‘But what are you doing, Orla?’ asked my mother, sitting at our kitchen table in North County Dublin, sipping from a teacup. It was a crisp December morning in 1992. By the time I was 21, I had found the courage to write a letter and tell my mother that the people I was hanging out with were gay people. And that I was ‘one of those people too’. I couldn’t bring myself to write the words “I’m gay”. I sat on the beach and wondered if I should go straight into the sea or go home and face the music. “I’m so sorry Mam,” I apologized for being myself. “I can not help it.”
At a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland, the decision to tell my parents was not an easy one. Her only daughter, I knew the high expectations of a church wedding and a couple of grandchildren.
I spent every night with the women in my family and waited for them Angel Moving on, I wondered if maybe, just maybe, my love for the Virgin Mary ran deeper than it should.
When I was nine years old, playing the role of a tree in a school theater, I fell in love with the leading lady. She was 12. I followed her around trying to get a glimpse of her pretty face, her cheeks soft and pink, her eyes warm and brown. As she uttered the words “Is Mise Eireann,” her soft lisp hit my ears with waves of emotion I couldn’t understand.
Being a tree came in handy. I could practice my poses anywhere, so I had an excuse to be backstage. Looking at her lovingly across the stage, I knew I was being laughed at. It wasn’t until one of her friends came up to me that day in 1980 and asked, ‘Are you a lesbian?’ I started questioning everything.
After asking my mother what that word meant, I was told never to say it in our house again and was sent to my room to say my prayers.
As in most Irish households in the 1980s, weekly attendance at Mass was compulsory. Skipping sweets during Lent was only worth it because we were able to break our fast on St. Patrick’s Day. In every room of our house there was a statue of the Virgin Mary and at every corner an image of the Sacred Heart.
When I found out what a lesbian was (by asking around in the playground), I knew that such a sin would surely take me to hell. I was an outsider at the best of times, so I couldn’t afford for other kids to know the truth about me. I would never survive. Instead, I pounced on loving just one woman from afar. Holy Maria.
I adored her. She would save me from this terrible suffering. Some children were proud of their marble collection. I was proud of my rosary collection. I had a luminous statue that my Nana had brought from Knock, filled with holy water, and at night I put it under the covers where it was dark. She would light herself and I would talk to her.
I did everything except be an altar boy – girls weren’t allowed – I did the readings on Sundays and every morning of Lent before school. I played the organ in the mess hall. I went to Lourdes when I was 15 and took Bernadette as my confirmation name, after St. Bernadette who was lucky enough to actually SEE the Blessed Virgin in a grotto. I applied to be a nun when I was 17 and after a phone call and a few letters I was told that “maybe God has bigger plans” for me. The nuns were right. During the 10 years of my HM dedication I was also a gifted athlete, representing Ireland at two World Squash Championships and turning pro at 18.
At school I was the class clown and often got into trouble for acting. I didn’t fit into a certain crowd, but tried to fit in with everyone. The girls with bangles and gauntlets listening to Madonna and Duran Duran; the teased-haired kids sneaking around listening to The Cure on cheap Sony Walkmans; the orchestra band at school that studied classical music and wore sensible clothes. I was on every sports team there was. I even tried Irish dancing for a while but had to choose between squash and squash as we couldn’t afford either.
I was part of everything. Every Friday I took off my used Doc Martins to dress up in formal wear so I could play the piano at a local hotel. I was a goth. I was a poet. I was an athlete. I was a prankster. I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t keep a secret, so nobody would tell me theirs. The only secret I kept was my own.
At the age of 19, while training as a professional squash player in England, I had an encounter with a woman. I became a master at pretending to be straight, getting a boyfriend, and taunting anyone who looked like a gay person. But I fell in love with this woman.
She was openly gay and persuaded me to accompany her to one of her karaoke performances. I sat in the corner with my boyfriend and listened to her singing you get under my skin. She was staring straight at me and I knew I was in big trouble. I was infected by her trance. She captured my heart and conquered my soul. I absolutely hated it – and I absolutely loved it.
I felt affection for my friend. I liked him so much. We had a lot in common and we did all the things that I would have imagined normal couples to do. But with this woman the affection was very different. I felt safe and warm and scared and happy and loved. I was petrified – and very confused. I remember going to a gay bar with her for the first time and seeing two men kissing. I felt sick to my stomach. I’ve been conditioned my entire life to believe that this was very wrong.
When I returned to Ireland two years later and was heartbroken by her, I hung up my squash racquet and fell into depression. Not only was I heartbroken, but I couldn’t tell ANYONE why. It was 1991, I was 20 years old and I knew I couldn’t go on like this.
I had secured a job at Break for the Border in town, which was a new Tex-Mex bar and restaurant – the staff there would become my family and rescue. Since the job paid me enough to be independent, I found myself a tiny apartment on South Circular Road. The bedroom was a tiny attic raised above the kitchen, with a ladder leading upstairs. You couldn’t swing a cat in it. You couldn’t swing anything at all. But it was all mine.
Flipping through the yellow pages, I found a hotline for gays and lesbians. There was a payphone downstairs in the dirty lobby. I deposited 20p and dialed the number. That was the best I could do.
I met an amazing community of lesbian and gay people who took me under their wing and showed me the places to go. The more time I spent with them in underground facilities, the more comfortable I became with myself.
I laughed a lot. I made friends with people who had the same inner struggles as me. I realized that my childhood wasn’t an isolated story of a young girl who couldn’t tell anyone she had feelings for the girl in the school play. I wasn’t the only one who had spent 10 years pretending to be straight and openly admonishing gay people to fit in. I realized that I wasn’t the only person who lived a lie to be saved from hell’s damnation.
I told my friends at work. There was another bartender who was gay and a waitress who thought she might be bisexual. I was hugged and accepted. I was recognized and for the first time in my life I felt free. I no longer hid behind the cloak of fear and let go. I remember hearing the Whitney Houston song I am every woman was playing behind the bar at work one day and I started Mount every woman instead of this. Somehow it has stuck with me ever since.
It was the staff there who encouraged me to tell my parents. I had been brave enough to invite some of my new friends home to Portmarnock, and needless to say their looks and airs were frowned upon by my family. But it gave me the opportunity to say that I was “one of them”.
My father struggled with the news. He loved me and wanted my security and happiness so he suggested that I apply for a green card in the lottery, knowing full well that Ireland was not the place for a gay person at the time. I got the visa and traveled to San Francisco in August 1993. But this is another story.
After 22 years in the US, I moved home in 2016. Having lived in America for half my life, I couldn’t be prouder when Ireland legalized gay marriage last year. I got a tattoo for this occasion. I have always loved Ireland. I never wanted to leave, but I don’t think I had a choice at the time.
I recently had coffee with Barbara Scully, author of become smarter. Ironically, she chose the Grafton Hotel as the meeting point, which I was delighted to discover was the former Break for the Border building. Memories flashed back to those days in that very place where my coming out party began. We talked about those times and I confessed to her that sometimes I still feel homophobic. “We all do,” she comforted me.
Through no fault of our parents or grandparents, we were conditioned from an early age to believe that being gay was wrong. I still can’t say the word lesbian without a slight awkwardness. Barbara and I joked about this indoctrination and shared our love for the gay community. We absolutely agree that we are not homophobic but do have one little thing that rears its ugly head on occasion – a willful judgment ingrained in our psyche.
In 2018, at the age of 47, I attended my first Gay Pride in Dublin. As I walked towards the hoopla I saw two girls around 19 or 20 holding hands and giggling together. I choked and couldn’t help but cry. I thought back to my 20 year old self and how scared I was of holding my girlfriend’s hand in public. But how wonderful is the freedom these girls now have, this privilege to be who they want without fear of judgement?
I love Ireland and have no regrets. I’ve learned that pretending to be something you’re not just isn’t worth the hassle. Blessed with a glass half full attitude, I love sharing my stories with the world. I’ve lived a colorful life and it’s not over yet!
Orla Doherty speaks at the Shine Festival on November 11th and 12th. October at the Burlington Hotel. To book tickets, see shinefestival.ie/register-now/
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/telling-my-parents-i-was-gay-was-not-easy-their-only-daughter-i-knew-the-expectations-of-a-church-wedding-and-maybe-a-few-grandchildren-42052424.html “Telling my parents I’m gay wasn’t easy. Her only daughter, I knew the expectations of a church wedding and maybe a few grandchildren.