Civil Partnerships are tackling the last taboo for gay men and lesbians.
At a Maria Doyle Kennedy gig in Dublin's Pepper Canister Church recently, there was a gay couple sitting in the pew in front of me. The concert itself had a cosy Christmassy feel, and as Maria sang her beautiful songs about love and life, one half of the couple put his arm around the other, They sat close together like that for the rest of the show.It always makes me really happy when I see gay couples like this, at ease in the world with who they are and with each other, and comfortably confident to be affectionate to each other in a public space
For some GCN readers (although I suspect not many) this might seem like no big deal, but for most, the public expression of our sexuality, outside the safe spaces of the gay bars and clubs, is the last and biggest hurdle in the coming out journey. Some of us never completely jump over that hurdle, myself included.
If I am saying goodbye to my partner in an airport, for instance, I will hesitate before kissing him. Sometimes I won't go through with it at all. Although my logical brain tells me I'm safe, that nothing can happen to me, my gut instinct tells me the opposite. That part of me is still conditioned by the invisibility gay men and lesbians were made to conform to in the past, and a threat of both physical harm and verbal humiliation that, for all our evolution, has still not fully gone away.
The sad truth is that public displays of affection are the last taboo for gay people. Sad because heterosexual couples can walk on a street holding hands without even thinking about it. Sad because as long as we feel hesitant about showing our affection in public, our sexuality will be seen as different or distasteful, exotic or perverse. It's a Catch 22, because we don't show our affection without inhibition our sexuality is seen as some or all of the above.
I have written about this subject before, about the happy surprise of seeing more and more young gay and lesbian couples holding hands on the streets of Dublin. But I am under no illusion. There is no way that young gay people in small towns across this country feel so safe and uninhibited, not when they come from a school culture where anti-gay bullying is still rife, and a society where sexual orientation is still a subject of gossip.
But there is one way in which this is radically changing across the country, in small towns and cities alike. For this, our third annual civil partnerships issue of GCN, we interviewed four couples who tied the knot in 2012. Apart from one couple who preferred to have an intimate ceremony with just themselves involved, all the others expressed what it meant for them to be surrounded by their straight families and friends while they exchanged vows, to have their relationships and commitment to each other witnessed.
At the end of every exchange of vows, each couple kissed. These kisses were, and are, an expression of our sexuality, which has been hidden for so long, that part of our lives which so many of us are shy or afraid of expressing outside our own little gay world.
Seeing the couple at the Maria Doyle Kennedy gig, I was struck by something more than their public display affection for each other. It made me think better of everyone at that concert, that these people were all part of a society where affection between a same-sex couple is accepted and valued. In a way, the affection shared between that couple, and witnessed by other people at the concert, ennobled that tiny little society we were part of for a couple of hours on a cold December evening.
I believe the same thing happens at civil partnership ceremonies. Over the past three years I've been to several and always I hear the same thing, people saying they have never experienced anything quite like it. I've been to many straight weddings too, and although there is always an emotional atmosphere during the exchange of the vows, I have been at civil partnership ceremonies where the entire room was in tears.
One of the couples interviewed for GCN had a guest who was a childhood neighbour, a friend of her deceased mother-s. This woman had seen several daughters get married, but she said that the civil partnership was the most moving ceremony she had ever attended. She said it was because of all the love that was in the room, and she may be right. But I would counter that it's because she was witnessing the invisible being made visible, a deep historic shame and hurt turning into self-love and joy.
All of society, not just gay people, is hurt by the oppression and denial of gay people. Civil partnership ceremonies, which one day will be equal marriage ceremonies, counteract that hurt. They aid and abet the slow creation of a country where we will walk down the streets hand-in-hand like heterosexual people - without even thinking about it.
On another note, I would like to say, on behalf of the staff of GCN and our publishers, the National Lesbian and Gay Federation (NLGF), Happy Christmas to all our readers, all our supporters and all our valued advertisers. I hope that you make the yuletide gay and enter 2013 refreshed and ready for a prosperous year.