‘Sometimes we feel like the only gays in the village’

Rena Blake emigrated to the US as a teen and married before realising she was gay.

My mother became seriously ill when I was born, the seventh of nine children, in Listowel Community Hospital. My grandmother took care of me from then on and I remained in her house for all of my childhood. Growing up in 1970s Ballybunion was magical. All summer long, the Co Kerry seaside town was buzzing with fairy lights, piped music and crowds milling around the streets.

My grandparents made their living out of gardening, supplying vegetables to local restaurants and hotels. As a child, I sold them with my grandfather from the back of a horse and cart. When the vegetables were gone by midday, I’d head to the beach to give pony rides to tourists. It was a charmed life for a tomboy.

Life was rosy until my late teens. Because of undiagnosed dyslexia, I struggled at school with reading and writing. At 17, I was suspended for cursing when I was unable to read something that came easily to my fellow students. I remember coming home upset and frustrated. My grandmother asked: “What are you going to do with yourself now?” I told her I wanted to go to live with my aunt in the US. Without hesitation, she got up, went to the press, took out her post office book and told me to take out the money for a passport.

Married in the Bronx

By that stage I had been going out with local boy Joe for two years. We were a great team, and that year, 1984, we made a pact that we would emigrate together. I spent my 18th birthday in New York. It felt like half the town of Ballybunion were living in the Bronx. We came home to get married when I was 19. All was well in my world until I hit my mid-20s.

That year the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation (Ilgo) was allowed to march in the New York St Patrick’s Day parade for the first time. Standing on Fifth Avenue watching them go by was a pivotal moment in my life. I heard people jeering the participants, turning their backs as those holding Ilgo banners passed by. Something sank inside me. As I child, I always felt I was an outsider. I put my “difference” down to being a tomboy and not being good in school. But by my 25th birthday I had begun to question my sexuality and my marriage. Before that day I didn’t even know there were Irish gay people. In that moment on Fifth Avenue, I could see clearly that I was standing on the wrong side of the police barricade.

This was the beginning of the most difficult period of my life. I didn’t want to hurt Joe or risk losing my friends and family. I felt very confused, as though I was pushing against a tide that could not be held back. I knew that I had to do something.

Coming out in Brooklyn

By the following St Patrick’s Day I had left my marriage, friends, the whole Irish community in the Bronx and moved out to Brooklyn. I came out as a lesbian. I became a member of Ilgo, but we were not allowed to march in the parade that year or subsequent years. Being gay at the time was tough. Through Ilgo, I learned the importance of political activism. It was an intense period during which I grew up and found my voice. I began fighting for many causes – Act Up; Aids activism; the right to be Irish and gay – with some great people. A lot of wonderful work was done in New York at that time and I was proud to be part of it.

In Brooklyn, I became the co-owner of a lesbian cafe and bar called The Rising, where a group of passionate, committed women built a space for our community. That adventure lasted seven years. I had found my people and felt happy and at ease with myself for the first time as an adult.

Three things happened that changed the direction of my life. The house and farm where my grandmother was born came up for sale. I had loved that house all my life and I decided to buy it. Shortly afterwards, the Twin Towers came down and I decided to return home to Ballybunion for a year. I never left.

The third thing that happened was meeting my partner, Lisa. That same week I also took over Loafers Bar in Cork and ran it for four years. This was the oldest gay pub in Ireland until it sadly closed its doors earlier this month. We spent our first four years together in Cork city, travelling up and down to Ballybunion. Then we decided to move permanently to Kerry. Living as an out lesbian couple in north Kerry has generally being a good experience. We find people very warm and welcoming, although occasionally we joke that we have felt like the only gays in the village.

After the move back home, I studied photography and I am working towards making a living from the land like my grandmother did, with a business growing micro-greens. Lisa is a film-maker and community development worker. Like all couples, we've had our ups and downs. Eight years ago, Lisa began making what was to become an award-winning documentary film, Waiting for You, which charts our struggle to conceive a child, including three failed IVF attempts. It was a journey that drained us financially and emotionally, but we have reached a kind of acceptance now.

The referendum campaign

Until recently, we had settled into our quiet and predictable country way of life. I fully believed my activist days were over.

This referendum has changed that. There are not so many vocal gay people in rural Ireland. It has forced Lisa and I out of our cosy domestic lives and on to the streets to campaign for a Yes vote.

We have met some amazing people over the last few weeks through our campaigning with Yes Equality Kerry. It has been heartwarming to see the love and support from grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, colleagues and allies all over the county.

Last week at Ballybunion Golf Club, a woman came over to me and said: “Rena, I just want to say I hope everything goes well on May 22nd. I sincerely mean that.” I was so struck by the compassion in her eyes and the kindness in her voice. It was one of those very special moments.

Ten years together

Recently, Lisa and I celebrated 10 years of being together as a couple. We had talked for a long time about making some kind of commitment to each other but were reluctant until we could access equal marriage. We have booked our civil partnership for this summer, but we are hoping that this will be a full civil marriage by the time it comes around.

The day we went to the civil registrar, we were both surprised at how emotional we were. We realised in that moment that getting married is a big deal, that marriage matters. It has already brought our relationship to a new level. Since that day, I have felt a new sense of pride and validation in my relationship with Lisa. Our families and friends – including my ex-husband, Joe – are rallying around us and are really excited about the big day.

One of my best friends is flying home from Singapore to be my witness, and Lisa’s dad will stand beside his eldest daughter on the day. Her mother told us: “Lovies, this is a huge deal. We want to make a big fuss of you both.” We are both very touched by the support.

It seems life has come full circle. In July, Lisa and I will celebrate our commitment to each other in Listowel, the town where I was born. All I want is for our relationship to have equal status and protection under the Constitution. This Friday, I am asking people to vote Yes to civil marriage, so we can have the same rights as our sisters and brothers. Nothing more, nothing less.