Lyra McKee on growing up gay in Belfast: ‘I used to bargain with God not to send me to hell’

Belfast journalist Lyra McKee’s account of being gay in a hostile environment was turned into a short film

Two years ago, Belfast-based journalist Lyra McKee wrote a blog post; a letter to her 14-year-old self, who was at that time struggling with the fact of being gay in a hostile environment. She received wide attention for the post, which was picked up on social media, and then by BBC Radio Ulster.

"I wanted to write it because a local evangelical pastor here made some horrible derogatory remarks about gay people, and gay women specifically, and it really upset me," she explains by phone from Belfast. '"I could really see the impact of what he had said, because I knew so many people at the time who were really struggling with their sexual identity. A friend of mine said, you should write a response to this, and so I did. It really struck a chord with people. I had so many people contacting me, saying they had cried reading it.

“The emails that moved me the most were parents who contacted me, saying they were going to show it to their sons and daughters. They said: I hope my child never feels like this, and if they are gay, that they will know they will always be loved by their parents.”

McKee, a freelance journalist, was 24 at the time. On Wednesday, a short film based on the original blog post, with a voiceover, went up online. The piece was made by friends of McKee's; Brian Mulholland and Corinne Heaney, who run Stay Beautiful Films in their free time. The video cost less than £1,000 to make, which Mulholland and Heaney personally funded. Since it went up, the video has been attracting a whole new audience, something McKee did not expect.

Now 26, McKee has thought further on the challenges she and her peers faced growing up gay in Belfast; challenges still faced by a new generation of teenagers. “I don’t hate the pastor who made those comments, but there have been times when I was angry about them. I hope he read my blog. I want people like that to understand what it was like for people like me growing me. I thought at 14 you could not be out and proud; that it was a secret that had to be kept at all costs. I believed that it was better to be dead than out and gay. I believed that because of all the Biblical scripts. I used to sit in my house at night and bargain with God not to send me to hell. I don’t think any child should have to go through that.”

Growing up, McKee knew at 11 that she was gay. “There was a little gang us who used to run about together who were gay. The boys were as camp as Christmas. As a woman, you can be a little bit invisible, but it was known we were gay by association because we were with the boys. The abuse was mostly from my peers; being ostracised. People would shout stuff at us as we went by: ‘Hello, ladies,’ to the boys, for instance. There was one guy who would shove us into a wall, as we went past: I used to dread it when I saw him. People would say things to me like, ‘Don’t touch her; you don’t want to catch it.”

McKee came out to her own family shortly before her 21st birthday and they were wholly supportive. “I was one of the lucky ones. I was so lucky, but not all people who come out are so lucky. If a child in Northern Ireland is growing up in an evangelical household, they might not know where to go for support. There are sections of the evangelical community - and I know them - where, if a child was to come out to their family, they would be at risk of physical abuse from their family. I know of children who were beaten up by their father, and someone who was physically abused by his stepfather for years after he told him he was gay, and that was because of their evangelical beliefs.

“The church needs to acknowledge the legacy they have created. When people see scripture as a licence to violate and punish people ... the bar is set much lower for the local thug who thinks he can kick my head in. The church needs to deal with that.”

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