Forming your identity within the LGBT community: a panel discussion

The colour of Rainbow Week continues with the Questioning and Allies panel discussion, with speakers providing insight into the often diverse experience of coming out

trinity-lifeAs part of Rainbow week, TCDSU Welfare and Q Soc held an event which dealt with issues surrounding sexuality and identity in general, and advice on how to find whats right for you in developing your identity and coming out. The role of allies in the LGBT community was also addressed. Speakers gave personal testimonies of their journeys in identifying and accepting their own identities. The concept of queer identity was also explored as a more holistic concept that can provide a more welcoming space for a variety of identities to develop and feel affinity with despite perceived differences. Aoibhinn Ní Loughlainn, the current TCDSU Welfare Officer, introduced the speakers.

The first speaker was Samuel Riggs. Riggs, a former University Times Editor and SU Communications Officer, as well as a former SU LGBTQ Officer. Riggs described his experience of coming out at 17 in Transition year, saying “I was on a life track which involved going to college, getting a girlfriend…getting married, settling down. Things were different, things were never going to be the same again”. Riggs believes that Trinity is a great place to come as it open his eyes to his own prejudices and allowed him to express his identity comfortably.

A common theme with all the speakers that Riggs also reflected on was the idea that identity formation is a continuous process that involves reflection and reconsideration throughout one’s life. It is also “hardest to come out to yourself”, and parents and family would do best to give children the space to come that conclusion in their own time. On the role of allies, Riggs emphasised that those who wish to be an ally have a responsibility to be an ally to all those on the LGBT spectrum.  

The second speaker was Úna Harty, a 3rd year Nanoscience student and the current candidate for the role of next year’s SU Communications Officer. Harty spoke of her early identification of her sexuality and of coming out at a young age. However, as many of the speakers noted, the school environment and particularly single-sex schools are not necessarily ideal spaces for coming out. Negative reactions in school led Harty to hide her sexual identity and the ages of 16 to 18 were particularly difficult as she became confused and thus became “aggressively straight” in her confusion, not wanting to “admit” to herself that she was of a different sexual orientation to her peers.

Like Riggs, University life became an opportunity for Harty to explore her identity and she came to accept through a new relationship that she was attracted to the same sex. This “allowed her to discover her fluidity”. She identifies as sexually fluid which she found after struggling to find an identity which captured her feelings. Fluidity allows for change and flux in sexual orientation and preferences at different times or in different situations. Harty also spoke of the difficulties of coming out to her parents which was very “scary” and their lack of understanding of certain areas due to generational differences. On the question of how best to speak about identity issues with parents who have less information or less understanding, Harty advised that it could be a good idea to begin “dropping into conversation” titbits of information about identity issues.

Joel McKeever, founder and Chairperson of Trinity’s LGBT Staff Network,  was also able to describe via personal accounts, how identity formation is a never-ending journey. “You don’t have one moment, you have a series of moments” where you clarify and position your identity in relation to others and for yourself. McKeever also argued that “whatever you feel is right for your sexuality” is what is right for you and that the process is about “making your home” for your identity within yourself.

McKeever was also able to illustrate the “luxury” that having a space to develop your identity is. Growing  up in a single parent family from lower socio-economic background in a crime ridden area made that the defining feature of his identity. It became a matter of waiting for a place where you could be safe to be open about your sexuality. McKeever also responded to questions surrounding bi-erasure and agreed that bisexual people face difficulties in being accepted by both the cis and gay communities and don’t see representations of their identities in the media enough.

Trinity student Noah Galli, Co-Chair and Secretary of the Irish Trans Students’ Alliance, member of the TENI working group for the Gender Recognition Act and of a Non Binary Surveys working group, spoke of the possibilities a queer identity offers in providing a space for identity to be reflected on more deeply and safely. Galli, speaking from personal experience, argued that there should not be pressure to come out and that feeling safe in coming out was of utmost importance. There “should be no shame around still being in the closet” if it helps you to feel safer in certain situations. Questioning your gender identity can be hard for others to accept, and in some cases revealing your sexuality as queer can give you space to present yourself as a different gender more easily. Noah also argued that “finding your queer family” is important as these are the people who will ultimately support you even if biological family have trouble supporting your identity.

Finally, Oli Riordan, the current auditor of Q soc, spoke to the attendees. Like McKeever, he raised some of the particular issues bisexual people may face, as it can be confusing  growing up. He panicked growing up in the North of England in an environment not open to the idea of queer identity. Having two older brothers who are gay and had already gone through the coming out experience paved an easier path for him in coming out to his family, but as the other speakers emphasised, it is much a journey within yourself and self acceptance as it is about the acceptance of others. Riordan also spoke on the topic of allies, and like other speakers stated that to be an ally to the queer community you need to be an ally to all members, at all places on what some call a spectrum. You cannot be selective in what identities you choose to support.

These personal accounts were both touching and insightful and allowed those present to perhaps reconsider how we think about identity and the rapid change that Ireland has borne witness to in recent years in accepting different presentations of identity. Equally the speakers highlighted the pain and difficulties they had experienced on their coming out journeys and the need to continue to educate and raise awareness of issues surrounding identity in modern society.

Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan is a former Comment Editor and Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Sociology and Political Science graduate.