Imagine being able to call a place in which you were not born, and to which you have no real connections, not just “home”, but that, “It said everything to me, and still every day here feels like a holiday”?
That has been the experience of Englishman Rob Partridge who has been living in County Galway for the past decade, and he is one of those many ‘blow-ins’ it has been Galway’s good fortune to have, as he is deeply involved in its social and cultural life, particularly in his roles as co-ordinator of the Galway branch of the National LGBT Helpline and as chair of Galway Community Pride, overseeing this year’s Pride festival which takes place next week.
Rob grew up in the village of The Glaston, Staffordshire, in England’s West-Midlands. He describes it as “a little country village” with "the usual gossips", and where there “wasn’t much to do”. For a youngster small town life can be tough. For youngster who does not fit in, it’s tougher. When that young person is gay, it’s harder still.
“It wasn’t the best place in relation to someone in the process of coming out,” Rob says. “Although homosexuality had been decriminalised since 1967, it was still frowned upon. Holding hands was frowned upon, and the Section 28 law [which stated local government “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality” or "promote the teaching in school of the acceptability of homosexuality”] was still in effect, so it couldn’t be talked about in schools.”
It was a culture and an atmosphere where Rob had to be careful about what to say and who to say it too. “I knew I was gay from an early age,” he says, “and was out to some close friends, but I tried to hide it as much as possible from those who didn’t know. I had two false girlfriends - they knew - they were my ‘beards’. I remember going to job interviews before I came out, and if ever the question came up about a partner, I’d always say ‘them’ and ‘they’ as it stopped people asking questions. There was one job interview I remember going for, and my Dad telling me beforehand, ‘Don’t tell them you’re gay’. He was brought up in a time when it was illegal and frowned upon, but when I got to the interview, at the very first question I blurted out, ‘I’m gay!’, having worked myself up not to say it! Then suddenly I couldn’t say anything else. Still got the job though!”
Luckily, the Partridges lived close to the local railway station which provided a much needed getaway to the wider world. “It was only 15 minutes from our house,” says Rob, “and, as we had to go to school on the train, that meant we could go anywhere for free, so we’d often get the train to Birmingham.”
Given that The Glaston is within the Birmingham postcode, Rob is happy to call himself a ‘Brummie’. His father is from Birmingham and has a link to the city’s illustrious musical history, specifically Heavy Metal - the genre birthed in the ‘Workshop Of The World’ by Black Sabbath and evolved further by Judas Priest.
“My Dad grew up two streets away from where Ozzy Osbourne was born,” Rob tells me. “When we’d go to Birmingham to visit my Granny, we’d pass by Ozzy’s house and Dad would always say, ‘D’you know who grew up there?’” He’s also good friends with KK Downing, Judas Priest’s guitarist, he plays golf with him.”
Can we take it Rob is a metal fan then? “I wouldn’t call myself a metal head, but I do like it, there’s always some metal on my playlist,” he says. “I like a lot of the classic stuff, like AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’. Oh, the intro to that! I just love it.”
By the age of 21, Rob decided he was not going to hide his true self anymore. It was time to come out. “I had my 21st, and I organised my party in the pub where I worked,” he says. “I looked around at everybody there, and my best friend at the time said to me, ‘All these people are here because they love you, and that won’t change if you came out’, and I thought, ‘He’s right!’, and eight/nine, years later he came out to me.”
What were Rob’s parent's reactions? “My mum cried and when she stopped crying, said as long as I was happy it didn’t matter,” he says. “She’s been incredibly supportive. Dad was a different story. He didn’t disown me. He thought it was a phase or I was trying to be trendy, and since then it’s never been talked about, but he’s never stopped caring. He’s never ignored any of my partners, he’s always welcomed them into our home. He can’t introduce them as my partner though, he can only call them my friends, BUT, if that’s what allows us to have a father-son relationship, I’m not going to interrupt that. I feel very lucky as plenty of my friends were treated worse.”
'Galway has everything. It said everything to me'
This month marks 16 years together for Rob, and his partner Bradley Rowles - they were married last year. Next month marks another major milestone - their tenth year living in Ireland. What encouraged two Brummies to re-locate to County Galway?
“A friend moved over to be with a guy she’s married to now, that was 2007, and that October we came to visit,” says Rob. “We came for a long weekend but fell in love with the place. I remember the exact moment. We were in The Quays and ‘Mr Brightside’ by The Killers came on, and Brad and I just felt, ‘We should do this, we should move here’. On the plane back to England we were already making arrangements.”
A decade on and Rob has lost none of his enthusiasm for his adopted home. “It’s the atmosphere,” he says. “Galway is like no other city I have experienced. Birmingham as a tourist is lovely. Barcelona and Berlin have something special, but Galway has everything. It said everything to me, and still every day here feels like a holiday. Every day! Even a bad day at work, as soon as I’m driving home I feel like I’m on holiday again. I remember telling this to a guy at work, and he said: ‘Wait ’til they get to know you’. But ten years later, I still feel like nothing is a problem.”
Given he has lived in both Ireland and Britain, what differences has Rob experienced in the two countries’ treatment of gay people? “Britain is a lot more open to the idea of homosexuality, or rather was,” he says. “Ireland is now on the verge of overtaking the UK, with being the first country to vote for marriage equality by popular vote, and now there is a gay Taoiseach. The big difference when I first moved over was that, in Birmingham, being gay was talked about. Here in Ireland it was in the background, not much was said. I think the religious side of things here had a big impact on that.
“Now people are now a lot more open to there being LGBT+ people in their spaces, and more open to acknowledging LGBT+ people in their spaces. The marriage equality referendum opened up a lot of conversations and had a massive impact on young people. During the campaign, instead of having to ask their parents, ‘What do you think of gays?’ they could ask, ‘How are you voting?’ If they answered 'Yes', that would give them a security blanket to approach their parents about being gay. It made it easier to haver that conversation and helped give young people options.”
Galway Pride Festival 2017
The Galway Pride Festival runs from Monday August 7 to Sunday 13, and features music and dance, art exhibitions, a mental health discussion night, discussion on politics, comedy, a family fun day, and the Pride Parade, starting from City Hall at 1.30pm on Saturday 12, and going to Fr Burke Park.
Some may ask, given the marriage equality vote, the Gender Recognition Bill, and the Taoiseach’s sexuality being utterly non-controversial, is there still a need for Pride. The responding answer is Yes. Ireland is not a homophobia free zone. Transgender people still face discrimination, and it must be remembered not all of Ireland has marriage equality - the DUP still fiercely resist gay marriage for the North.
“From my experiences and from what I have found in talking to other people, the amount of homophobia is still there and it is the same,” says Rob, “but the way it is dealt with is different. We now have more support from our allies. Whereas before, people would have stepped back, now they are stepping in. There are so many subcultures within the LGBT+ community that are ignored or who don’t get the same recognition as the L and the G. We want to embrace all the subcultures and make everyone welcome."
"There is an awful lot of Bi-erasure. People don’t want to acknowledge it or they ignore it, or say prejudiced things like, “Bi now, gay later” or that bi people are just greedy - not understanding what bisexuality is. There is also huge amount of Transphobia. I don’t understand the insecurities people have about a person wanting to use the toilet. We all need to. If we all had cubicles instead of urinals it wouldn’t be so big an issue. In France they’ve had gender neutral toilets for years and it isn’t a problem, but really, in terms of Trans rights, toilets are only the tip of the iceberg."
While Ireland has made huge progress in terms of how it treats its LGBT+ citizens, the gay community is very aware that in many other parts of the world, gay people face appealing discrimination and violence. The fight for equality is increasingly moving from a national to an international outlook.
“When you have people like Donald Trump in power, they can still weird influence on people’s opinions, there is still a fight to be had," says Rob. "We need to stand together and say we’re not having it. Look at what is happening in relation to the recent ban on transgender people in the US military, look at what is happening to gay people in Chechnya. We still need Pride while there are people like Trump.”