What it's like to grow up gay in Northern Ireland

Damian Kerlin opens up about his experience of growing up as a gay man in Northern Ireland.

Growing up gay in Northern Ireland: In the photo, a man from behind wearing a blue baseball cap walking on a street

It’s hard to explain what it’s like growing up gay in Northern Ireland to someone who never has, describes Damian Kerlin.

The first word that comes to mind is claustrophobic. Not necessarily because of the geography of the area – villages and towns spread out amongst the countryside, hills connecting like threads in a web – but because of the culture of the place itself.

Much of Northern Ireland is standard rural, working class communities in this way, but for me – and I imagine many others – your experience of living in this type of community is twisted in unexpected ways when you grow up as gay. It’s another cliché to assume that it’s harder for queer people to come out, to fully embrace their sexuality and identity, growing up somewhere like Northern Ireland. But just because it’s a cliché, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The truth is my home is a complex part of the world that no one really knows how to fix. Northern Ireland has a difficult past and still lives in the undertow of our political and social history. Women and queer people across the country have lacked representation and for decades our voices have been ignored in favour of those who believe their religious beliefs grant them a monopoly on morality. 

I always knew that I was gay. When I came out to my Da he replied: “I would tell you about the birds and the bees, but for you, it’s more the bees and the bees.” I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was lucky. To this day there are still members of the LGBTQ+ community in Northern Ireland, young and old, wondering if they’ll ever be “normal”. 

While it’s a disservice to tar everyone with the same brush, the concoction of rurality, working class, and religion, in general, have maintained a more traditional stance on issues surrounding sexuality, race and politics. This can be incredibly alienating for queer youth. You can start to feel accepted, but never really understood, by the people closest to you. 

Identity is very important in these communities, especially when it comes to gender. The traditional constructs that many people fit themselves into in Northern Ireland have their roots in the manual labour industries that our communities were built on. The lack of opportunity and decimation of job creation and social mobility over the decades hasn’t fostered an environment for these traditional gender roles to evolve. 

Instead, the archetypes people have inherited are hyper-real in many ways; images of traditional masculinity and femininity that have been appropriated by each consecutive generation, reinforced through faith. It can be very hard when, like most queer people growing up, you don’t necessarily fit into these constructs. 

Ultimately, growing up gay in a rural and religious area like Northern Ireland can feel suffocating once you’ve accepted yourself. There’s a definite tendency for young queer people to fly the nest of their rural beginnings and into bigger, more urban environments. 

Higher education provided me a way out of the country, and in 2009 I moved to Cardiff, South Wales, to study, which was one of the most life-affirming things I ever did. It was an awakening. It is a world away when it comes to me being able to be more me. I am under no illusion that if I had not left Northern Ireland I would not have what I do now. A family of my own, something that still poses it challenges in modern day Northern Ireland. 

Yet, no matter our struggles with accepting our sexualities and coming out in a place like Northern Ireland, it’s still our home. It’s where our families live, and we can’t change that. All we can do, as queer people, is support each other and realise that growing up in a place that doesn’t understand us – or wasn’t quite ready for us – wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just made us stronger. 

I am extremely proud to say where I am from and I’m slowly beginning to be just as proud of what it stands for in terms of LGBTQ+ equality after the Northern Irish Assembly voted to ban conversion therapy with overwhelming support in a symbolic Stormont vote. 

It is just as my Granny Kerlin, a 92 year-old devout Catholic, once said, “It’s not Jesus that hates, it’s thon bastards in charge!” and with the DUP’s popularity in decline, maybe change is sooner than we think. 

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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Higher Love

Issue 367

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 367 (July 1, 2021).

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