What being gay in Sweden taught me about being gay in Northern Ireland

In a week, Robin and I are packing up our life and moving back home to Northern Ireland. The past three years in Gothenburg have been nothing short of amazing. I got to see and experience things I never thought I would. I got to meet many different people from all corners of the globe and all walks of life and in a few exceptionally lucky cases, I got to call some of them my friends. As a result, I’m not the same person I was when I arrived.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what my time in Sweden has meant to me. What have I learned? What will I take back home with me? It’s not an easy question to answer. During the monotony of day to day life, it’s not something you tend to think about very often. Life is often like standing in a deep hole. Looking around, you only see the shit surrounding you, and looking up you only see a small fraction of the sky. It’s not until you climb out that you understand just how big the sky is, just how small that hole was and how much there is around it that you couldn’t even see before. With little over a fortnight left, I’m climbing out of my hole to take a look around.

Get a life

My move to Gothenburg happened somewhat abruptly. I was walking home from University one day when a guy walking towards me called me a ‘filthy fucking faggot’ and spat in my face, completely unprovoked. I don’t know if anyone reading this has ever been spat on, but you cannot help but feel unclean afterwards. I went home and washed my face several times and still couldn’t shake the degradation. I am by no means a soft person. I don’t think any LGBT person living back home is. Since I entered my teens I had to put on the armor that so many gay people have to wear on a daily basis. Armor that protects against the playground insults, the pointed whispers in public places and the shouting of slurs from passing cars. The armor that straight people don’t even realise exists. And that armor is heavy. It weighs you down over time, burdens you and slowly but surely begins to rust and become ineffective. That day walking home, one man’s saliva was enough to tear through what remained of my chain mail. I booted up my computer, called Robin on Skype, and I, at the age of 22, bawled until no more tears could fall. Those tears dripping down my cheeks were all the discussion that was needed. There and then, Robin booked me a one way ticket to Sweden and within a matter of weeks, I was on my way.

Irish Drag Queen and accidental gay rights activist Panti Bliss gave a TED talk just over a year ago in which she discussed how the simple gesture of holding a loved one’s hand in public was never just a simple gesture when done by a gay couple. Until I moved to Sweden I had never held a boyfriend’s hand in public. But week one in Gothenburg, here I am being shown the sights, hand in hand with Robin, and the most poignant thing about it for me was nobody around us gave a fuck. There were no whispers or stares, supportive or otherwise. People were just getting on with their own shit. After a week or two in Gothenburg, I started leaving my armor hanging in the closet, and it’s been there since. There I was living a life where I could be completely myself without fear of insult or scorn. I was introduced to people as Robin’s boyfriend, rather than his friend or god forbid, “life partner”. Being gay became a secondary aspect of my life. I was me, and that was okay with people.

Suiting Up

I remember the day Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage. I remember it so well because I was working that night. I had read it on Facebook earlier in the day and thought no more of it. Turns out, it was a rather big deal. The nightclub was buzzing that night, people weren’t just on a night out, they were celebrating. A country had gone out to the polls and voted for LGBT equality for the first time in history. The majority of people who come to the nightclub on a regular basis know I’m from Northern Ireland and I spent a surprisingly large part of my evening having people congratulate me for the success. It was a bittersweet night-shift because I knew that Northern Ireland would now be the only country in the UK and Ireland to not have same-sex marriage. More than that, I knew it was going to be an uphill struggle to get it legalised. So far, I’ve been right, and it doesn’t sit well with me. Swedish people are all too quick to remind you of their Viking heritage. I like to hope that after three years here, I’ve picked up a thing or two. It’s given me the chance to repair my armor and infuse it with the best Viking steel. It’s time to head back into the fray. Once more unto the breach. Where before, I had only my armor, this time, not only is it reinforced, but I have a weapon too.

“Living is easy with eyes closed.” – John Lennon

Those who don’t want to see the LGBT community have the same rights that they have, more often than not, think that way out of some misguided notion that if we have the same rights, some hole will be torn in the fabric of their social morality. They fear for the “institution of marriage” and think me calling Robin my husband would somehow cheapen or alter what that means for them. The reality is, I would like to one day call Robin my husband because he’s the man I love more than I ever thought I’d be capable of. He’s the first thing I want to see when I wake up, and the last thing I want to see when I close my eyes at night. We are an inseparable team that can work through anything, and I want to one day declare to the world that I am dedicated to this man in sickness and health and there is no-one else I would rather have by my side for the rest of my life than him. That’s what marriage means to me and I don’t see how letting us have that would turn Northern Ireland into a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.

The real problem however, is that when the government of a country refuses Equality, it sends the message that we are not the same, whether they outright say it or not. That subtle homophobia drips down into society, and eventually institutionalizes itself. The end result is a society where people think its normal to pointedly whisper at a couple holding hands, or shout slurs at a teenager from a passing car, or indeed spit on someone for no other reason than you can. There’s the real tear in your social morality.

It’s time for people to climb out of their holes and see what else is around them. Ignorance is the real enemy here. My hope is that people will begin to understand that nothing bad will happen if I’m treated like everyone else. Only good can come of it. Ridding Northern Ireland of it’s institutional homophobia is not an easy task, but it’s one that has to be completed. A message of tolerance needs to spread instead. My dream is that one day I’ll be able to hang up my armor for good, and that future generations of LGBT teens won’t need to feel the weight of it at all. It’s idealistic and perhaps naive; but I’ve had a taste of that life, and I hope that others can get a taste of it too, without having to move 1000 miles away to do so.

 

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