My name is John Ward. I’m 20 years old and I live in Ardee, County Louth, Ireland. I wanted to share my story in case it helped others.
I’m gay and a member of the traveling community. I also suffer from bipolar disorder.
For the first 12 years of my life, my family and I moved around a lot. I lived in a caravan with my mum and dad, my four brothers and sister. I’m the third oldest.
Growing up, I was always afraid to reveal my sexuality as in the Traveling community it isn’t accepted so well. I would hear a lot of criticism of gay people and there were certainly no role models within my family.
I heard about one fella who was gay, but his family didn’t want to know because of it.
We eventually settled in Ardee when I was 13, but that’s when the bullying started at school. It started as soon as I started because I was a Traveler.
I always felt like an outcast and was ashamed to be who I am.
‘Everyone told me to be tough and deal with it, but I didn’t know how to deal with it’
We notified the school about the bullying. I always told my parents, but everyone told me to be tough and deal with it, but I didn’t know how to deal with it.
At the age of 15, the torment from the bullying, along with the fear I had about revealing my sexuality to my family and friends, caught up with me.
I felt like life was too much for me, so I attempted suicide. It was the summer holidays and everyone was gearing up to go back to school and I didn’t want to go back. I was being beaten up and followed on the way home.
I took an overdose. I survived, but I was on life support for three days and in hospital for weeks. When I woke up, I never told anyone why I did it because I was still afraid that they wouldn’t accept me.
When I was 16, I attempted suicide again. Once again, I luckily survived. However, this time, I felt that enough was enough. I told my family and friends that I am gay.
At the same time, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder due to emotional trauma – prompted by the homophobic abuse and bullying.
My family’s reaction shocked me. They accepted and supported me. They just wanted me to be happy.
It gave me the confidence to come out to more people. However, doing so didn’t make things any easier at school. In fact, it made the bullying escalate further. Not only was I a Traveler, I was also gay.
At 17, I decided to leave school to get away from it all.
‘The difference now is that I no longer let it get to me’
Three years later, I still have bipolar disorder and I still get homophobic abuse every week from people. Sometimes this is via social media, and sometimes it’s to my face. I sometimes bump into former classmates around town and they can be snide.
However, the difference now is that I no longer let it get to me. I stay strong and try to help others who were in the same situation as me. It’s made a big difference that my family and friends accept me. Because of this, the approval of strangers has no bearing on my ability to be who I am.
I’m now at college studying a BTec program. I hope to go on and study law.
In the summer, Big Brother on Channel 4 featured a gay housemate from the Travelers community, Hughie Maughan. It was good to see a gay Traveler in a high-profile reality show, and it helps to prompt discussion of gay issues in the Traveling community.
Attitudes in the Traveling community are slowing changing. The arrival of equal marriage in Ireland last year helped, but the pace of change is still very slow.
The reason why I wanted to share this is because we are surrounded by so many Travelers who are also members of the LGBT community – and some of them end up committing suicide because they felt the way I did. They believe that no one will accept them.
So many people are taking their lives. Suicide is the leading cause of death in young men in Ireland aged 15-34. Some of those deaths are undoubtedly linked to homophobia and transphobia.
‘Why should we care so much whether other people accept us or not?’
I will never understand why people hate on others for who they are. Sexuality is not a choice. We were born to love who God wanted us to love. What if your kid was gay? Would you bully them to death? Would you want others to victimize and bully them to the point they can’t be saved?
Don’t just sit around and do nothing. Stand up for your beloved and friends. Let them know it’s OK to not be OK: give them your time. I know that hatred and cruelty in this world will never disappear, but we can help save our beloved and get them through it.
I cry every time I hear that someone has killed themselves because they struggled with being gay. Why should we care so much whether other people accept us or not?
Hold your head up high, stay strong and be proud. It’s your life, so don’t give up. It gets better.