It’s a very exciting time for Ireland; The Marriage Equality referendum has said YES to marriage equality, the first in the world to legalizing gay marriage by popular vote. I get goosebumps and teary eyed watching the news footage of this historical moment in time.
As I’m not a citizen of Ireland I couldn’t vote; but I went canvassing, door to door for Team YES this week in a town called Bantry, West Cork. It’s been uplifting to see the amount of support from the LGBT community, as well as their friends, families and supporters who also believe in marriage equality. Thousands of Irish citizens flew home from abroad just to vote. The result has been an overwhelming YES, 62% for and 38% against. It’s changing times; Ireland is proof of that, along with 18 other countries that have legalised gay marriage.
It’s got me reflecting on the matter and I wanted to write a blog and open up about some of the things I’ve kept secret much of my life.
In my home country, Australia, gay marriage is still not legal, but I am confident with time this will also change. Whether gay, straight, whatever, I find more people in support of gay marriage, certainly the people in my little world.
15 years ago, I didn’t feel this was the case.
In the late 90s, early 2000s, when I was a teenager, I thought I was the only gay person in the entire world, apart from the gays that were mocked on sitcoms.
I never really had a word/label for my sexuality when I was a teenager. I felt what I felt, I was who I was, and I had no idea I was “different”. I had the biggest crush on Helen Hunt, and as far as my pubescent self was concerned, I was going to marry her. HAH! In many ways I was this innocent, sweet, naïve little tomboy who would never hurt a fly. I had my Helen Hunt poster (or should I say 20+ posters) on my wall beside my bed that I would kiss goodnight. Hahha!
My mother ignored my behaviour. I suppose she thought/hoped I’d grow out of it. Some years later she told me she just wanted me to be happy, but that being gay would be a hard road. Messages from school, extended family, friends, the church, the media and the government, slowly but heartbreakingly made me realise I wasn’t “normal”, “right” or “equal”. I discovered labels such as “dyke”, “homosexual”, “gay”, “lesbian” etc, and the emotional consequences have been so deeply scarring.
In many ways I’m lucky: I could have grown up in the early 1900s where homosexuality wasn’t spoken of, or where women were passive and submissive and had no real rights at all to be creative, to work, to choose whether to be pregnant or not, or express themselves, their sexuality, their emotions. I could have grown up in a country where you receive the death penalty for being gay. I’m told this still exists in places. I could have grown up in a culture that marries off their women. I could have had strict religious parents. From that perspective, I’m lucky my life hasn’t entailed such things.
But school can be cruel. I began to experience ridicule and witnessed the torment of an openly gay student. In my early teens, I began hiding it, lying about my sexuality, making up stories about sleeping with guys, I hung posters of the Backstreet Boys, and I went out with guys just to convince people (and myself) I was straight… to avoid ridicule. I never told anyone I had fallen in love with a girl in my class.
Then there was church. I went through my church phase in my late teens (truth be told, the girl I fell in love went to church… that’s how I ended up there). For a few years I immersed myself in the religion. I was in the church band, went to youth group, bible study, was a leader in the kids club, went on church camps (I have to laugh now at the thought of the church leaders splitting up boys and girls for our sleeping cabins… ooops… thankyou). For me it was a place where I made friends and felt like I was part of something, felt like I belonged. For a while, I think I believed in the religion. I even tried to convert my mum at one point. But slowly the cracks appeared. Things just didn’t add up and seemed to go against massive parts of my core. I remember thinking Christianity’s anti-gay doctrines were like telling someone born with brown eyes that they were sinful for having brown eyes. As I sat through sermon after sermon every Sunday and bible readings every Friday, I became increasingly angry, depressed and self-hating. I would pray night after night for God to not make me gay. I tried to be interested in guys, tried to want a boyfriend, tried to find them mildly attractive. I read books about “curing” the homosexual Christian. But alas, this went against my true self, and the more I pushed it down, the more it screamed out to be heard. I cut my arms for years, torturing myself, making myself bleed, and I promised God I’d never be with a woman, never live in sin. But all the while, I was in love with my female classmate, and nobody knew, and I couldn’t do a single thing about it but ache in her presence… and ache without her. The message I received was that I was wrong, sinful for being a homosexual, that I would go to hell, that it wasn’t God’s Will, that I wasn’t worthy, that I could be healed if I wanted (hmm… after years of praying, I can only conclude I am just how nature intended me be).
One of the first people I told my big secret to was the pastor at church. Alongside the “it’s wrong” ramble, he told me he would watch me with my friends and make sure I didn’t do anything inappropriate (creepy much?) (power-trip much?). He suggested ex-gay therapy, as a mate of his had had some success. Every Friday night at youth group, he would pull me aside to have a little chat, pulling me away from the after-bible-study nibblies and games with my friends, to “see how I was going”. Inevitably it would turn into a heart achingly distressing disagreement, where I would attempt to plead my case to the ego-centric power-tripper, as he provoked me to tears and I went home crying.
I would cry “But what if you weren’t allowed to love your wife?”
“But I am,” he said. “God designed woman and man to be together as man and wife. He doesn’t allow same-sex couples. It’s a sin. It’s not natural. It’s not God’s Will”.
“But being with MEN for me is not natural. This is who I am!”
I cried and cried. I ran home to Mum and cried. I dunno if she ever knew what the issue was back then (probably). After coming home particularly distressed one Friday evening, she rang the pastor and she stood up for me. He left me alone after that. At church, I told him too he no longer had a right to talk to me about my sexuality. He said, “But as the pastor of this church, I have a right to ask you how you’re going with God.”
The outcome of all this was that I pulled out of the kids club, eventually the band, and eventually the church.
To my delight, several mates of mine at church have since come out as being gay. I thought I was the only one.
I’ve persecuted myself for most of my life – perhaps as the church had trained me to do. I beat myself up. Cut my arms. Thought about suicide. It’s stung to the core of my existence. I know there are many other facets of my personality and life, but being gay is this huge part of my core. It’s shaped my attitudes, self-worth, self-image, mental health, the way I perceived the world, etc. My music career stemmed from writing songs of self-expression because I had this big secret I couldn’t tell anyone. For a lot of years I never wrote gender-specific lyrics, till 2011 when I wrote Hero in Me – a light-hearted, uplifting tune about my experience growing up being gay. I feared rejection, feared persecution, feared people being disgusted with me. I’ve feared not getting a job/gig because I’m gay. Not making a CD sale because I’m gay. I have felt such shame at the core of me. I never wanted to be gay. I never chose it. Music was my friend. I channeled my pain, ambiguously through lyrics. I yearned to be adored.
“Coming out” has been a slow process. A slow slow process.
I remember telling my mother. It was 2005, and there was a heated discussion with my extended family about homosexuality being a sin. I shrunk in my chair as the discussion went on around me, with all the “it’s wrong,” “it’s a sin” talk. My mother, however, stood up for gay people, for women, and for love. She probably knew all along that I was gay, but I’d never have the conversation with her. I’d always been too terrified of her rejection. But after witnessing her courage, I decided to tell then that I was gay, and that my special “friend” was more than a friend. I lay on the bed beside my mum as she read a book. I agonized for some minutes (or a whole decade I should say) and I finally said, “Mum… I feel like this family won’t accept me….”
“Why’s that?” she said, barely moving an inch as she kept reading her book.
“Cos I’m gay,” I said.
“Phhh don’t worry about them,” she said. And that was that. It was like I’d said I just spilt some milk in the kitchen, and she couldn’t care less. She’s always been telling me not to worry so much what other people think.
But there’s been this constant ache, this constant need for approval inside me. Perhaps like there is in all of us to some degree. I kept trying to prove that I’m not evil because I am in love with a woman. This desperation inside me.
I have memories:
“Be careful with that girl. Do not dishonour God.”
“You don’t have to sit on each other’s laps; there are plenty of other chairs.”
“Hi so and so, this is Jen and her… um….friend….. Josephine.”
“Let’s get Jenna’s… friend… to take the family photo.”
“You’re not one of those lesbians are you?”
I’ve cried at weddings for this bittersweet combination of happiness for my friends/family and pain for myself. Wanting to marry the one I love… but not being allowed. Cringing at that line where the marriage celebrant says “marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. I had to smile when I recently saw something on social media where a bride and groom told their friends and family to block their ears for that sentence of the ceremony, cos they didn’t believe it either, but in Australia is must be read out loud.
Slowly I’ve had the guts to come out.
In recent years I’ve found the courage to write lyrics in my songs “There’s a hero deep inside of me. Be my lady and your hero I’ll be”.
Slowly I’ve had the guts to correct people when they assumed my “partner” is a man.
Every day I meet new people and am faced with decision to tell them about my girlfriend, or just omit her from conversation altogether. Slowly I have the guts to mention her, as she’s a huge part of my life.
While I don’t want to box myself in as a GAY singer/songwriter, from time to time I find the guts to talk about being gay here and there, or tell the audience about my lovely wifey. At Port Fairy Folk Festival, in front of 1000-2000 people, I mentioned my “gay song” Hero in Me… and was surprised when I had a whole queue of people lining up to buy that album after the show.
Two years ago, I was lecturing at a university and wanted to show the students my song Hero in Me – as I had examples from all stages of the making of this song: the music, the development of lyrics, the rough recording, the full studio recording, and finally the video clip. When it came to showing the video clip to the class I’d got to know for several months, I ran out of the room for the “gay bit”. I feared these students losing respect for me because I was gay. When I came back into the room at the end of the video, I couldn’t look at anyone and I said “Right that’s it for today, see you next week.” AHhahah! To my surprise a girl put her hand up and said “I just want to say thank you. Thankyou for courageously sharing this with us.” The whole class clapped.
The more courage I have, the more courage it builds as I find many more positive experiences these days. You find traces of homophobia; silent disapproval, ridicule, preachiness, judgement, discrimination, horror stories. And then there’s Australia’s lame government who lag behind the times, probably fearing their own rejection for standing up for gay rights. But for the most part, in 2015, the people I know are actually really ok with gay people, and there’s no issue at all. In my tiny rural town of 200 people, they embrace me. My 80 year old landlord embraced me. My parents welcome my girl into the family like she’s one of their own. Ireland has just voted for equality in marriage. There are so many positive experiences. I’ve learned that suppressing who I am, trying to change who I am at the core, is only detrimental and contributed to my self-abuse and depression. If I can be true to myself, have the courage to be who I am, it attracts the right kind of people/opportunities into my life; friends who love me for me and want to know me, music lovers who are interested in my music. I spent too long pretending I was someone else in order to be liked. And although I have days where I don’t have so much courage, and I let it slide when someone says “Your partner, is he from Ireland?”, I am finding more and more courage to be the person I’m meant to be.
It’s funny… your parents tell you not to worry about what other people think… But ACTUALLY applying that is so much harder.
Although gay couples don’t have the same legal rights in Australia, I delight in a changing world. I can see it changing, slowly over the decades. And I can feel myself changing too – allowing myself to be who I am, not hating myself but exploring, growing, flourishing. I am grateful for the friends and family who have embraced me and my partner. I’m grateful that we can walk down the street holding hands and we aren’t arrested or beaten. I am grateful that Ireland has just set an example for the rest of the world and challenged the Catholic Religion to think about how it relates to young people in a modern world. I am uplifted by the support of people who aren’t gay themselves, but totally get what it means to love who you love.
Today I just wanted to have the guts to share my story, the good and the ugly. And I encourage you too, to have the guts to be who you are, whatever that means for you.
Thanks for reading