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Book Review: Coming Out: Irish Gay Experiences edited by Glen O’Brien

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Who would choose to be gay in Ireland? While it’s not the life sentence (or, in some cases, the death sentence) it once was, homosexuality in the Emerald Isle is still a touchy subject. As elsewhere, the story of gay rights in Ireland is one of small steps forward against a backdrop of oppression, suppression and repression.

That’s why Coming Out is such an important book. It’s a chance to pause and draw breath; to look back on the achievements on the thorny road to equality and forward to the next set of hurdles. The testimonies of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, their families, friends and loved ones represent a snapshot of a small country at the crossroads.

Perhaps what’s most impressive is the diversity of contributions. Certainly, there are tales of difficult admissions by gay people, both to themselves and to their families. But the voices of mothers, fathers, siblings, wives and children are also to be heard. Many of the stories are uplifting, but not all have happy endings. Especially affecting is the story of a gay man jeered at his own father’s funeral.

But while there is real anguish, there’s also room for humour:

“My mum found my LGB Rights Officer name card and came up to my room and asked, ‘What’s the LGB?’ I remember her face – it was angry. I told her, ‘It’s the Ladies and Gents Basketball!’ She stopped for a moment – I was hopeful she had bought it. She then screamed, ‘You’re too small to play basketball! Now you tell me now, are you lesbian, gay and bisexual?’ ‘Not this again,’ I said. ‘I’m one of them.’ ‘Which one?’ she asked. I said, ‘I’m gay.’ And she said, ‘Well, just as long as you’re not bisexual,’ and walked out.”

This being Ireland, the Catholic Church is a looming presence. It’s sad that an institution founded on the principle of love still finds it impossible to deal with vulnerable people in need. As a result, many Irish gay men and women have turned their backs on the established church. Some have found a spiritual home in other faith communities, while others have written religion out of their lives. But there are still priests courageous enough to minister to the gay community and to acknowledge their own sexuality as a gift from God. One such figure, Bernard Lynch, takes an uncompromising and what some may see as controversial stance. Gay people, he suggests, are missionaries to a homophobic church.

The stories are as varied in size as in scope. Some occupy more than a dozen pages, others just a couple. For the most part, they are well written. It’s a pity that the editorial process didn’t pick up some of the annoying typos, particularly in the final testimony. A stream of consciousness can be invigorating, but for the reader to experience its full impact, every story requires proper punctuation.

It’s especially pleasing to see the foreword written by Colm Toibin. One of Ireland’s most successful writers offers a rallying call to all of us on the yellow brick road:

“It is essential to say what we are. Most people can define themselves without a thought. It is easy to say, ‘I am Irish’ or ‘I am a civil servant.’ In the future, following the example of the men and women who tell their stories in this book, it will, we hope, be just as easy to say: ‘I am gay’ and ‘I am lesbian’ and then, without difficulty, join the parade in Ireland and live and love in greater freedom.”

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