Oliver Callan: I was a gay Boo Radley in 1980s Monaghan
Finally admitting I was different was my epiphany, freeing me from a life of sameness
Oliver Callan: I knew that it was wrong to be gay, and that I was undoubtedly one of these misfortunates, long before I knew anything about sex. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
I still remember the first time I heard the word “gay”. It was thousands of moons ago, in the mid-1980s. I was travelling home from school in one of those swaying yellow buses, rainwater gliding up and down the aisle as the smoking hulk gurgled between the hawthorn hedges of Monaghan, prickling with its secrets.
In fact I thought the word the boy from the next townland was saying was “gé”, the Irish word for goose. The chap he was accusing of being a Gaelic goose was equally confused, until the braying boy spelled it out for him, his voice lassoing vowels around the creaks and depths of a breaking voice: “Two men who are doing it with each other.” Everyone reacted with horror and laughter over the diesel roars of the yellow bus. And so, like most of our persuasion, the first time I heard the word “gay” was as a term of abuse.
I indulged every slight difference to distract from my central abnormality. I became a nerd, devouring books and snatching smidgens of highfalutin talk on long-wave radio
Worse than the narrow minds of a national school of the 1980s were the narrow minds of a national school in the borderlands of the 1980s. The most popular jokes were racist puns about starving Ethiopians. Or gags about Brits who should, of course, all die at the hands of the IRA. There were no Brits or Ethiopians to take offence, but I was there, sinking ever deeper into a protective layer of disguise and silence with every passing reference to these dirty gays.
As a consequence I knew that it was wrong to be gay, and that I was undoubtedly one of these misfortunates, long before I knew anything about sex.
That lesson came on another bus journey, by a girl from “the village”, the sprawling metropolis that was Inniskeen, population 265. Gay Byrne thought he was educating Ireland all on his own, but our bus scoile was like The Late Late Show in yellow aluminium and with manual steering.
Looking back, I know now the silence about sexuality wasn’t my own. It abounded throughout culture and conversation. The pressure was to strive to be as normal and beige as everyone else.
It would be decades before I would realise that being different would be the great epiphany of my life. It would free me from the drudgery of sameness and the burden of having to follow the staid stages of life that society sets out for most people.
Coming out remains a difficult process, and many gay people are defined by how much or how little damage they endure while doing it. The success of coming out is still largely determined by the reaction of other people in your life, as if LGBT people must infinitely relinquish some of their personal sovereignty.
My school years were spent in a heightened state of cover and trepidation. For disguise I indulged almost every marginal difference about me to distract from the central abnormality. I became a heightened nerd, devouring books and snatching smidgens of highfalutin talk on long-wave radio.
Traps and diversions
Ours was not a scholarly house, so once I had gone through the monthly allocation of library books I read every scrap I could find to broaden my world beyond 27 acres of farmland. Farmers Journals, bits of Africa and Far East magazines, RTÉ Guide articles and old Irish Independent pieces that had been used to wrap the ice-cream block home from O’Gorman’s supermarket.
I got a fair share of slagging from my siblings and the Newry cousins for using fancy words like “superb” and “marvellous”. Secretly I was delighted this was all they seized on, as I desperately kept that other great light within me switched off.
I developed all sorts of traps and diversions. Although I couldn’t play GAA I got away with it because I wholeheartedly loved going to and watching matches. I was a hard worker, well organised at milking cows and faultless in cleaning up the byre and milk tank. My brother was driving the International two-wheel-drive tractor at 10 while I didn’t master it until 12 or 13. A small slip there.
By secondary school I knew what to avoid and was never bullied. I pitied the camp lads who couldn’t lower their volume and got abuse around the town of Carrickmacross. I never helped them, as to do so risked contamination.
Again I was able to divert any suspicions in new and curious ways. My nerdiness as a debater in a blazer was offset by being video commentator on the school’s football matches. But nothing distracts quite as well as comedy. As a natural mimic, my impressions of teachers pretty much provided a free pass against bullying for the entirety of secondary school.
In the meantime my secret inner soul was burning to break out. The 1990s saw gay characters appear on TV more overtly than ever before. Every time they did when the whole family was watching, my face burned so hot with shame I thought small animals might fall asleep at my feet thinking the sun was setting.
While I survived school by covering the true self so well, it only served to push me deeper into the closet during college years that should have brought more freedom. Dublin City University put me in contact with the first openly gay people I’d known, albeit at a distance, and, although my classmates weren’t homophobic, the LGBT crowd were very much “them” and we were “us”.
Spending a few months in gay-friendly Sydney only left me feeling more trapped and angsty than ever, increasing a desperation to be straight.
Coming from a deep Irish country background, I was profoundly ignorant about sexual freedom, even in the early days of the new century. I collected my Leaving Cert results by parking the tractor that I wasn’t licensed or insured to drive at the edge of town.
I was a gay Boo Radley in a sad Springsteen ballad. I was Patrick Kavanagh’s Great Hunger of the 21st century, comically starved of love by the accursed land.
Asking a girl to my debs at the local nightclub still replays in my head as a humiliating moment, because of the depth of the lie I felt I was planting. I will never forget that, just as she agreed, Shania Twain’s Man, I Feel Like a Woman belted out from a nearby speaker, with immaculate comic timing.
Queer as Folk
By the time the race of progress had begun I was just too far behind. Queer as Folk started on Channel 4. I watched on weekends home from college, with the volume turned so far down I had to sit two feet from the Grundig to hear it. In case anyone entered the room and found me indulging in the sin of truth, I held the remote in a fist, ready to switch off the only thing that gave me a glimpse of myself.
When the beautiful Charlie Hunnam sweated breathlessly with nasty Aiden Gillen I thought I might die from the implosion of embarrassment, excitement, shame and elation all crashing together in a cacophony of broken secrets.
There was a moment amid all this tortured private humiliation I must have come out to myself. Yet it would take the guts of another decade to tell another soul. And even then I would go and tell the wrong person entirely – someone who used the secret to exert an overwhelming level of control over me.
But the pain provided a new perspective. Today I view that difficult period in a positive way. It’s as though I had to endure toxic people and the pain they inflict to understand how wonderful life can be. The misfortune was rewarded when I met the beautiful John, six years ago. Only a fool would dwell on all those black yesterdays when today is so bright.
In the end I stayed in the closet until two months shy of my 31st birthday. Yet I have rarely felt sadness or regret about coming out late. Like peace, sooner is always better, but at last is better than never.
Today I feel that being gay is the most delightfully anti-normal normality a person can enjoy. I have never met a straight person, even among my closest and most beloved friends, who ever fully understands what is to be gay.
Gay bars, ironically disappearing since marriage equality, were the only pubs where people came together in a warped sort of honesty
To endure the darkness into light and the constant tingling of tension over how camp to allow oneself to be, or the appropriateness of challenging irritating assumptions that you’re straight. The breeders just don’t get it, even if they try.
Thank creation for those who try, even though deep down, at the very nadir of their rainbow-bright hearts, even the very best of them still feel a little sorry for us.
There is pain and suffering, but there is a dawning too, a shining of the soul that announces a truth. Being gay is a classless state.
Gay bars, ironically disappearing since marriage equality, were the only pubs where people came together in a warped sort of honesty irrespective of age, accent, wealth, background, race, religion, politics or language. They came together in spite of the prevailing culture beyond the door rather than because of it.
Regardless of how hard it was to attain, freedom is always taken for granted and becomes dull. It may not yet be time to get too worried about it, but there will come a moment when we need to realise that a century’s worth of progress occurring in half a decade needs remembering and reinforcing.
The Government has officially marked the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, yet the story of gay rights in Ireland is not taught in schools. David Norris’s decades-long battle appears only as a footnote in Mary Robinson’s story on the Leaving Cert history syllabus. In contrast the 1932 Eucharistic Congress remains a major topic.
In my own personal history, I don’t look back in fear any more at the boy in the yellow bus who taught me a new word. I think of him as the unlikeliest hero of truth I’ll ever know.