'Learning and unlearning' in new york city
JOhn, 55 - New York, USA
There is a black and white photograph of me when I am about 5 years old. I’m dressed up in clothes from an old chest in my grandparents’ house. I’m wearing a bonnet and a skirt and a satisfied, defiant smile on my face. There I stand with a sooty black moustache penciled on my upper lip, hastily applied by my grandfather with a burned cork from one of his old sherry bottles. A happy little Irish boy in a skirt with a moustache!
Perhaps time has sanded down the roughness of growing up gay in Ireland. I remember the word ‘queer’ being used at school. I even remember teasing an effeminate schoolmate, but more for his pretension than his apparent sexuality. I don’t remember now feeling shame or being teased or targeted. Little did I suspect I was preparing to make myself a very ‘attractive’ target.
Born in 1962, I have the luck to have come of age with a medium that played a huge part in my generation’s growth. Our guide, mentor and inspiration was television; specifically the signal travelling over the waves from England. Top of the Pops brought us music and glam with The Sweet and The Wizzard! Carry-on films exposed me to the peculiarly English camp, reinforced by the drag comedy of Dick Emery, and the excruciating pinnacle of stereotyped camp, Mr. Humphries from Are You Being Served?.
Television also planted one of the unforgettable milestones in my gay life, the screening of The Naked Civil Servant in 1975. I distinctly remember my mother wanted me to watch it.
The times of Quentin Crisp were different, the character unlike mine, but the feelings… I began to see that the feelings were like mine. I was beginning to identify aggression in others, defiance in myself and to feel desire for that as-yet unmet love… that man. Perhaps my mother already knew; what I always remember is that she always championed the underdog, she always taught us to favor the David in the face of a Goliath.
In 1977 Punk Rock broke into my world and it changed my life. I had my hair bleached on my 16th birthday, and bought the Sex Pistols record ‘GoD sAve thE QueeN’ . I reveled in being different, creative, exciting. The inevitable reactions to my provocative appearance made my Ireland suddenly appear smaller and backward. And I got beaten up, bloodied. But the incredible wave of music and creativity tossed me onto the shore of my late teens safely and emboldened. Maybe I was still looking to belong, even as I strove to be different. I wasn’t Mr. Humphries, but neither was I one of those mustached young men in plaid shirts who hung out in the back of the bars on Dame Street.
My departure from Ireland in 1984 to NY was just a summer breeze of a holiday to visit a college friend. I hadn’t planned on staying. But I was not prepared for what I found. In New York City I found thousands of varied gay people, straight people who liked gay people, glamorous gay women (who knew?) and a massive gay pride parade. A true community of ‘Davids’.I decided to throw away my return ticket.
Punk rock and my provocative appearance had helped me sublimate my sexuality, but now in NYC I became aware that I could be found attractive. I met people like me, who ‘liked’ me.
I was fearful of sex, and AIDS was at its horrible, incurable height…but I had found a nourishing home. I began learning and unlearning at the same time. I continue to do so. The lessons my mother taught me, of rooting for the underdog, stood me in good stead.
My life in New York City has become one of unimagined accomplishments and unforgettable events. I saw friends die. I marched with ACT UP. That was not enough, so I became a registered nurse. The City University System even allowed me to obtain a grant for my studies, eventually obtaining my masters degree as a nurse practitioner. This city has so much opportunity; something I don’t remember after I left school back in Dublin. I am grateful and I give back. I was an ICU burn nurse on the 11th of September 2001.
And I dated, and I learned to date. I slowly, slowly let old fears slip aside. When Gay marriage became legal in New York state, I wept, because I knew I was going to marry my now husband Benjamin.
For a time I travelled sporadically back to Ireland, but New York was still home. In the last few years, as my parents sickened and then my mother died, I spent more time in Dublin. I found many friends were still there. I got an Irish mobile phone and somehow, naturally, Dublin has become my alternate home again. I am amazed at the changes that have happened. Ireland appears to have walked a fairly progressive path. It feels changed. The YES vote on marriage also brought a tear to my eye. I was proud. Proud and astonished; I remember not so long ago how suspicious people were of the ‘other’. How we have grown.
If someone offered me a job with decent pay and security in Ireland, right now - I would take it. I love the suburb of Dublin where I grew up. I love the friends and family still there.
But the reality of living in Dublin permanently may indeed bite me. It’s clear the healthcare system is sick and appears to be on a waiting list of its own. It would be a bit of a challenge.
And I am still comfortable walking the streets of Manhattan. I know them so well. Lucky to be a citizen of both countries, I would not cut ties with the USA. But I would rather be a citizen of Obama’s America, than the one I’m seeing now.
Rarely, if ever did I discuss my sexuality with my mother. We stepped into it together gingerly as she heard tales and met boyfriends. It was always slightly uncomfortable. My father was wickedly sarcastic and a little conservative; we never discussed my sexuality, but I know he would have defended his son to the end. Now with advanced dementia, he sometimes says, “goodbye love” when I leave the nursing home in Bray. A sailor all his life, he was just becoming comfortable with those words when the disease drowned him.
I only sent ‘the letter’ telling my mother I was gay in 1998, and her response was as I thought it would be “ we just want you to be happy ”. Sometimes I think that parts of my old self remained mired in the bog of suspicion I left in 1984, while my mother and eventually Ireland passed me by.
My mother came to my wedding in New York in 2012 and saw me marry the man I love. I wanted to make her proud.
She always knew.