Gay in Northern Ireland: An Emigrant's Tale

Posted by Wayves volunteer 17/03/2014

By Alex McCook

 Dunluce Castle near Portrush, Northern Ireland

Growing up amongst centuries old castles, tales of mystical beings, white sand beaches, and the greenest greens on the planet sounds like an idyllic childhood. For me, in many ways, it was. Northern Ireland is an amazing place. It has some of the friendliest, salt-of-the-earth natives on the planet. Most of the inhabitants have a definite decent streak, and an amazing sense of humor, —very dry, accompanied by a wink, and a wee bit of a twinkle in their eyes! But it has another side, not often seen or heard about.; being gay in Northern Ireland was, and still is, a daily struggle, physically and mentally.



Many people know about Northern Ireland’s has violent past. It has been at war with itself, on and off now, for over 300 years due to internal politics and religion. There has been relative peace for the last 10 years, but from a gay rights perspective there is still a long, long way to go.

I came from a small, seaside town on the North West coast called Portrush, population about 6,000; no gay bars or gay scene of any kind. It seemed as if I was “the only gay in the village,” so to speak. When I finally came out my life-long straight friends were scared to be seen with me for fear of being judged as gay themselves. Local teens would often come into my workplace just to shout "Queer!"

Gay-bashings happened on a regular basis in Northern Ireland. Groups of young men would trawl the streets after the bars closed, looking for gay men to beat up. Ten years ago in Derry, the second largest city after Belfast, my partner Terry and I were seen coming out of the one gay bar in the city and were bashed, twice. This had a huge effect on myself, my friends, and my family. Sadly, the beatings still go on today. 

It’s not all bad news. There is a brave core of LGBT rights activists in Northern Ireland who are fighting back. Terry, not being one to give in, became a key member of the gay rights movement in Derry. Their monumental efforts include holding annual Gay Pride Parades, rallies, and raising awareness, all to the backdrop of staunch Christian protesters with banners proclaiming “Homosexuality is a Sin” and ministers with megaphones trying to drown out the dance beats of Barbara Streisand. But I knew I couldn't stay.

After Terry and I broke up, I did a lot of soul searching, I made the hardest decision of my life; to leave everything I knew and loved, and find a place where I could feel "normal" without having to hide. I had been an exchange student in Toronto when I was 19, so I decided I would move to Canada.

I saved up enough for a plane ticket and I said goodbye to my friends and family. I was on my way!  Just before I left, as he handed me some money he’d been saving, my brother told me,  "You are either f*!#-in’ mad or very, very brave.  I don't know which it is!"

At the time, I secretly agreed with him, —I didn’t know either. But I thanked him and, with a lump in my throat, got on the plane nonetheless. As we lifted off the tarmac I could almost feel the ties to home and homeland snapping. I arrived in Toronto excited, but alone, a stranger in a strange new land:  a peaceful place, I hoped, and full of opportunity.

Editor’s Note: Homosexual acts were decriminalized in Northern Ireland in 1982, only after an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights by the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association. Marriage equality, legalized in the rest of the United Kingdom (England and Wales, July 2013, Scotland, Autumn 2014) will be debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly on April 29, 2014. The above photo is of Derry's first Pride Parade in 2014.

Alex McCook now makes his home in Nova Scotia.

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