LGBTQI in Rural Ireland: Secret lives creatively lived
by Billy Desmond
Please note all names and personal stories used in this article are fictional and any resemblance to factual people or places is entirely unintended.
One person’s story
Liam has the look of man who has been weathered by all seasons of the year, and all hours of the day, muscular, tanned, with an expressive face that lights up with a smile. The crevices in his face, the toughened skin of his hands and his slow, tentative and heavy gait tell a story that words cannot convey. I sense the density of the atmosphere emerging between us as we meet at the door and walk towards the room. He brushes his hands against the walls, and I sense these are part of his support in this new situation with me.
Liam manages, works and owns a family farm of 300 acres. He knows each stonewall that surrounds the farm that passed down through several generations. He knows it as if it was his lover. He is enraptured by the ever changing novelty of the unfolding beauty that occurs season through season and year by year.
Liam knows his farmland. He treads it with care and attention, carving out the land’s use in his head. He is a person with a deep sense of responsibility to heritage and tradition. It’s a family enterprise. His wife Aoife, whom he met and married in his mid-twenties, and their children Tadgh (16), Owen (14), and Aisling (10), are a part of this. Liam (Catholic), Aoife (Church of Ireland), and the kids educated in non-denominational schools, are known, respected and loved by family and friends in the community. They are involved in local rural life with the GAA, youth clubs, ICA and Macra na Feirme.
Liam and his family are not unique of course. They appear to the world like any other Irish family from a rural and farming background. However, all is not what is seems. Liam is a gay man. Yes, he is married to Aoife, a woman, and has kids. He loves them all and is very much loved by them. He has always known that he is gay. His emotional and sexual desires for men were present from his early sexual awakening as a teenager. He was born on the West of Ireland at the time the Stonewall riots occurred in New York City. The Stonewall riots marked the beginning of a gay rights movement. It was a night in June 1969 when the drag queens and gay men and women stood up and fought back against the oppressive policing authorities outside the Stonewall Inn – a pub. However, he could not come out over 30 years ago on this island. Being gay was still a criminal offence. It was illegal until 1993 and it is only in recent years that same sex couples were given the same rights as heterosexual couples with the Marriage Equality Act, 2015. This fills him with despair and loneliness, as he feels he lives behind a stonewall. This stonewall is one that he can see out through its crevices but is unable to move.
His personal Stonewall is still happening. Liam feels trapped, more so now than ten years ago. Outward expressions of same sex desire and affection are more visible in the Ireland of today. LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex) persons are in public life. Our Taoiseach is a mixed race, gay man in relationship. LGBTQI persons live openly in our local communities and are part of our families. He sees how his kids and their friends seem more open about different sexualities. He knows of a close friend’s daughter who came out as lesbian and saw how she was welcomed home with her girlfriend. He also recently met a married same sex female couple that moved to rural Ireland, at a local poetry reading.
He has suffered by living life with his secret. His suffering seems to have become more painful and difficult to endure as he has witnessed the social changes occurring. His mental health has been detrimentally affected over the past decade. He has experienced depression and had suicidal thoughts. He states that Aoife has experienced the heaviness in their relationship and notices that Liam seems increasingly unreachable. She feels lonely in their relationship but is not able to share her experience with anyone. It seems that Aoife too, feels trapped and is hurting.
Liam and Aoife’s situation is not unique. Gay men, lesbian (gay women), bisexual, transgender persons and their partners can feel locked in their family circumstances. People are suffering because they are unable to be honest and open about their sexuality, sexual orientation or gender identity with the people they love and in the communities in which they live. There are few places where support is available for coming out and exploring one’s sexuality and gender identity as a parent or older adult, or indeed as a partner of a person who is coming out. In rural communities this is usually more difficult and people often feel shrouded in guilt, stigma and shame. So, how do LGBTQI older persons and their families in rural Ireland find support to live their lives?
Discovering creative ways of living
Some people like Liam present as heterosexual and live heteronormative lives. This involves hiding aspects of their lives to partners, families and friends. They are often burdened by feelings of guilt about their desires. The weight of keeping this secret from a partner can have a detrimental effect on the person and loved ones. Individuals trapped in this situation often live with a feeling of shame and dread that they will be rejected or shunned by their family and community, and there is a fear that their children will be ridiculed at school or may reject them if a parent comes out. This has significant and adverse implications on the mental health and wellbeing of these men and women who live a life as others expect them to. They feel stuck.
The internet and social media fosters connections as well as potentially increasing isolation in our younger generations. For some older men and women technology is an invaluable resource that assists them in finding connections with someone of the same sex and gender identity. These may be other persons who are also questioning the intersection of their identities, or are living in similar relational situations. Through the use of online dating Apps (e.g. Grindr, Tinder) contact can occur in ways that are discrete. In particular men are using these Apps to connect and meet other men for recreational sex. Men may identify as bisexual, gay or men who have sex with men (MSM). Men visiting a few of the larger cities in Ireland may venture to a gay sauna or sex club where they can meet other men for sex. In many instances it is not just the sex that is a draw for these men. It is through such encounters that an aspect of their same sex attraction and their emotional desires with men can be affirmed in a safe space without the crippling fear of judgment. Such encounters offer some healing and assuage the suffering and pain they may be experiencing in their daily living. In my psychotherapy and clinical supervision practice I have seen how connecting via Apps or meeting other persons for social conversation and possibly sex are ways of giving expression to their sexuality. This has kept depression at bay and offers some respite. In some instances such contact has prevented individuals from suicide. Such has been the experience of Liam.
Sometimes, out of recreational sexual encounters an ongoing relationship develops as sex- buddies and in some instances emotional and loving relationships form. These are usually lived out in parallel to their primary heterosexual married relationship. Two relationships like twin train tracks that may never meet. All is lived out in secret. People retain secrets and silence themselves out of fear of hurting and being hurt. Of course, this has implications for the other partner and children involved, particularly if the secret is maintained. Eventually the train track does come to a halt and reality is likely to be revealed. Families discover that the life presented was a sham. This has hurtful and sometimes damaging consequences for all involved. Partners, children and friends may feel deceived.
Liam and Aoife are currently in the midst of this storm. Liam has come out. There is pain and relief in the knowing for them both. It is helping each of them to make sense of their distancing, while acknowledging the love they have for each other that has been changing. However, responsibility lies not with only with the individual or the couple, but with us as psychotherapists and the communities and society we are co-creating, to eradicate the need for hiding. We all have a responsibility to ensure people whose sexuality is not heterosexual or whose lives are not lived within the heteronormative structures of monogamy, opposite sex attraction and fixed gendered roles are not shamed or shunned. In addition we have a responsibility to consider the supports that may be required for children and teenagers whose parents may have come out or transitioned.
What next to support clients who present as non-heteronormative?
Nowadays parents can access supports when their children come out or transition gender. But how do we continue to create a society where we can support the non-judgmental exploration of changing sexualities, gender identity and coming out for older men and women in our tightly knit rural communities. How do we offer support for families when one or both parents come out? These and other questions need to be explored by humanistic and integrative psychotherapists. In my experience of training and supervising psychotherapists, issues of sex, gender and sexuality have rarely been examined in depth. The binary constructs of male/female, man/woman and the heteronormative constructs of relationships prevail and thus diminish the possibility for healing and positive change to occur for persons who are questioning gender, sexual orientation and poly-amorous or poly-sexual lives.
When working with persons who may not openly identify as LGBTQI and are living lives that are seemingly heterosexual but are non-heteronormative, it requires psychotherapists to have the necessary supports to be fully alive in the inter-subjective encounter. Some of the following ‘steps’ may support this process so clients like Liam are supported and not further shamed or shunned because of their gender, sexual orientation and expression of their sexuality.
How aware are you of your gender, sexual orientation and sexuality? What is your experience of your gender, sex, sexuality and what biases, assumptions and beliefs you hold? How do you embody these dimensions of your experience? What embodied responses are evoked for you when you meet someone who does not ‘fit’ within the heteronormative structures of gender, sexuality and relationship? How curious are you about the expressions of a person’s gender and sexuality and how you experience these? Have you explored living in the sex and gender other than that assigned to you? Have you imagined walking hand in hand or kissing a person of the same-sex in public spaces, such as café, pubs, at local community gatherings or on the street?
As humanistic and integrative therapists, a lack of awareness and understanding of our gender, sex, sexuality and sexual desires will contribute to the amplification of shame and guilt with clients. It is not what you say or don’t say. Your embodied responses will convey your capacity for acceptance and non-judgment to your clients. A minute kinesthetic movement on hearing the experience of a person as they describe their world of relating that may involve multiple partners, sex-buddies, open relationships etc. will often be a repetition of what the client experiences in the world outside and minimises the opportunity for exploration.
Let’s talk about sex
Sex positive conversation is necessary. The responsibility rests with us all as psychotherapists, as well as parents, teachers and our local GPs. Doing so minimises stigma and shame that has unfortunately been part of our Irish context. Consensual sex with someone whom you have feelings for, whether that is over a lifetime or in a brief encounter fosters physical and psychological well-being. Sex and sex play is a celebration of how we as human beings give expression to our most intimate needs in the world. There are of course risks of STIs and HIV for any person who is sexually active. Exploring how cisgender men and women, trans men and women, and non-binary persons are practicing safe sex or not is part of the work.
This is a feature of assessing risk and the capacity of self-care. The availability of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a medication that if taken regularly can prevent HIV infection is allowing men who have sex with men to feel safe, confident and less fearful. It eradicates the risk of transferring the HIV virus between partners. Sex positive exploration supports a healthy response to an integral part of our human expression, where each consenting person in the sexual relationship experiences care and affirmation.
Different types of psychological support: Think beyond the individual
Individual psychotherapy can be of tremendous help for individuals to explore their feelings in a safe and confidential environment with the help of an experienced psychotherapist. In the presence of an experienced non-judgmental psychotherapist who understands the beauty and complexity of human sexuality and its expression can support a person to integrate aspects of her/his/their identity that are split off and disowned. For some individuals gender and sexuality are fluid and not fixed, and change during the course of their lives. And while individual psychotherapy can be a tremendous support, other interventions must be considered.
Couple psychotherapy offers a safe environment where both partners who live heteronormative presenting lives (as in the case with Liam and Aoife) can explore the intricacies and intimacies of their relationship without shame being evoked. For any of us in a long-term relationship, you will know that your relationship has changed much over time. In fact, it is as if we are in relationship with different people. We are all changing as human beings due to life events and our hopes and desires for living life authentically emerge as we age. Having a safe and confidential space can support a couple in finding creative and authentic solutions. Indeed it is psychologically healthier for children when parents are clear on their relationship. Some couples choose to stay together with an understanding that one or both will be supported to have safe sexual and loving encounters outside. They live an open relationship. Others choose to find a way of separating. Openness and honesty is what will be most supportive in the long-term, even if it may be painful initially.
Group psychotherapy for persons exploring sexuality and gender identity or an ongoing weekly group therapy offers clients the opportunities to develop the necessary supports to explore the intersection of sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender roles. Groups are temporary societies. They offer a relational situation where thoughts, feelings and behaviours of a client’s life are invited into awareness in a safe and confidential space in the here and now. Over time a client can explore different aspects of him/her/their self in the presence of others and may discover that they are not alone in their explorations.
Foster LGBTQI inclusivity
In all local community activities and indeed in our primary and secondary schools, LGBTQI persons need to be welcomed and affirmed. We as psychotherapists are also members of communities and live in different contexts and are often involved in other local activities. Consider how you can influence other community members who are often confluent with a heteronormative construct of daily living. When setting up events in Macra na Feirme, ICA, GAA, sports clubs or any community activities, ask the question how is this welcoming to LGBTQI persons in our community? Is the space safe for people of all genders, sexualities and those questioning to be present without having to hide? How does the language, behaviour and gestures of those organising convey a welcome to all persons? Asking such questions on committees will already make a difference. Questions will start a conversation and create new possibilities. Sometimes, a simple gesture can go a long way. For instance, the inclusion of a welcoming statement or image that invites all people of different sex, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity can be the difference that makes the difference.
In so doing you may not only save a life, but support members of our communities to live openly and fully. Over time such action will contribute to eradicating the need for secrecy. We know the adverse impact of secrecy and shame. So, let’s stand proud alongside Liam, Aoife, Tadgh, Owen and Aisling. Let’s create a rural community where we can support them to find their expression as a Rainbow family. These families, like stepfamilies, blended families; transcultural and inter-racial families are part of our diversity in this inclusive island of Ireland.
Billy Desmond is a psychotherapist, supervisor, and faculty member of the MA in Gestalt Psychotherapy at the Gestalt Institute of Ireland (www.gestaltinstitute.ie) and co-founder of Bronntanas (www. bronntanas.org), an organisation for individuals, couples and families living in rural communities who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity. firstname.lastname@example.org