Una Mullally: It’s hard to accept yourself when your country doesn’t

‘I was just starting to focus when the doctor told me they found a tumour. They didn’t have the biopsies yet, but straight away knew it to be cancer’

On Friday the 13th of March, 2015, I walked into St James’s Hospital for a test. My stomach was acting weird and the doctor I had been referred to booked me in for a colonoscopy.

It’s a routine procedure but my girlfriend Sarah insisted on coming with me and picking me up. We kissed each other goodbye as they called my name in the waiting room. When the nurse was taking my next of kin details and asked who was going to pick me up, I stuttered: “My g-girlfriend, my partner.” I went red. I rattled off her phone number.

When the nurse left, I rolled my eyes at myself. Why, after all of these years, do I still have to act like that? Why stutter? As I undressed and got into the disposable hospital gown, I was angry and embarrassed.

Maybe a part of me thought the nurse would react in a certain way, which she didn’t. Maybe it’s just years of a stigma that reveals itself a teeny tiny bit every time you have to inadvertently come out to someone. Maybe I thought I would be judged. Anyway. I stuttered.


Earlier that month, I won Journalist of the Year at the GALAS LGBT Awards in the Shelbourne Hotel. My book on the movement for marriage equality in Ireland was also nominated. I go on the radio and television to talk about gay rights. Yet I still stuttered to a nurse when I said “girlfriend”. What am I like? I guess it’s hard to accept yourself when your country doesn’t.

After the procedure, I woke up. Sarah was sitting by my bed. I was still groggy from the sedation, so my legs wobbled as we walked down the corridor. Sarah held my hand.

I was just starting to focus when the doctor told me they found a tumour. They didn’t have the biopsies yet, but straight away knew it to be cancer. The entire room started to fade away. I felt the doctor gently clasping my forearm, the type of human contact that’s shorthand for bereavement. It was five days after my 32nd birthday. I heard Sarah ask how big the tumour was. “By our standards it would be considered large,” came the diplomatic reply.

Sarah held me as I walked out of the hospital in the midst of a panic attack. She stood there when I screamed at the sky in the carpark. She took notes when the surgeon explained that this was very serious and they needed to move straight away to see if it had spread to my liver and my lungs. A week after Friday the 13th, the longest week of my life, the surgeon sat down with Sarah and I, and told me it wasn’t terminal. Sarah took more notes. I am lucky. The cancer I have is stage three. I am not going to die in the next few months.

This week is my third week of treatment. And the treatment is aggressive. I wear a chemotherapy pump that feeds an infusion through a line in my arm 24/7. I’m in hospital five days a week for radiation. I am at the beginning of a long road.

In a strange way, the referendum has been a good distraction. Every evening and weekend I can, I go canvassing with other volunteers. When radio stations ask me to go on and debate, I do. I try to ignore the hysterical noise of the No campaign. I try to smile. Truth will out.

The spirit of positivity among volunteers around the country would bring a tear to your eye, and it often has to mine. The sense of hope, camaraderie, good humour and solidarity that I’ve seen among those knocking on doors, putting up posters, fundraising in pubs and community centres, flyering outside matches, will stay with me forever. Most of us want an equal country but we have to get out there and vote for it. This is our time.

At every moment since I was diagnosed, Sarah has been by my side. And she will continue to be by my side as we beat this together. I used to think of myself as a private person but I can’t be during a campaign where LGBT lives are being exposed, dissected, appraised and judged.

So here I am. Like any couple, myself and Sarah are not an abstract to be debated on RTÉ. We are real people. These are our real lives. Because when myself and Sarah stand next to our friends, with their boyfriends or girlfriends, or husbands or wives, we know that we are equal. And we are tired of being told that we are not. Our life together is self-evident. We are not lesser than.

In the last month, I’ve learned very quickly what perspective means. It’s not a slogan or a soundbite. Like most people, I just want to get on with my life. But how can that life be a full one when I’m not equal, and when my relationship with my partner, as strong and loving and committed as it is, is not equal?

Right now, I can only imagine that life. After May 22nd, I want to live it.