Pride means so many things to me. Growing up as a child in the late 80s/early 90s in Northern Ireland meant that I was very exposed to division and prejudice in society from a very early age. Catholics vs Protestants. I am from a very normal, working-class town called Lurgan in N. Ireland and looking back on my childhood, it was fascinating.
My older sister Edel always described me as very affectionate, and one of my earliest memories is performing Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ with the telephone in front of anyone who would watch. I also remember being obsessed with Cliff Richard’s ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ and the tinsel on the Christmas tree. I would sit and wait for Cilla Black to come on TV with such excitement because she sang camp songs in sequins – also, my mother is called Cilla, and at one stage, I thought Cilla Black was her alter ego (I’m convinced I told people this at school).
I used to get anxious when my Dad or brother asked me to come out and play football. I hated it. I hated that this was what I was ‘supposed to do’. I rejected it so much and made my feelings very clear, much to their confusion. I was happier sitting and drawing or painting with ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in the background, using Judy Garland’s voice as a comfort blanket.
Looking back, I’m proud of saying no to football; I’m proud that I chose to spend my summer doing the local amateur Musical Theatre production over a sports summer camp. I’m proud that I didn’t conform from such an early age. The thought of pretending to be someone else never suited me.
I’ll never forget the summer of 1996 when I got my first part in the local am-dram society’s production of Grease. I rehearsed day in, day out. I was so loud I’m surprised I didn’t give myself nodules as a kid. I’m also certain that they debated on giving me a microphone. On the day of the dress rehearsal, there was really bad conflict back home in N. Ireland. The police were everywhere. I recall my mother driving me to the dress run, and all of a sudden, we saw a line of police blocking the road. They wouldn’t let us through, and I wound down my window and told them that they simply had to let me through as I was playing Johnny Casino in Grease, and I was singing the Hand Jive, and I needed to get to my dress rehearsal. My mother was just as stunned as the police. That’s how much pride I had. Of course, we had to do a U-turn and drive home with lots of tears and dramatic antics. It was all very Billy Elliott meets Derry Girls.
Around the age of 9 or 10, I knew that I was attracted to boys. Of course, I didn’t know what being gay was. I just knew that I was different but didn’t know that there was a name for it. I longed to tell my parents, my family, my teachers. I wanted to scream because I was so scared that something was ‘wrong’ with me. I felt embarrassed and shame at such an early age.
One day I got beaten to an absolute pulp by a group of lads whilst my little sister had to watch.
There were no gay people on TV, in books, I had no representation, and it was the start of a downward spiral for me. I became very targeted at school because of my interests. I started to comfort eat and gained lots of weight. I went to my mum and told her that I wanted to commit suicide at the age of 13, and within 24 hours, she had me taken out of the school that I was in and put into another. Things got that bad. I was afraid to walk to the shop or walk home from school. One day I got beaten to an absolute pulp by a group of lads whilst my little sister had to watch. This is why it’s so crucial for children/teens to be educated in schools, and it pains me to see the conservative mob try to stop this from happening. They are causing so much damage to the mental health of young people. I grew up under the massively right-wing DUP in a turbulent, divided society.
When I look back at some of the horrible and nasty things that were said by this party in particular (a party that blocked equal marriage in N. Ireland until 2020), I get so cross. Moving to Belfast and 16 was a game-changer. I went to college and, within days, moved in with a Drag Queen, a protestant drag queen at that! I remember when we went to the shops together, I could not be called ‘Conleth’ because it was such a protestant area. Absolutely hilarious. It was now OK for me to be gay, but not OK to be Catholic. Constantly dodging corners throughout my life.
As a community, we should never, ever stop fighting the cause for equality for EVERYONE in our community across the world. You only have to look at Uganda in recent months. My heart breaks for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in that part of the world.
Also, let’s look closer to home – the trans community are being treated exactly how gay people were treated by the media back in the 80s. It’s an outrage and a scandal that this is being allowed to happen in this day and age, and I only hope that our community as a whole can make enough noise to protect this vulnerable section of our community during this stressful time.
Together we are louder. The louder the protest, the bigger the change. Whilst pride is a celebration, we must always remember that it is, first and foremost – a protest. I wish I could go back to my 13-year-old self and tell him not to be scared, to not feel alone. One day it will be OK.
In my song ‘Proud’, I make it very clear in my lyrics – ‘I’m proud, and I will sing it loud, I don’t care anymore, ‘coz I’m me’.
– Conleth Kane –
Proud music video: