One day in the middle of the 1980s a teacher tapped my shoulder and asked me to wait behind after class.
We were in a big boisterous Catholic run high school in County Donegal, a place where if teachers ever spoke to you directly it was usually to bark orders or pour scorn.
I assumed I was in trouble. I waited as the class emptied out and the voices of the other pupils began to fade along the corridors.
The teacher, in her late 40s, was looking at me with an unsettling intensity, as though she were carefully weighing every word she was about to say.
“I know your aunt Kate,” she began evenly, after what seemed like an age. This was news to me – and a dramatic swerve into uncharted territory. “She's a very good woman, your aunt Kate.”
I nodded in agreement. I had no idea where this was going. “How are things at home?” she said suddenly.
Her directness was as startling as her question. I replied that they were fine before I'd even considered what she'd asked.
It was such an Irish reflex, that: keep your head down, never lose face, don’t nail your colors. Things at home were not fine, things at home were terrible, but I was unmoored by her interrogation and by the shock of it.
When you're fifteen, as I was then, all conversations with adults are perilous. I wondered where all this was heading and when I could safely go.
“And I have one more question for you,” she said after another long silence. “Are you okay?”
It was the first time anyone had asked me in my life.
Outside the window it was early winter, one of those slate grey October afternoons when all the color seems to have drained from the world.
“I-I-I'm,” I faltered, grasping and failing to find the the words to end this dreadful scene.
“Do you know something,” she said, interrupting my stuttering, “you have brains to burn. But you don't apply yourself. Why do you not? Is there something on your mind? Is there something that's bothering you?”
There was something that was bothering me.
I didn't tell her – then or ever – but if I had I would have said something like, “Well, I'm gay and I'm on my own and I feel like I'm drowning.”
I would have told her how each morning, the moment I wake up, I can feel my stomach clench and turn over at the thought of another day in this careless school, this careless town.
I would have told her that the only thing that my family, church and town have ever taught me to feel is shame. Unspeakable, insurmountable shame. In fact what I am is considered so shameful here that it can not even be spoken about.
Then I would have told her how I dread the inevitable knock on the door, like a spy in an espionage film, when a busybody neighbor – shining with self-regard – dutifully informs my shocked family of what's being said about me all over town.
It feels like I am living under an occupation, I might have told her. It feels like I'm in a war.
I might even have told her how much my best friend means to me but how painful it is to watch all his easy courting and know I will never be permitted to do the same. Where he finds love and acceptance I will find rejection and contempt. So instead I have to carry my secret like a millstone. My silence is enforced by my community; it's the price of my safe passage.
And I wanted to tell her how every day in the echoey corridors of this school most of the lads treat me like I'm radioactive and most of the girls treat me like I'm mentally ill. Whenever I appear they look away. I'm the condemned man. I feel like I’m haunting myself.
And if I feel really safe I might even tell her about the boy in my class I have a crush on, and how pathetically hopeless it is, and how searingly sad, because if it ever becomes known it will hurt him as much as myself. He'll be eaten alive too. I’ll contaminate him by association.
There were much, much happier things I could have told her too, like how I had gone to America that summer and met another boy my own age who asked me out.
We had gone to the beach and to the amusement parks and to the movies. We had played Pac-Man and listened to Prince and hung out at the mall like awkward teens. I had my first proper kiss, and I could have told her about how easy and free I’d felt, as if a portcullis had lifted and allowed me out of jail.
That summer in America I had seen a panel of my future open. I had experienced love and laughter and a bit of the dignity it affords.
But none of that will ever live here in Donegal, and I will never live here in Donegal, you have all made that perfectly clear, I might have said.
In the end, of course, I didn't answer any of her questions truthfully, because we were both stuck in the middle of the 1980's, in a conservative Catholic run school, and there was nothing that either of us could do about that.
One moment of naked honesty would have made the whole town collapse like a painted backdrop in a pantomime, to be replaced by a hard vision of where we actually were, and who we really were to each other.
So she never knew how close she came. I never knew if it would have helped me. We could both see the problem, but we knew we couldn't say it, not if we wanted to go on. I left her class without another word and she never asked me how I was again.
But I still sometimes think of that searching look on her face. I think it of it when I think of the scattershot damage that intolerance does. There was never a chance of her doing any good.
This Friday, May 22 the Irish people are being asked to finally break a centuries long, murderous silence in the marriage referendum – and to do some good.
I really don't know if they will. What I do know is that if they vote to maintain that old murderous silence many thousands of other 15-year-old Irish teens will suffer needlessly and silently at the moment in life when they are least equipped to handle it.
Many will buckle under the weight of it. It's your choice.
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