KILRUSH man, Brian Sheehan, director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) has told The Clare Champion that Health Minister Leo Varadkar’s decision to come out as gay indicates how open Ireland has become and will encourage young gay people to pursue whatever career they see fit.
“If you’re a young man or woman in school for example, you now know that being lesbian or gay isn’t a barrier to the highest political office. That is a really important point, that no job should be denied you because of who you are,” he said.
Mr Sheehan feels that growing up in a small town, like Kilrush, these days is easier for a young gay person.
“When I grew up in Kilrush, I didn’t know any gay people. The only gay person I knew in Ireland was David Norris and I didn’t seem to be represented in him. If I was the young me now in Kilrush, there is great visibility in the media, in music and in television. In Kilrush, there are open lesbian and gay people and there have been lesbian and gay people open in the community school there. I think there is a different atmosphere. I’m not saying it’s all easy but the environment has changed,” he added.
Mr Sheehan said that whatever a person’s circumstances, it still takes courage for them to reveal that they are gay or lesbian.
“Whether you are a young person in Leaving Cert or a farmer in middle age going to the mart, being open about who you are and who you love is a very difficult thing to do. It’s difficult to do because no matter what, we still live in a society where being lesbian or gay is still not a settled thing. It’s still an issue of contention,” he noted, although he acknowledged that Ireland has become a far more open and accepting society.
“We’ve come very far in 20 years in Ireland, where people aren’t shamed or shunned by it any more but it still is a very difficult thing. It still is a difficult thing to be fully open about who you are to those around you because there is a great fear of rejection. Most people who do come out are supported by family and friends but not all are. Therefore, when you’re going to say it to somebody that you are lesbian or gay, in a sense you’re taking your life into your hands. You’re taking your security, sense of place and sense of belonging in a family and putting it, in a sense, under threat. We want to get to a place where lesbian and gay people don’t have to state, in this big way, that they are lesbian or gay. While we’ve made enormous progress, we’re not quite there yet, which is why there is such a big story about the minister. I think each person goes through their own journey of accepting themselves as lesbian or gay and deciding when and where to tell others. That journey is a very personal journey and one of the key things is that each journey is individual.”
Mr Sheehan says that how a school deals with diversity can have a major impact.
“If you were in a school where there was a lot of bullying or name-calling on the grounds of somebody’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or the word ‘gay’ is bandied around as a term of abuse, then being open is really hard. That’s why schools are tackling homophobic bullying and saying that it’s not acceptable is really important. If you work in an office and gay jokes are bandied about, even if people don’t mean offence, you don’t know whether people would reject you or not if you’re open about who you are,” he said.
Mr Sheehan says that, on balance, the stigma has lifted in recent decades.
“Thousands of lesbian and gay people have come out to their family and friends and because of that, our nephews, nieces and children growing up have out lesbian or gay uncles or aunts. They realise that it’s part of every family and it’s something that is a normal part of Irish existence,” he pointed out.
Mr Sheehan has been involved in LGBT equality and rights for almost 20 years. He worked previously with the GLEN initiative Gay HIV Strategies as director from 1999 to 2000. He has had a significant involvement in organisations like Gay Switchboard Dublin; as director of the Dublin Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, as co-chair of the National Lesbian and Gay Federation, which oversees the publication of GCN and the Irish Queer Archives; and as a board member of GLEN prior to joining the staff. In November 2012, Mr Sheehan was elected to the board of ILGA-Europe.