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You literally wear a mask every single day…you pray you don’t say something that will give you away.

The words Councillor Pete Byrne used to describe his anguish as he attempted to hide his sexuality when growing up.

As a teenager, he continually questioned himself, shutting out feelings as he suppressed his sexuality, fearful how people would react, fearful he wouldn’t be accepted.

“Growing up as gay, I found it incredibly difficult,” he said.

Councillor Pete Byrne.
Councillor Pete Byrne.

“I can’t stress how difficult I found it. Mentally you torture yourself. You question yourself. You close down. You block out feelings.

“You literally wear a mask every single day, and you know what’s stupid, you pray that you don’t say something that will give you away. How daft that sounds. You endure enough mental anguish to last a dozen lifetimes.

“That’s how you feel growing up supressing your own sexual orientation and every LGBT person knows the damage that does to you.”

Cllr Byrne was speaking during a council Notice of Motion calling for a total ban of so-called conversion therapy in the North.

The controversial practice refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person's sexual orientation or to suppress a person's gender identity.

It can range from electric shock treatment to religious teachings or talking therapies designed to change someone's sexuality. 

The Motion, tabled by Alliance’s Patrick Brown, asked the council to call on Stormont ministers to introduce an ‘effective ban on conversion therapy within Northern Ireland’.

 Backing the Motion, Cllr Byrne warned of the dire consequences the very concept of conversion therapy can have on the mental health of young people already struggling with their sexuality.

 He said the ‘sign-posting’ of young gay people to the practice is ‘beyond distressing’.

 “For most of us, you genuinely breathe for the first time and let it all out when you are true to yourself,” he told councillors.

 “But the difficulties don’t stop there. You’re confronted as a gay person by many situations that challenge you mentally, and that’s the cross you have to bear, but it shouldn’t be. 

 “And they pile up and bring back thoughts of reverting or supressing and it’s those obstacles that should be challenged by every single one of us; those obstacles that push my community backwards, that signposting backwards that intends to change us. 

 "There’s nothing about my sexuality that needs fixed, there’s nothing about my sexuality that needs an intervention.”

 Cllr Byrne, the SDLP Group Leader on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, said he had difficulties with acceptance when he came out as gay.

 At times it came from within his own family, he found himself questioning how far he could live his own life without hurting others.

 “It was the first time that I felt unintended shaming and I know all LGBT people are exposed to it,” Cllr Byrne said.

 “And it’s the shaming that is the hardest part of what makes people vulnerable; those that point them in the way of conversion therapy. It’s the shaming and those attitudes that need our full attention and the voice of everybody in this chamber, not to be signposted to change anybody in the LGBT community.”

 Cllr Byrne's own mental health suffered as a result of ‘shaming’.

 He suffered nightly panic attacks after a church blocked his husband from becoming Godfather to his brother’s son.

 They were living in sin, the couple were told.

Cllr Byrne pictured at Derry Pride.
Cllr Byrne pictured at Derry Pride.

“We were sinners that were given an itch and told not to scratch it, and we went and scratched it,” said the south Armagh councillor.

“That’s the intensity of the shaming and everybody in the LGBT community has all these stories that brings it home how difficult the shaming is and how it can push you into darker spaces mentally.

 “I told my brother to pick someone else to be the Godfather, but he stood up and he didn’t. He changed Parish and it went ahead there.

 “The week that happened was the week I had my first panic attack. And that quickly spiralled to five out of seven nights every week with nocturnal panic attacks.

“I couldn’t sleep because it was mentally affecting me, so I know the mental state that people can get themselves into. But challenging those attitudes that put us in that space about how people speak and how people engage with the LGBT community needs addressed. 

“I didn’t need addressed. I am not broken. How people see me is broken. So people who feel the same anguish don’t need to be signposted to conversion therapy as an answer and it makes me bloody angry that vulnerable people are further tortured by such practice.”

Since 2018, two UK prime ministers have promised to ban conversion therapy, but campaigners are still waiting for action.

“We shouldn’t have to wait any longer,” added Cllr Byrne. “It’s long past the time that the Northern Ireland Executive stood up together to ban what I believe are abusive practices.

“That means banning all interventions that have the intentions of changing, suppressing, converting or cancelling sexuality orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

“Ask the ministers to ban this disgraceful practice and support the mental health of all in the LGBT community.”

Cllr Patrick Brown accepted an amendment from Cllr Byrne to also write to the British government questioning its progress on its previous pledge to ban the practice.

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