Confronting prejudices

With the academic year almost over and many students having come out over its course, Bríd Doherty speaks to two LGBT members about their experiences

For most, coming out of the closet is a psychological journey, a matter of personal identity and a rite of passage. It is something that each and every member of UCD’s LGBT community has gone through or will go through at some point in their lives.

The uncertainty of how loved ones will act when breaking the news means that the beginning of this journey can be a difficult and stressful period for those at the centre.

The University Observer spoke to two members of UCD’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Society Simon and Linda, about coming out and being a member of the LGBT community in UCD. Simon is a Social Science student and a committee member of the LGBT Society while Linda is an Arts student and one of the most active members of the LGBT Society.

Simon first came out when he was seventeen but had known for years that that he was gay. He came out first to his parents, adamant that they would find out from him and not from someone else. He found coming out to his parents very difficult and they were shocked when he told them he was gay.

Although not entirely acceptant of his sexuality, Simon’s parents gradually began to tell other family members. On the other hand, his friends responded warmly to his coming out and offered a great deal of support. Although he attended an all-boys school, he was lucky that his year were very accepting and comfortable with his sexuality. He warmly describes his last day of school when “everyone was in the pub and they were all interested to see if I thought they were good-looking or not”.

Linda knew by twelve that she was gay. However, she didn’t formally come out until she was 18. She attributes this delay to her background and the fact that she comes from quite a politically conservative area. While in school, she was confused about her feelings towards certain girls and was caught wondering if they were feelings of friendship or perhaps something deeper. “I had a little bit too strong feelings for a girl in the year above, but I thought I just really really liked her as a friend.”

Linda’s journey began when she told a select group of people that she was bisexual to pave the way for her own coming out. It was only when she joined the LGBT society near the end of heir first year that she properly accepted who she was. Linda began to come out to her friends shortly after this, finding it easier to tell strangers rather than those who were close to her.

Like Simon, Linda’s experience of coming out to her parents was difficult: “I came out to my parents by accident last year. My mum asked me outright if I was gay and I was so taken aback, I didn’t think about it and told her I was. I decided to come out to my Dad because my girlfriend at the time told me it was a good idea for me to say it to him, rather than him hear it from someone else. My parents then told the rest of the kids.”

Unfortunately, Linda’s coming out journey has been a rocky one thus far. “They don’t accept it at all,” she says of her parents. “I had a very tough time this time last year but I had good support around me. It was very hard for me for the first few months after I came out.

“My father had a very bad reaction. I left the house for two weeks after I first came out and came back to my apartment because it was so hostile and horrible at home. They just weren’t dealing with it at all and I couldn’t deal with it either as a result.”

The conflict didn’t end there as Linda was kicked out of her home during the summer because of her sexual orientation. “It came to a head that my cousin had found out over Facebook and had told one whole side of my family and that didn’t go down too well and my mum wasn’t happy in the slightest.” She mentions that her father’s side “don’t know at all and he would like to keep it that way”.

However, the reaction of Linda’s family proved to be in stark contrast to the warm reception from most of her friends and from her new roommates in UCD who barely batted an eyelid when she informed them of her sexual orientation.

When she was coming out, Linda said that the UCD counselling service has proved very helpful during this period and emphasises that many members of the LGBT community have been given a great deal of support by the service. Both Linda and Simon keenly mentioned the role of LOOK (Loving Our Out Kids) in helping parents come to terms with their child’s sexual orientation.

Often, parents may require support in this regard especially as they are of a generation that barely tolerated or talked about homosexuality. It is organisations such as these that make the coming out process easier for both parents and their children.

However, in the midst of the difficulties associated with coming out, there are always a few heart-warming stories. Linda and Simon described one such example regarding a member of the UCD LGBT society. Upon coming out to his parents, the student in question was welcomed with open arms by his parents who gifted him with a rainbow-patterned cake.

Both Linda and Simon agree that general consensus among their peers is that UCD is a warm and welcoming place for its LGBT students. There are very few reported cases of animosity from classmates of LGBT students and Simon notes one particularly progressive case: “There’s a man in my class who is very religious and we’re talking about organising some kind of Christian-LGBT event together.”

The UCD LGBT society provides the foundation stone of support for students and organised events such as Rainbow Week which campaigns and raises awareness of issues faced by gay students. Events such as this provide a platform for raising awareness about LGBT issues as well as promoting understanding and acceptance among the student populous.

Alongside this, Pink Training is an event run by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) every year for LGBT students from all over Ireland. Comprising of seminars and workshops, Linda describes it as “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Everyone’s gay and everyone’s supporting each other. It really brings out the best in every single person there.”

Unfortunately, although generally positive, the experiences of UCD LGBT students have not been exclusively so and there have recently been a number of incidents of homophobia on campus and no action taken against them.

One such incident involved a member of the LGBT committee and her girlfriend while they were in the Forum Bar on campus. A patron of the bar commenced shouting homophobic slurs at them, punctuating his rant by tossing a pint over them. They immediately reported this to the bouncers who took no action and didn’t remove him from the bar.

There have been a number of altercations similar to this as well. Simon notes: “I don’t think UCD has a good record for following through on homophobic occurrences.”

Simon mentioned that he has experienced homophobia on two notable occasions. Recently, he was in a pub with his arm around a guy and the pub-owner gestured for the two of them to move apart. They refused and eventually confronted the owner about his homophobia, which resulted in them both being removed from the pub. They reported the event to Gardaí who took statements but failed to take further action.

On the second occasion, Simon was in a well-known Dublin nightclub and after disclosing his sexuality to a person there; he was violently punched in the face.

In light of these incidents, The University Observer asked Simon and Linda if members of the UCD LGBT community are apprehensive about being openly affectionate with each other in public places. Simon does not allow it to deter him in the slightest and feels no need in the slightest to hide his sexual orientation, saying: “I came out of the closet for a reason.”

Linda, on the other hand, wasn’t initially comfortable with being affectionate in public. She attributes this to the fact that she was not fully confident in herself and her sexuality when she first came out. She says that it wasn’t until she fell in love for the first time that she was prepared to display her affection publicly.

Simon and Linda spoke about the challenges facing couples when one person is in the closet and the other is out. Both agreed that it is undoubtedly preferable for both parties in a relationship to be comfortably out of the closet for the relationship to work.

Simon previously ended a relationship because the guy he was dating wasn’t comfortable being affectionate in public. However, Simon explains that the relationship he had with his last boyfriend, who wasn’t out of the closet, proved to be the longest relationship he’s had. Simon explains: “It can be done, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I think people need to be at the same stage.”

As students of UCD, we must endeavour to offer support and understanding to our fellow LGBT students. As Harvey Milk, Gay Activist and former Mayor of San Francisco, said: “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.” Let us hope that in UCD we have created such a haven for all students and an environment in which they can come out.

The LGBT Starlight Ball is on April 7th in “The Sycamore” in Temple Bar.