How it felt returning to Tipperary from Melbourne as a lesbian who'd blossomed abroad

When Valerie Hourigan returned home after years away, she found that in terms of her sexuality and identity, she was a completely different person to the one who'd left Ireland.

A map of Australia with pins marking key cities such as Melbourne.
Image: Pexels



It’s not news that LGBTQ+ people need queer spaces. I didn’t know how much I needed them until I suddenly started spending all of my time in various iterations of them. I finally felt that I had come home to myself even though, being in Melbourne, Australia, I was the furthest from home I had ever been.

So much of my identity is tied to these spaces, how I move through them, how I’m perceived in them and how safe and accepted they make me feel. When so much of your life is spent in spaces that make you feel quite the reverse, the value of having these places is unquantifiable.

Before Christmas, I moved back to rural Ireland after four years of living in Melbourne. Australia for me was a personal renaissance. Confused, unhappy and at a loss for how to answer the question ‘describe yourself ’ (outside the realm of talking about my career and endless passion for hedonism), in 2017 I quit my job, packed my bags and got on a plane to Melbourne. It took about 16,000 kilometres and a nice anonymous clean slate to finally come home to who I was. It was there that I began to understand that I wasn’t the problem, it was my mentally entrenched environment.

Growing up in rural Ireland in the ‘90s I was blissfully unaware of the world outside home and school. I had never heard the word ‘lesbian’. Gay to me was a slur used to describe anything my peers deemed uncool. I had never seen a representation of a woman loving a woman in any context and my underdeveloped brain didn’t know that it could exist. Going to see Titanic at 11 filled me with a longing to be Jack painting Rose but when a friend gave me a Leo D necklace for my 12th birthday I was disgusted and had absolutely no idea why.

There was no frame of reference or life narrator for little gay me to realise my sexual identity. My identity existed only as a daughter, sister and, in my strict all-girls catholic schooling, going through every phase under the sun in a vain attempt to blend in. ‘90s rural Ireland didn’t want someone like me to exist so how was I to know I existed at all?

Moving to a place like Melbourne where queer is part of the fabric of the city was confronting. Suddenly I had the words, the visual representation and the community that took one look at me, pointed and said ‘GAY’. My early years’ passion for plaid and more recent love of Subarus was finally making sense.

The queer community wove its way around me and made me feel seen and included in a way I had yearned for but couldn’t quite figure out how to bring about. It happened almost overnight – yesterday I was a long-haired blonde (strictly closeted) bisexual, today a short-haired dyke. I couldn’t quite catch up with myself but my community did and they saw me, loved me, lifted me up and supported me in being me, in a way that I had never been able to do for myself. It was a rebirth. Australia was space and that space enabled me to gift myself my own identity.

When the pandemic tightened its grip and Melbourne endured one of the longest lockdowns in the world, access to queer spaces slowly diminished. But even during those dark times, my community was a queer one. Half the people at the park I was legally allowed to walk laps of for one hour a day were gay and I lived in a house of lesbians. The beating heart of the community was still there, just having a well earned but unwelcome breather. Nothing I expressed was shocking, no feeling I had was too much and no desire or way of presenting myself to the world was judged.

This expansive thinking and room for self-expression was like a wall I was peering over, weighted down by my conservative and repressed past. So much freedom to be me was difficult to wrap my head around but I slowly opened up to a new way of living and I can say I was genuinely happy and I felt free.

Returning to Ireland has been a strange experience, confronting in its own way. While my immediate family have welcomed me with open arms, in rural Ireland I stand out where I had blended in before and I’m not quite sure how to sit with that. I was out for a walk on the country roads in my hometown last week when a neighbour stopped me, seemingly horrified that I had hacked off all my long blonde hair and given it permission to grow out to its natural brown. She pursued a line of persistent questioning that I had no idea how, nor desire, to proffer a response.

We all live in imagined worlds of what people think of us but for queer people those stakes are higher. It’s like I have to relearn who I am in this Irish world all over again. Don’t get me wrong I love Ireland, being Irish flows in my veins and my heritage is something I take great pride in. I just need to marry my lived, confusing and closeted experience of growing up here with who I truly am and that prospect is both exciting and a bit scary.

I’ve moved to Dublin in recent days and that already feels more familiar. Here I don’t want to blend in, I want to stand out. I want the other gays to see me and I want to find ways to connect to the community around me.

I love being gay, it’s a part of me I am very proud of and that’s a good thing that should be shared with my country, not put back on a plane. I’m a gay export imported, returned to sender, final address unknown but definitely here at home in Ireland.

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 370, which you can read in full here.

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This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 370 (March 1, 2022). Click here to read it now.

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March 2022

Issue 370 March 1, 2022

GCN March cover: Black background with the words 'When will I be able to walk alone at night and feel safe?" with a line striking through "at night"
March 1, 2022

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 370 (March 1, 2022).

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