Cullen was appalled. “To me the man was my friend, and I don’t see color,” she said.
The discrimination against gay people in Ireland and the mountain of hurtfulness down the years “and the blunt fact that you didn’t have legal recourse to say, ‘No, you can’t in fact treat me like that, I have rights too,’ just wasn’t there,” says Cullen.
“I couldn’t say, ‘You can’t be abusive, you can’t be snide.’ But now it’s regarded as very poor form to be homophobic, but it’s been a very long journey. And we’re part of it, and we’re glad to be a part of it.”
ASKED if either of them ever, in their wildest dreams, imagined they’d one day be lining up outside City Hall in New York to get legally married, they have a short answer.
“No,” Devitt says firmly. “We genuinely never imagined it. People were so biased -- and so many still are -- and my sense is that bias against us is still huge.
“I mean, years ago when I went to London it was a little more relaxed in terms of the society there, but in Ireland in the 1980s the hold the church had on the country’s attitudes was tremendous.”
Cullen agrees. “There was a sense of taboo, and I don’t like to use the terms like double discrimination, but sometimes back then in Ireland being lesbian seemed an even more awkward place to be than being a gay man.”
Devitt adds with a smile, “Irish mother’s dote on their sons and if they’re gay she need never fear she’s going to lose him to a woman inferior to herself. That’s me being a little tongue in cheek, but in a way lesbian women were pushed further into the shadows back then, I think.”
For most young people, growing up Ireland has a familiar story line -- it’s one of christenings, communions, confirmations, engagements and marriage. It also includes prom nights, the GAA, discos and pubs.
If you’re face fits you’ll probably have the time of your life -- but if you’re a wee bit out of the ordinary, a wee bit gay, it all breaks down. It’s not that you’ll be excluded, exactly. Most people won’t be bluntly hateful to your face.
They will just feel a bit awkward around you and they’ll stop inviting you to things.
For Cullen and Devitt, moving abroad meant finding the room to write their own story.
“You create your own narrative don’t you?” says Cullen. “You find a loving relationship and good friends who are both gay and straight. You find a place where you can withstand the cuts and bruises of discrimination.
“But some people aren’t so lucky. In many towns in Ireland to this day the statistics about young male suicide are terrible, and have been all down the years. Mostly Irish rural gays have tended to migrate to the big cities where they found the room to be themselves and create their own communities.”
President Mary Robinson, in her second year in the Aras an Uachtarain, the Irish presidential residence, invited members of the gay community for cocktails, Devitt remembers.
“I was there and I recall everyone was having a fine time. Then the press photographer arrived and people started ducking behind armchairs and curtains,” she says.
“They were afraid their mammies might see them in the paper. Even in the early 1990s they were terrified of the climate of hostility.”
Cullen adds, “They were comfortable with her in Robinson’s inclusive environment, but they knew that outside as teachers and doctors and whatever they were they would be discriminated against and their parents would be mortified and their neighbors would be perhaps nasty. And so they ducked to protect themselves and their parents, which is very sad -- but we’ve moved on from that now.”
But as she’s telling me this on Sunday at City Hall, across the street one lone protestor with a placard quoting the Bible is shouting, “Abominations! Sinners! Evil doers! Repent or face the fires of Hell!” He shouts this over and over, and at the top of his lungs, so that the prospect of God’s love sounds indistinguishable from damnation.
It would seem that not everyone has moved on from discriminating against gay people, not by a long shot.
But Cullen and Devitt aren’t thinking about the small but determined religious groups who have made it their life’s work to separate them. This is their big day and they intend to have a celebration.
Later, when they emerge from the government offices a huge crowd of well-wishers erupts with cheering and throws confetti. It’s been a long time coming, this day, but it’s finally here.
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