“I’ve stayed in the shadows long enough!” Lord Mayors Awards 2014 – Frederick Douglas Award acceptance speech
Lord Mayor, fellow recipients, distinguished guests, family and friends
Thank you for this amazing award – I can’t begin to tell you how moved I am by this but I am sure going to try to tell you anyway!
I’ve lived most of my life in the margins, in the shadows constantly feeling like I was the “other”.
I was born into a family in crisis, instability and chaos was normal.
I experienced racist bullying throughout my life in school.
My parents separated when I was 12.
I became the victim of a sexual predator when I was 14 and was sexually abused for 2 years. I tried to ask for help from my mother but she told me “no one we knew would ever do a thing like that”.
Amidst the darkness there was a single ray of light – just like in the film “The Help” my nanny raised me and was my rock through the trauma and she instilled in me a sense of belief in myself and in the importance of equality – a value that was alien in Sri Lankan society at the time.
I failed my junior cert, I got expelled from school and then at the age of 16 I realised I was a lesbian and just when I needed my parents the most they called me an abomination and kicked me out of the family home. I hit rock bottom at 17, I had no education, no family support… I was homeless.
I was 19 when a girl I was dating introduced me to the world of radio and I knew immediately this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was short lived because within a year I was fired when my boss found out I was gay and wanted to actually talk about it… imagine that!
I emigrated at the age of 21, a decision that saved my life… and I ran as far as my legs could carry me.
At the age 25, in June 2000, I moved to Dublin with no idea what I was going to do and who I wanted to be but quite serendipitously my arrival coincided with Gay Pride week and within 24 hours of stepping foot on Irish soil I found myself marching and dancing down O’Connoll street singing “It’s Raining Men!” ohhh! The irony! Seriously for the first time in my life I didn’t feel alone.
I will never forget that day for as long as I live – it was like Dublin took me under her arm and told me “never mind the past, you are here now and we like you just the way you are!” I was standing at the Garden of remembrance and I let go of my past and embraced my present.
That day ignited in me the passion to 1. Embrace my true identity, 2. Help others to do the same and 3. Encourage as many as possible to spark positive social change.
I started as a kitchen porter but no matter what job I did I always made time to volunteer and for my work as an activist which led me to reclaim my dream job in 2008 as I started working for Newstalk 106-108. They liked me from the start and supported all my ideas and as a result 6 years on Newstalk is the only mainstream media organisation to carry on their weekly schedule 2 hours of programming dedicated to social justice and mental health. Through the contributors and sponsors of the show Suicide or Survive and See Change I’ve made lifelong friends that have become my family of choice.
Well you’ve heard the saying behind every great man… in 2010 my passion for mental health led me to book myself into a mental health retreat in the Wicklow mountains that serendipitously led me to share a room with a total stranger – not by choice and that’s how I met my beautiful Anne Marie, thank you for believing me and I am counting the days till we have full marriage equality in Ireland so we can finally make honest women of each other!
Through Anne Marie I’ve gained an extended family whose daily support goes a long way to healing the wounds created by the rejection of my immediate family who even to this day can’t see my achievements.
It’s amazing to me that 14 years after my first Gay Pride my passion to inspire change in self and society is still alive as just last year serendipitously Anne Marie and I established the offices of Insight Matters, a personal development, psychotherapy and counselling centre opposite the Garden of Remembrance. We provide low-cost, inclusive and culturally appropriate mental health support services with the aim to inspire change in self and society.
It’s a great honour to be the inaugural recipient of the Fredrick Douglas award. Frederick Douglas was a great man – he escaped slavery and became a leading abolitionist, a campaigner for women’s rights and social reform and he was surprised at the acceptance he experienced in Ireland. He made it his life’s work to share his story in an effort to inspire change. Well like him I’ve experienced injustices that are still happening today and I share my story to inspire change.
When I look at the underlying theme of my experiences it includes suppression of identity, silencing, shame and oppressive conformity into the norm or utter invisibility. I remember in my early days of activism a work colleague said to me “why are you making trouble for yourself – you are lucky you are here – don’t get above yourself” and I remember shaking my head and thinking I’ve stayed in the shadows long enough, I’ve stayed silent long enough and its only through speaking up that we can break down stigma, prejudice, spark social change and create a society where all residents can live authentic lives and reach for their dreams. Research and stories like mine provide unequivocal evidence that equality not only brings out the best in a person but it brings out the best in all of us.
To finish I would like to quote Frederick Douglas of his time in Ireland –
“I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult,”
… yes we have come far but we still have a lot more work to do… so let’s get on with it – be part of the change!
Go raibh míle maith agat!