A number of years ago I was asked by The Switchboard to become a co-facilitator of the Married Men’s Group along with my great friend Tracey Byrne. I was confident that I knew a lot about gay life and the scene and having known many married gay men very well, I thought I knew a lot about their lives and what they had to go through day to day.
We attended, as observers, our first meeting, brilliantly facilitated by Ciarán Nolan, in February 2016, and within a few minutes I realised just how little I did actually know and how I’d never really appreciated how tough the lives of these men, in reality, were.
I could see that my experience was that of a Dublin-based single gay man, not that that didn’t have its troubles and traumas, it was tough being young and gay in the 1980’s. However, the group opened my eyes to a completely different side of gay life, the hidden and largely unspoken world of men who got married to women, for a variety of reasons, but who couldn’t keep their true selves buried for all of their lives. A very much misunderstood group by the ‘scene’ and in many ways maybe marginalised by many. They were seen to be wanting their cake and eating it.
I was so fortunate to have been given the privilege to listen to the Married Men’s Group stories over the years and in doing so it has helped me in so many ways. I would have always thought myself to be an empathetic person but the group has, I can honestly say, broadened my thinking.
The group itself is a ‘peer led’ drop -n support group, held on the 1st Thursday of every month and facilitated by two Switchboard volunteers, currently myself and Jason Doyle. During the pandemic we were meeting online via Zoom, but now we have just started back with hybrid in person / online meetings.
Peer led, in that the support comes from the men themselves. They are living the experience and so are the best people to share what they have gone or are going through. Though everyone’s journey is different there are similarities and experiences that they all share and by listening to the stories of others can benefit hugely. It is an incredibly safe space in which they can talk, openly and honestly, for perhaps the first time in their lives, knowing that they will not be judged and that they will be listened to.
It’s a space in which they can be themselves and breath, in which they don’t have to explain themselves. It has always astounded me, the level of honesty, how people open up and talk about some really private and intimate feelings in front of others, in way that is not at all like men in general are thought to do.
Reading this you might ask yourself, but how did so many men get married but later in their lives come out to themselves as gay or at least have some same sex attraction? If I think back to the Ireland of the time when I was young, coming out to myself and struggling with my sexuality, it’s like a foreign country. There were very brave people who were out and proud, but in comparison to today there were very few.
The few role models that existed were figures of ridicule, people to be laughed at and mocked. We were dominated by an authoritarian church, that wanted to rule every aspect of our lives and although their influence was on the wane, they could still get laws like the 8th Amendment passed, mainly by bullying. The day that result was announced was one of the most depressing in my life and I could not see a future for myself in this country.
A man at that time, and you were either a man or a woman, the gender you were assigned at birth, was supposed to grow up, get married and have children. You could be excused that life path if you joined the religious life. So, at the time, making one of those two life choices seemed the best thing to do. Bury yourself in those and hope the ‘gay thing’ if you could even name it, would go away.
For others they left the country and went to London, New York or anywhere they could live a gay life. A life, for many, their families back home knew nothing about. Many more just stayed in the closet and pretended to family and friends that they just hadn’t met that special woman yet.
Homophobia was rife, we were illegal until 1993. You could beat a gay man to death (Declan Flynn) in a public park and more or less get away with it. Gay bashing was an accepted practice for many.
If this fire wasn’t enough, along come the mid 1980’s and the hysteria and hatred that surrounded the HIV/AIDS crisis, to throw petrol on the flames of homophobia. It’s unsurprising then that many men would choose to get married to save themselves from the horrors of coming out in an Irish society filled, in parts, with such hatred. And bad and all as things were in Dublin there were added pressures on men living in close knit rural communities.
Just imagine the perceived shame, having a gay son / son-in-law would bring on the family, in a community where so many people are related to one another on both sides of the family. And for many men, because of responsibilities at home, such as farms etc. it is not possible for them to ‘escape’ to the cities where more freedom perhaps exists. Even if they could, urban living is not what many desire, they wish to remain in the rural areas in which they were born and raised.
It is only in very recent years that it is more acceptable for a single person to come out, particularly in rural Ireland. However, there is a lingering mistrust of members of the community, especially but not exclusively, with the older generation in rural areas.
So, to protect yourself from that you get married and have children. For the first few years, your life is consumed by work, by bringing up young children and all seems rosy to the outside observer, the perfect couple. But that ‘gay thing’ just won’t go away and can and will resurface causing so much personal pain and anguish. It can be a traumatic time with a maelstrom of emotions in which you feel like you are suffocating. It seems like there is nowhere to turn. You are on your own, you are the only one, you are such a bad person, you are drowning in guilt and shame. And that’s where the Married Men’s Group comes in.
For someone to come along and see that they are not the only ones. To meet others that have come through the storm and survived is very often a life changing experience. To be listened to and believed. To be supported but not directed. The Married Men’s Group has no agenda, you will not be told or encouraged to do anything you don’t want to do, such as coming out or leaving your wife and or home. Whatever you decide to do is accepted and supported. It gives a person the opportunity to talk to others about their life where in many cases they feel they have no one they can turn to.
The Married Men’s Group has men of ages ranging from mid 30’s upwards, of all backgrounds urban and rural from many parts of the country, some still living at home, others away from the family home, some fully out, others not at all. A uniting factor is a love of their children, for those that have them, and a deep desire to keep a close and loving relationship with them, no matter what age they are.
It is not an easy journey for any of the group. If a marriage breaks up, it is hard on everyone. There is a tremendous sense of loss. That smooth life path of growing old with their wife is gone. It would be wrong to think that there was not a genuine and deep love in the relationship, that has now altered in a profound way. There is a palpable sense of mourning and grief for the life that has been left behind and relationships that may have been lost, with family, friends and in-laws. Sometimes regretting the decision and wishing it hadn’t been made, while at the same time knowing had they stayed life would have continued to be more troubled and lonely. Moving out of the family home, a place that was the very centre of family life, is an extremely tough wrench.
Such a fundamental change is daunting. Having to find somewhere new to live and perhaps living alone for the first time, on top of having to present to the world in a different persona. These are not choices lightly taken and can be both frightening and traumatic. But as with all ‘new starts’ there can be a tremendous sense of anticipation and excitement and a real step in a journey of self discovery and fulfilment.
A journey that can be fraught with pit falls and bumps along the road, as all journeys through life are, but one that can lead to a destination with more inner peace, a shelter from the storm. Life will be different, relationships altered. Some will be lost, but others just as strong, particularly with children. A journey that would be all the more tough without the support of a group such as this.
It can be tough at times, it’s not easy to see a man visibly upset and perhaps shed tears, but what is fantastic to see, is where they come through that storm and sail in calmer waters and live a more peaceful and less stressful life. What is also brilliant to see is the level of support given by the members to each other, both inside and outside the group. To be a witness to that support and concern for others, shown by the group to each other never ceases to touch me, even after doing the group for a number of years. It is indeed a privilege to be part of it.
If you are, or were, in this situation, I would recommend strongly that you consider contacting the Married Men’s Group. You can get in touch with us in complete confidentiality at [email protected] or ring the phoneline any day of the week where a volunteer will be delighted to talk to you.
The Married Men’s Group has helped so many men to come to terms with and accept themselves with life changing consequences. Remember, you will not be forced or encouraged to do anything you don’t want to do. The other members of the group know the position you are in and can give you that listening ear which may not exist anywhere else in your life.
Finally, a tribute to those I’ve had the privilege to meet as facilitator of the group. It has been an honour to have been allowed listen to your stories, to witness the support you have given to the others in the same situation and to have been such a huge influence in my own personal development. It has been an extraordinary journey.
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