Growing up gay in Northern Ireland

Dónal Murray-Ferris presents his story about growing up in a country where he felt unable to truly celebrate and be proud of his sexuality.


I have lived in merry old England since 2004 when I upped sticks from my quiet hometown to the bright lights of Luton town to begin my studies at University. Initially, I had moved to Luton purely to study. Like most growing up in Northern Ireland, my plan was to base myself there during term time only and popping back home to gorge on Tayto crisps and Club Orange. I hadn’t bargained for this move being one that would define my future life so much.

I decided to move out of Northern Ireland quite late into my A-Level studies. It was quite a rarity back then for that to happen. Most teenagers of my generation choose to study at Queens University or The University of Ulster and pop home every weekend with a bag of washing in toe for their Mummy to sort out – but I wanted something different. As I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I began to receive counselling once a week at my high school. I discussed lots with her ranging from sexuality issues to general irritants about school and family. I was feeling extremely suffocated by those around me and I was dying to be somewhere where I could be myself and not the brother or son of a very well known family in a extremely small town. I had spent most of my formative years being referred to as someone’s son or someone’s brother. It was only at high school where I was the first of my family to attend that I was able to cast of the shadow of my elder siblings. I worked very hard to get the grades I needed to study Media Production at Luton University and in September 2004 off I went.

I had not yet come out to many people, mainly friends. It was very difficult to be gay growing up in the community I did. For a start, I was raised to be a very devout Catholic. I was never categorically told it was wrong to be gay but I also never actually knew what gay was. What I did know was is that it just wasn’t the done thing. I didn’t know any gay people unless you count TV personalities like Julian Clary but we never really allowed to watch shows like that. I was very much brought up in a world where men married women and got jobs while their wives had lots and lots of babies. That is the fundamentals of Irish culture and to this day that still is the way of life for some people living there. The friends I have made in England are always surprised to discover that life in Northern Ireland is so vastly different considering it’s close proximity and it being a part of the United Kingdom- but believe me it is a whole different world.

Most teenagers of my generation choose to study at Queens University or The University of Ulster and pop home every weekend with a bag of washing in toe for their Mummy to sort out- but I wanted something different.

It isn’t that Northern Ireland was at that time an overly homophobic country. I am just not really sure we knew that being gay was really a thing. It was almost like we hadn’t been sent the memo. So to grow up so sheltered from any concept of there being gay men, gay women or even people of colour to begin to realise you may actually be different is quite a scary realisation. There was no-one around to look for solace in. I didn’t know anybody in real life who was openly gay and Irish – it wasn’t the way it worked. So it became that I felt I was actually weird and alone and I honestly did feel like the only gay in the village. It has transpired in recent years that there were around half a dozen people I knew at the time who were sitting at home thinking exactly the same thing.

I was never categorically told it was wrong to be gay but I also never actually knew what gay was. What I did know was is that it just wasn’t the done thing.

As far as being an Irish Catholic goes it was an extremely difficult to be in that environment knowing that the way you were was everything they were against. I remember quite vividly sitting in a service and listening to our 75 year old Priest telling me how marriage was something that only a man and woman could take part in. I was livid- I thought he had a bare cheek to tell me how I felt was a sin. If God exists and he made me this way then how can it be a sin? I am afraid to say for a very long time this caused the Catholic church and I to fall out.

The friends I have made in England are always surprised to discover that life in Northern Ireland is so vastly different considering it’s close proximity and it being a part of the United Kingdom- but believe me it is a whole different world.

Religion aside though my biggest gripe with how it is to be different in Northern Ireland is the sometimes archaic views of the culture. I have seen first hand young boys being told they are a “Ginny-Ann”- a horrible derogatory term which BBC Northern Ireland defines as a ‘a wimpish boy or a boy given to complaining’ – “you’re acting like a wee ginny ann”‘. While the meaning itself may not seem too bad, I have issues with the fact that is made up of two female names therefore insinuating that if you complain or moan you are being like a woman.

For most people, child, teenager or adult Northern Ireland is sadly no place to be LGBTQ+. You are a second class citizen to some people. You cannot order a cake for your event without being refused on the basis of religion and to this day you still cannot get married because a political party are abusing their rights against the will of the people they serve. I am now a 31 year old man and I still feel the scars of growing up in a world where I was made to feel wrong and like an outcast. I also feel very sad that even though 13 years have passed since I left the country I grew up it has not moved on in any way. It may even have gotten worse. I do hope that the change my country needs happens sooner rather than later. I am extremely proud to say where I am from- I just wish I could be as proud of what it stands for in the terms of LGBTQ+ equality.

Follow Dónal on Twitter (@simplydonal)

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