far for me.

My father’s reaction was different. We didn’t talk about my sexuality, not because he was homophobic, but because speaking about it would mean he would have to wrap his head around the physicality of me being gay, and that was far too an awkward conversation for both of us.

In the week that the article about my coming-out was released, I called my mother for a chat, and in the background I could hear my father shouting: “Is that Rory. Is he coming down for dinner?” My father, a big fan of the TV sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys, felt that calling me Rory (an openly gay character in the show) was enough for me to understand that he knew I was gay. Again in typical Irish fashion, making a joke about it at my expense was his way of saying: “It’s grand.”

I recently made a podcast for my HazBeanz show, and invited other LGBT+ Travellers to discuss the issues we face.

Hughie Maughan. Photograph: RTÉ
Hughie Maughan. Photograph: RTÉ

Hughie: ‘You fear your parents will never understand’
Hughie Maughan (26), who has appeared on Big Brother, Eating with the Enemy on Virgin Media and First Dates Ireland on RTÉ, speaks of the homophobia he has experienced. While he admits that homophobia in Ireland is not as bad as it was, in the past he faced heavy abuse from within the Traveller community.

'The homophobia I faced in the community made me feel at that point that I would have rather been dead. That’s how bad it was'

“I faced homophobia from settled and Traveller communities, but if I am being honest, I definitely faced it more from other Travellers. Its also tough to experience it in school, because if you can’t go home and talk about it it becomes 10 times worse.

“One of the reasons it is worse is not because you think your parents don’t care about you, it’s more because you fear they will never understand. When you are listening to your father speaking with his friends, for example, and how they might have banter between them, and how if someone used a homophobic word against someone, it makes you think that you can’t speak to them about being gay.

“The homophobia I faced in the community made me feel at that point that I would have rather been dead. That’s how bad it was.”

Ruby O’Brien
Ruby O’Brien

Ruby: ‘It took me years to see that I wasn’t gay, I was trans’
Ruby O’Brien (21), a trans Traveller from Co Kerry speaks about being physically assaulted by a group of Traveller men in London, simply because she was trans and a Traveller.

“I was attacked one time in London, while out with my female cousin. It came from Traveller lads driving around in a van. I even had to call the police. They firstly threw eggs at me as they drove past while also shouting transphobic slurs at me, words like “tranny” and others. Then when they stopped driving, one of the men got out and came towards me, and then punched me.”

Ruby says that even now in her hometown of Tralee, Co Kerry, there is a lot of hate directed towards her. “A lot of the Traveller community here are ignorant towards the issue.”

Coming out for Ruby was tough. She came out first as a gay man, simply because she felt it was an easier process to engage her parents and family with. “I came out first as being gay, because it is easier to come out as gay. When I came out in my hometown, a lot of people accepted me as being gay, but when I came out as trans, a lot of people stopped talking to me. They acted like I was a stranger, and a lot of them were family members.”

“When I was growing up, I never knew what transgender meant. I only knew what being gay meant. I didn’t grow up seeing trans people, and it took me years to see that I wasn’t gay, I was trans. I thought I was just a feminine gay boy, but I was actually truly transgender.

“I feel that people need to explain to young people what transgender means, because I have friends that I believe are trans, but they feel that it’s just worse to come out as trans, so they live their lives as gay men, because there is no one explaining the difference to young Travellers.”

Stories like Ruby’s – believed to be the first Traveller to come out publicly as trans – remind us that we are allowing this hatred to continue, merely by allowing ourselves to be removed from the issue.

Oein DeBhairduin from Galway who won the Enterprise and Employment awardis seen speaking at the Traveller Pride awards 2019 in the Pillar Room at Rotunda Hospital. Photograoh: James Forde
Oein DeBhairduin from Galway who won the Enterprise and Employment awardis seen speaking at the Traveller Pride awards 2019 in the Pillar Room at Rotunda Hospital. Photograoh: James Forde

Oein: “There is an information gap in the community’
Oein DeBharduin (36) is a co-founder, with myself of LGBT Tara (Traveller and Roma Alliance). He has been working tirelessly for over a decade, with little to no funding or support from Traveller or LGBT+ organisations.

He speaks of the importance of LGBT Travellers having their voices heard in LGBT spaces and groups. There are very few LGBT Travellers working in any LGBT organisations, meaning an understanding of Traveller culture is at a minimum and preventing those organisations engaging in specific issues faced by LGBT people from the Traveller community.

'Some people may feel their identity is under attack because someone else is freeing theirs'

“In Ireland ... people don’t have the awareness or competency to support us appropriately. For example, we arranged a social gathering several years back with a collection of LGBT+ Travellers in Dublin city and we were refused entry into an LGBT+ Bar because there was an assumption that LGBT+ Travellers wouldn’t enter those spaces” .

The denial of access to public spaces and bars is of course not unique to just LGBT+ Travellers, there are numerous cases where Travellers have been discriminated against when trying to access services such as hotels, bars and restaurants. I faced that very issue myself with scores of venues in 2019, when I tried to book venues to host my comedy shows.

Speaking on ignorance within the Traveller community towards LGBT+ people, Oein says: “There is ignorance in the community, there is an information gap ... Some people may feel their identity is under attack because someone else is freeing theirs.”

James Lawrence
James Lawrence

James: ‘I was more feminine than other Traveller men’
James Lawrence (23), a Traveller from Bristol in England, describes coming out as a gay man.

“I had a lot more experiences of homophobia before I came out as gay, I suppose because I was more feminine than other Traveller men. When people picked up on those less masculine traits, you would get called names like “nancy boy”, but when I came out, everyone seemed to ease off because they were all saying that they knew that about me already.”

James has been actively working on highlighting mental health issues among Travellers. “ I think with Travellers, we like to sweep poor mental health topics under the carpet, until it is at such a point where there is a mountain of rubbish under that carpet. So it is very important that we speak about the issues and not shun people for having them.”

Traveller organisations: ‘The culture is one of masculinity ’
When Ireland was going through the legal process of changing homosexuality from being a crime in the mid 1990s, Irish Travellers were only just beginning to emerge with organisations aimed at highlighting human rights issues faced by the Traveller community.

There is a sense from the LGBT+ Travellers that they cannot trust Traveller organisations to act on their behalf because the Traveller community would not then support them

There was an inevitable prioritisation of what rights were fought for, and like in every situation throughout history, LGBT+ people were the last to be thought of. Unfortunately, the majority of Travellers have suffered serious mental health issues and have at least once had a period of their lives shrouded in suicide ideation or some connection to suicide and poor mental health.

Irish Travellers are six times more likely than the rest of Irish society to take their own lives, with LGBT Travellers even more likely to do so. If Traveller organisations want to seek change in relation to how LGBT Travellers are viewed by mainstream society, then we must take a leap towards practising some introspection, because being a minority within a minority means LGBT+ Travellers face a dual oppression.

As a first action towards preventing suicide and self-harm, Irish Travellers as a community and as a network of organisations, need to admit the failings. We need to collectively call out the physical attacks on LGBT+ Travellers, and we need our organisations to take a stance.

Unfortunately, there is a sense from the LGBT+ Travellers that they cannot trust Traveller organisations to act on their behalf because the Traveller community would not then support them. It is ludicrous that consensus and stagnation is favoured over the prevention of homophobic and transphobic abuse of our most marginalised members.

That is not progression, it is the protection of that which we seek to remove, discrimination. It is fair to say that there are fantastic people working in Traveller organisations that have made huge efforts in tackling the issues, and there are brilliant organisations that are now reaching out to groups like LGBT Tara – which is still Ireland’s only LGBT Traveller-led group.

I reached out to Pavee Point to find out what supports or services they provide to LGBT+ Travellers who present themselves in need of help. Martin Collins of the organisation had this to say,

“In the promotion of the rights of Travellers who are LGBTQI, Pavee Point has over many years participated in Dublin Pride. We also as an organisation supported marriage equality.

“Our strategic plan acknowledges diversity in the community, but to be honest, the issues and needs of Travellers who are LGBTQI are not imbedded in the struggle. This is because of a lack of funding and staff but also homophobia.

“As you know, the culture that prevails is one of masculinity which we are all damaged by. I had my own personal journey when my nephew came out. I was the first he confided in. I did my best to support him. He got a hard time but he’s in a good place now.”

John Paul Collins of Pavee Point says: “Over the past two or three years, Pavee Point has passed many of the requests we receive for representation / inputs over to the action group as we feel it is best placed coming from a Traveller who has lived experience and also to give the group visibility.

“When we receive calls for supports, we work to support the individual / or family member as best as we can which also includes an onwards referral / signposting to the relevant support agency, and we continue to offer that support until it is not needed anymore. A lot more mainstream/ targeted support in services is needed for LGBTQ Travellers and Roma.”

We also asked The Irish Traveller movement for a comment. They said: “The Irish Traveller are active members of the National Action Group for LGBT+ Traveller & Roma Rights. It is committed and actively participated and contributed to its objectives and activities since its establishment. The Irish Traveller and the action group recognises there are no specific LGBT+ Traveller and Roma supports currently available, other than support from LGBT+ organisations and Traveller organisations respectively, and is concerned about this gap and where LGBT+ Travellers and Roma may fall through.”

While I have no doubt that Pavee Point, and indeed all Traveller organisations, do their best to help LGBT+ Travellers as the need arises or as the LGBT+ Travellers present themselves, it does not go far enough in challenging homophobia and transphobia within the community, something that could be done through hard-hitting social media campaigns highlighting the issues.

Homophobia/transphobia is a mentality based on either ignorance or misinformed hate, which can be changed only through engagement and through proactive approaches via dialogue and policy changes. A lack of funding will inevitably lead to fewer hours being spent on LGBT+ Traveller issues, which is why it is now imperative that funding be made available to allow for LGBT+ Traveller health and community workers.

However, we need to aim to have LGBT+ Travellers represent themselves, empowered by the full collective support of Traveller and LGBT organisations. Traveller culture requires the consensus of the community, as culture is an adaptive term that is fluid over time.

LGBT+ Travellers are equally part of the Traveller community, and without our membership being acknowledged, there will be no consensus.

Listen to Martin Warde’s podcast at patreon.com/TheHazBeanzshow