This first appeared in Hot Press in 2004.
I was given the book for Christmas, as something I “should” read. Not the most enticing of invitations, especially for me. I won’t be told. “Coming Out – Irish Gay Experiences” is, I concede, something I should have on my bookshelf. Which mostly means it stays on the bookshelf, looking at home, remaining unread. Then I noticed that the editor didn’t use his real name. That clinched it. I couldn’t get past the heartsink of that, the stale clerical whiff of the Irish closet. If coming out, Irish style, means keeping your name hidden, then it’s not coming out. I found that it rubbed salt in the wound of my own split, the reason I’ve spent half my life in godless England – I cannot bear the hypocrisy, the lies, the slithery-slidey shenanigans that pass for morality on the boggy isle. It hurts me viscerally. This book has been thrown at the wall more than once, in fury, while I was making myself sit down, take a deep breath, and go back in time to the land of the double standard. I don’t want to. You can’t make me. Don’t let me get seduced by murky Irish relativism, don’t let guilt insinuate itself again into my psyche. Please. It’s like the atheist’s fear that, at a weak moment on the death bed, a priest will take advantage and slip a bit of wafer on the tongue, wipe a bit of oil on the pate, and whisper a few sweet nothings to his beads. It might as well be a poison vial marked “Irish Shame” – all misty green and cloudy. Go on, drink it all down and you’ll hardly notice you’ve taken it. You’ll feel at home again. But shame is as potent a drug as alcohol or smack. And I’ve been through detox.
In the end, curiosity did it for me. To call the book that you’re editing “Coming Out”, and not Come Out yourself, takes a massive pair of cojones, because of the inevitable mockery that should, rightly, ensue. He’s either a fool or a genius, I figured. I gave in, only to find that when I sat down and counted them, of the 41 articles in the main section, 24 were written with false or incomplete names. I balked again. It’s the furtive anonymity of the confessional, the weak guilty smile of the whispering recidivist in the shadows. I just want to roar in response. I knew intuitively what was preventing “Glen O’Brien” from coming out properly – the Irish Mother. Not the real thing, (she’s often underestimated) but the archetypal, culturally omnipresent psychological phenomenon that is our Mammy, and the Mammy of our children – the one who keeps us in check, the one who pours drops of “Irish Shame” into our milk so we don’t get too out of line. I ring the publisher, and eventually I get to talk to the editor himself. He spoke of his awareness of the irony in the book, but thought it important enough to let the stories speak for themselves, for there was no other book like it, and there was a need for it. As I suspected, it was a woman’s feelings he was protecting with his anonymity- although it wasn’t his mother whose heart he didn’t want to break, it turned out to be his children and their mother. It’s how men’s truths often get silenced. His family lives in the same area where he lives and teaches. In the classic Irish way, he knew who I was, and said that a friend of his was asking for me, someone I had had an intense whirlwind affair with a couple of years ago – we went to Moulin Rouge together. A happy encounter. His email address bounced, though, on my return to London. How is he? He’s fine, he’s getting married later this year. The greatest thing/ is to love someone/ and to be loved/ in return. Give him a big hug from me.
That’s me spancelled then. You can’t get bolshie and criticise someone’s book if he knows someone you bawled through Moulin Rouge with. Some things are sacred. There’s no room for detachment (the English disease), the metropolitan anonymity, the objective eye. Everything is subjective, relative, too close for comfort. There’s no air to breathe.
The book, once I got down to it, proved to be a surprising and moving read. Not least because I get a mention, as someone once known in the gay community as “the gay guy with the mother” – as, indeed, do my parents, honouring their work pour le cause. Ireland is a tiny village.
The anonymity offered to the storytellers did allow for truth to come out in a way that a more American, accentuate-the-positive book could not. Some of the stories were bitter, sour, sad – especially the family members of men who had come out. Mentioned more than once by different writers was the concept that once a Dad steps out of the closet, his family steps inside one – they then have to maintain a secret, carry the burden of shame. One hell-hath-no-fury woman writes: “having a gay husband is not dissimilar to being physically or sexually abused in that it ‘doesn’t happen’ and is ‘not spoken about’”. The unconscious way in which shame is accepted as part of Irish life is appalling to read in some of these passages. Why need this be the case? Why is our shame so pronounced that truth is so hard to bear?
A handful of priests contributed some harrowing stories to this collection, and despite my avowed anti-clericalism I was moved by their attempts to square an exquisite sensitivity and a cruel faith. Indeed, something of the poetic sensibility that is so much part of the Irish character shone through in its pages.
In the end, this book is a profound testament to human dignity and love, and the fact that more than half of the contributors have not fully come out speaks of the truth of Irish society now, in all its light and shadow. There isn’t another culture like it – for all the liberalism of British society, where a book on coming out would certainly not permit pseudonyms, I doubt that an equivalent collection of stories could match this one for its passion and humanity. Complexity is our daily reality as human beings, and the media rarely capture that paradox. My only objection, and it is a big one, is to the title – it is misleading. Like most societies in the world, (homo)sexuality is ambiguous, fluid, rarely clear, always at the nexus of many different drives and needs, social, political, familial, spiritual and animal. The discourse of coming out comes from a WASP rationality, which likes to pin things down with labels and categories. Coming out is supposed to be a rite of passage, a staging post of individuation, an antidote to the social poisons of secrecy and conformity. Once you do it, it’s over, the boil has been lanced; let the pus of guilt and fear rinse away, let it heal, and get on with life out of the shadows.
But perhaps, as in most things, we Irish need to come up with our own way of describing what, for many of these contributors, is not so much a journey of increasing political awareness, but a spiritual path to acceptance.