This is for Billy, whose real name I won’t reveal because I hope he’s out there somewhere.
Growing up in Drogheda, a working-class town 30 miles north of Dublin, in the early 70s Billy stuck out like a sore thumb.
He wore flamboyant clothes—capes even—had eye-shadow and, sometimes, even lipstick. He dyed his hair.
I don’t remember there being any outright hostility, just an Irish sense of bafflement. We barely knew what to be gay meant. Straight sex was pretty much a secret topic—gay love utterly unspoken of.
I don’t remember anyone being nice to Billy or discussing his strange dress and effeminate manner with him.
We didn’t mix with him; he was way too exotic a bird for that.
Essentially I remember being puzzled by him—it really was a different time.
Even though, all around us, several brothers and priests were abusing boys and girls, I grew up in an environment where sexuality was confined to nudges and whispers, locker room talk and even to trips to Northern Ireland where (Lord Almighty!) naked pictures of girls in magazines could be bought.
LGBT folks were an entirely exotic breed—rarely encountered and avoided when it occurred.
I don't know where Billy got the courage to flaunt it at a time when the closet was deeper than a Fort Knox bunker but flaunt it he did.
He would come to school dances, stay off in the corner with a bottle of wine, and drink himself silly. It was what we all did, but there was a desperate extra edge to it for Billy.
At 17 or so, he tried to hang himself in a field and failed.
I then heard he took several alcohol overdoses and also failed.
It must have been desperate times for him. They were obviously cries for help. I don’t remember ever reaching out. I just didn’t know enough or even slightly comprehend it.
I wish I had.
Years later, when I moved to San Francisco, it all made sense that entire neighborhoods were populated with gay people, who were good, bad and indifferent like everyone else.
I remember the mother of a roommate coming to visit and we went to the Castro district for breakfast. She saw all the men and, in her utter innocence, wondered where all their wives were at.
It was that kind of country I came from.
I think of the Billys who still live in Ireland and have difficult times, especially in rural areas. I think of two gay Irishmen in the Bronx who contacted me and asked me to do something when our newspaper Irish Voice started up because there was enormous loneliness in their lives.
We publicized and helped form the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization and a few hundred showed up on the first night
I hope that helped make it up to Billy but maybe not.
It is Billy I will think of on May 22 when Ireland votes on the same-sex marriage referendum. I hope he found his way into the light from the encircling gloom
So many more need to follow.
Vote "Yes" if you are in Ireland and entitled to.
I think it will actually save lives, being accepted as equals.
Besides, Billy would want you to.