"Doyle, you're a pansy!!"
That's the second insult I remember being hurled at me when I was growing up. I was a pansy. Not the small colourful flower in gardens but "one who lacks the appropiate masculinity associated with testosterone; someone very pathetic and wimpy, generally used as an insult" as urbandictionary says. That was me. A pansy.
From the age of five or six, my life was defined by that term. Growing up in the small town that I did where everyone knew everyone else, social standing was important but fitting in was even more. If you didn't go out with the boys playing football, if you didn't follow the crowd or if you weren't "up for it" then you were different and that was bad.
My mother was 39 when she brought me home to no. 33. I was very ill as a child and she nursed me back to health despite a myriad of doctors advising her to accept the inevitable. I have quite a stunning letter detailing some of my illnesses including whooping cough (pertussis), respiratory problems (necessitating months between Cherry Orchard and Crumlin Hospitals), gastroenteritis, dermatitis, eczema and anaemia all in the first 10 months of my life, which made it a bit difficult to thrive. An allergy to all dairy products, a weak digestive system meaning I couldn't hold down food (or travel) and a stubborn Leo streak can't have helped.
But my Mam is a stubborn woman, and having waited so long for a child (she was married the year before) she wasn't going to let me go. With her constant care and attention as well as being tended to by as many doctors as she could find and afford on my father's meagre labourer wages, I survived the illnesses to become a happy wee child - admittedly an odd looking young fella, a big head and a little body (because of the lack of early nourishment) so I was a bit like a lollipop.
And so I grew, with my younger sister, in an estate full of children all in and around our ages. My mother, coming from a large family and having immense pride in her new children made sure we had everything we needed (without spoiling us) and showed us proudly to the neighbours and her siblings. She had been a good daughter to her mother (who she left school at 13 to mind until she died in 1976) and now was going to be a great mother to her children.
Looking after me of course also meant protecting me from harm. Being "fragile" I couldn't go and play football in case I got hurt. I wasn't allowed off on my own in case I got sick - I was a clumsy child and fell (head first) against walls and columns, off pavements and generally just over a lot. The first time we went to Knock as a family we were on the way to the shrine when I fell and broke my nose, so straight back to Galway with us.
I didn't have the same social interaction as some of the other children who went off with their siblings and cousins - my cousins were a few years older and in fairness would have been killed if anything had happened to me. So I spent time at home with my mam, who looked after me and taught me to read and write when I was very young. And dressed me in the height of fashion.
Because I spent so much time with her I was far more used to adults than I was to other children. The grown ups were fascinated by this little kid who could read big words in the newspapers, who knew who the Taoiseach was and who had aspirations to be a professor (though I suspect my mother had a hand in this). At times when children were reading Ann and Barry I was racing through the Three Investigators, the Famous Five and heading towards Narnia.
"Doyle, you're a pansy!" As the crowds of youngsters passed while I was playing with my sister outside, this became a chant. "Mammy" said the six year old me, "what's a pansy?" "Don't mind them, they're just jealous" I was told. And I accepted that. While they went off strengthening muscles, learning hand eye coordination, social interaction, learning to be insulted and take it and other skills on the GAA field, I was learning about BASIC, code and driving a formula one car around the track on my Amstrad CPC 464. And was happy to be so.
Image from Retro Treasures
A pansy, a cissy, a mammy's boy, a wimp, a girl - as I stumbled through primary school these terms were levelled at me. I was definitely gay. Not homosexual gay, but different gay. Gay because I liked to read and I didn't know who the captain of Man Utd was. Gay because I didn't go to the local discos. Gay because I couldn't catch a sliotar or kick a ball in a straight line or because I didn't know about the offside rule. A gay pansy cissy.
I don't mean to make myself out to be persecuted here. I had great friends and relatives who made sure I wasn't totally insular. I went to school, was enrolled in the Beavers and did all of that but I was a child who listened to what was said. My mammy said I was special and better than the others so I acted like same. My mammy said I was to ignore them because they didn't know what I knew or weren't as intelligent as me, so I acted like same. I was a damn annoying child as well with a formidable mother so it became easier I think to just ignore me.
But they said I was a gay cissy pansy. I listened to that as well. When I was enrolled in Mensa at seven my mother blasted it from the rooftops. Proof she was a great mother. Proof her son was different. Other people listed to that.
It's not easy growing up for anyone. We all have stories. I was a child far too sensitive to criticism, far too dependent on acceptance and being liked, far too demanding of the spotlight without doing anything to deserve it. Slowly but surely I withdrew into my room, leaving only for secondary school and mass. I was still small for my age at 13 - this conversation happened in my first week in first year:
Guy in my class: Hey, I just wanted to say, you know, that I really admire you. I think it's great.I was an easy target. I was used to wipe blackboards, to be placed in bins, to be locked in rooms. Because I was fragile my mother thought it best I didn't do sports in the first year, so while the lads ran around pitches developing muscles and rapport on the field, I was on the sidelines, reading, being different. I hated the changing rooms because I felt so different, so small, so underdeveloped compared to everyone else. I was ashamed of who I was. Being a bit of a nancy boy. A cissy.
Me: Eh, oh, thanks. For what?
Him: You know for being here, for getting in and everything. Your parents must be proud.
Me: Oh they are, very. Yeah.
Him: Cos it can't be often a seven year old gets into first year. Good for you.
Me: Seven? I'm 13!
Him: Really? And you're that small? I heard you were 7...
I floundered through secondary school, awkward, insecure, annoying. I tried to mix but failed miserably. Girls were a complete mystery having been in all boys schools for the past eight years and so I was an easy target for ridicule. Having a big head, big ears, a big nose, a lisp and properly pronouncing my "TH"s all were up for grabs. At the time I had been reading a lot of religious books so I felt I had a vocation. I felt different.
But was I gay? Were they all right all along? Was it because I was homosexual that I was frail, that I was awkward, that I felt different? You're told something often enough you start to believe it and I wondered. Because I didn't have any friendships with girls I formed close relationships with male friends. Nothing sexual but I was quite dependent and needed acceptance. When I didn't get it I withdrew even further.
I became a Boo Radley figure, only seen running through the town early morning in an effort to not talk to anyone. I was pale from the darkness. Illness had followed me. All I wanted was the comfort of my room, my books, my writing, my solitude. I wanted to hide my difference. I couldn't accept who I was because I didn't know.
Over 10 years after leaving home, as I sit typing this, I can't help wanting to give that kid a hug, to tell him it would all turn out far better than he'd ever believed possible, that labels didn't matter and just because they said it didn't make it true. That he'd have amazing friends who loved, accepted and respected him, that he'd have loved and lost but at least he'd loved, that he had so many great opportunities and that he was trying to make the most of his life, his talents and his skills.
I'm going to strip naked with hundreds other people tonight for Spencer Tunick. Like so many others I'm putting the "traditional" need to be ashamed or embarrassed about who I am, how I look and being better or worse than anyone else behind me as I join the masses in welcoming the Midsummer sun over the port of Dublin.
Tomorrow the Dublin Pride parade, now in its 25th year, takes place, and others who have felt they're different, who have been bullied and persecuted, given labels like dyke, lesbo, faggot, queer, perverts, poofs, homos and worse all for who they are and how they were born and who they choose to love take to the streets to celebrate being themselves, being just the same as anyone else, being alive. Being proud of who they are. As they should be.
As I am of who I am. It's taken a long, long time. But here I am. This is me. Hiya. :)
If you were gay, that'd be okayFor anyone out there who may feel different and think that's a bad thing, it's not. Trust me on this. Be proud of who you are. Enjoy being you.
I mean 'cos hey, I'd like you anyway
because you see, if it were me,
I would feel free to say that I was gay (but I'm not gay).