A State apology to gay men? No thanks
There is no way to say sorry for dark days gay men endured in Ireland before 1993
A magazine article from 1979 marks the opening of the Hirschfeld Centre for the gay community in Dublin: “Who is going to apologise for the years of dread I felt just walking out my front door in the morning, the years of taunting and bullying I endured at school?”
When I read recently that the State plans to apologise to gay men who were convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual activity, my initial response was surprisingly one of anger.
Senator Ged Nash has campaigned for the official apology to coincide with the 25th anniversary of decriminalisation of the homosexual act in 1993. I was 27 and living in London when I heard about the Government’s decision to decriminalise gay men in Ireland. I was living in London because I wanted to escape years of endless bullying, hatred, discrimination and fear. I wanted to escape a world that for as long as I could remember had told me that I was evil, an abomination and that I deserved to die. Yes, I deserved to die and to prove it God had sent his wrath on me and my kind in the form of a deadly disease called Aids.
I endured hatred every day of my young life for simply being the person I was, being true to myself
This had instilled the fear of God in me as I watched most of my gay friends die. One after another they died, quickly, horrifically, shunned by their families and carted off in body bags. I have never been convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual activity but, for the first 27 years of my life, I felt that I was living in a kind of prison. Indeed it was worse, the first 20 years of my life was like living in solitary confinement, living in a misery of loneliness from which I thought there could never be an end.
I endured hatred every day of my young life for simply being the person I was, being true to myself, being the person I was born to be. What I would like to know now is who is going to apologise for that?
Who is going to apologise for the years of dread I felt just walking out my front door in the morning, the years of taunting and bullying I endured at school and having the back of my coat covered in spit every day as I walked home?
Who is going to apologise for the people who later at work, would stand on the other side of the corridor as I walked past and insisted that I use my own knife, fork and spoon in the canteen so that they wouldn’t catch Aids?
Who is going to apologise for the loss of the man I was in love with, who took his own life at the age of 21 having been forced into a relationship with a woman because he knew his father would be ashamed to have a gay son?
While the referendum result was in no doubt euphoric, for me it still represents being given permission to be the person I was born to be
Who is going to apologise for the fact that I had to grieve his loss in silence and alone without being able to tell any of my family or friends that the person I was in love with had taken his own life with the shame of not being able to be the person he was born to be?
A hundred thousand apologies could never erase the deep and profound pain I still feel when I think of those dark days as a gay man living in Ireland prior to 1993. There is no doubt that things have changed dramatically in the last 25 years for members of the LGBT community. There was a notable change in attitudes after decriminalisation from mainstream society as people almost felt that they had permission to accept gay people for who they were.
Many have spoken about the 2015 marriage equality referendum result as a new beginning for gay people in Ireland as we had finally been given our right to be treated equally in Irish society. The people had spoken and the decision was a resounding yes. Organisations such as the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network disbanded with the feeling of a job well done.
But I have often felt that the referendum result was an attempt by society at large in Ireland to make amends for how people like me had been treated in the past. It is no secret that I was against the referendum, not because I was against the right of same-sex couples to get married but because I didn’t believe in the principle that others had the right to decide whether or not I had the right to be equal to them.
While the referendum result was in no doubt euphoric, for me it still represents being given permission to be the person I was born to be and all I can think about is those wonderful people we lost either through suicide or Aids. Now tell me, who is going to apologise for that?
Derek Byrne is a journalist and broadcaster