Mr Gay Ireland Stephen Lehane shares his story for the #BeYourself campaign and highlights the importance of embracing who you are . Like the #BeYourself campaign, the Mr Gay Ireland competition aims to raise visibility of LGBT life across Ireland, especially in rural areas. We are excited and honoured to have this year’s winner, Stephen, as part of our campaign and wish Stephen the best in his reign as Mr Gay Ireland.
Mr Gay Ireland – The Importance of Being Yourself
Growing up, I went to a Christian Brothers all-boys school. In fact, I didn’t know any girls my age that I wasn’t related to until I was 12 years old. I just always grew up in male-dominated groups. (Nature versus nurture, I’ll leave that one to you…)
I was always called gay in school, long before I had any idea what that even meant. It was always a negative word, and I became incredibly defensive about it, particularly when I got to 13 years old and realised I actually was gay. The word gay had been weaponised, and I was terrified of being caught out.
When I was 14, my best friend in school came out of the closet, all-guns blazing. In our all-boys Catholic school, I don’t think the teachers, let alone the students, had any idea how to appropriately handle the situation. Then, inspired by my friend’s bravery, and majorly adding fuel to the fire, I came out. And then two more of our friends did. Within a year, there were 4 out boys in a class of 90 students, and I think the teachers were convinced there was something in the water supply.
In reality, no one was turning anyone else gay. But there was strength in numbers. Because now, there was no one person who could be singled out as the one gay boy in school, we had our own crew. It wasn’t always easy. There were a lot of tough times, but I think I look back now with slightly rose-tinted glasses.
At 15 and 16 years old, we weren’t just out, but we were vocal. We’d call out students and indeed often teachers, on things they said that were homophobic. This had an odd effect that we hadn’t anticipated: by being out and visible in the school, management had no choice but to take notice. Posters went up around the school about homophobic bullying, and when they were torn down, they were put back up. Students were engaged in art projects about the importance of inclusivity. There was this ripple effect throughout the whole school, and it just became a nicer place to be, for everyone.
Conversations had been started and I learned a huge amount about the importance of visibility. Younger gay students saw that there were people in school who were out, happy and accepted. Younger straight students saw that in the older years, homophobia was not only not funny, but not tolerated. By the time I was graduating, there were a good number of out students in the years below us. It was just this incredible legacy to leave behind. It’s a tiny example of what has always happened in the LGBT community: By being visible, LGBT people make the path slightly easier for those behind them. If it wasn’t for the incredible bravery of all the LGBT people who have gone before me in the world, I never would have had the courage or the opportunity to come out and be the proud gay man I am now.
Nothing changes until people are vocal. By being who you really are, you empower others to be themselves, whether you realise it or not. When you hate who you are, the world can seem incredibly dark, and it can feel impossible to see the light.
That is why Gay Pride is so bright and colorful and loud. It’s a flare that we send up to every person who’s too scared to be themselves. Take courage from those who’ve gone before you, and be the hope for the people following behind you. Always remember this; Hope will never be silent.