The project is called “Door to Door” and the reason for that is we we’re interested in, as a jumping off point, your first journey. You get on the boat or the plane in Ireland and you travel somewhere else. What was the journey like, what prompted the journey, what happened during the journey and what happened when you got there?
So would you be able to tell us a bit about the circumstances of when you left Ireland?
Well I think I mentioned this the last time that I came here from New York, actually. I went to New York from Ireland. So where do you want me to start?
Well I guess you can start from Ireland to New York, that initial journey is what we’d like to hear about.
OK, and then here?
I was sent to New York initially to do post-graduate studies in Theology and Psychology. I did a doctorate at Fordham University and New York Theological Seminary. I worked there for over twenty years and I got very involved in the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual liberation movement. Primarily, that happened, or it collapsed into the AIDS pandemic in 1981 where AIDS was first “officially” diagnosed in New York and San Francisco amongst the gay community. It was known as GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency. I became chaplain or theological advisor to people who were dying of AIDS.
It was a diagnosis on a Wednesday and a death on the Sunday and most of the people who were dying at that particular time were in their 20s and 30s. They had not lived their lives, to say the least. I don’t think they had even imagined their lives; they were too young.
And I was very soon, in the city, drafted on to the Mayor of New York’s task force on AIDS - that was Mayor Koch. An advisory group. The organisation that I was on was called Dignity and 600 of our membership died of AIDS in the period from 1981 until I came to London in 1992.
I suppose that was the raison d’etre of my coming to London. I wanted to get away from what had become for me a ghost town. Even though I would seriously consider myself a born-again New Yorker, I was now living in the shadows of so many of my friends who had died of AIDS.
I came here in 1992 to work at London Lighthouse which, no pun intended, was the lighthouse of AIDS care in the United Kingdom. I brought my ”experience” and my expertise to there and worked in AIDS / HIV.
[By then] we had testing so you knew whether you we HIV positive or not. Initially nobody knew so therefore we prepared for death. Whose turn was it next? Because there were all sorts of bogus reasons given for contracting the virus, from drinking from the same cup to sitting on the same toilet seat to kissing somebody. But with the development of the epidemiology of AIDS we were able to say whether one was positive or negative.
But people were still dying, right up to Combination Therapy, and so I stayed in the forefront of the battle right up until, I guess, two years ago, even though the battle in the last 10 years was not so much a battle as supporting people who were on Combination Therapy or long term survivors or indeed people who had lost lovers and friends.
So that’s how I came to England. I came initially just to get away from New York of all the horror of what we call the “AIDS Holocaust”.
I only came for three years. That was my contract but I met my husband - quite accidentally. I didn’t come here looking for a husband. You know, as they say, the rest is history. I fell in love with him, we’re together, I guess, over twenty years.
So it’s been an extraordinary journey. I haven’t been living in Ireland - I haven’t lived in my home county in Ireland, Clare - Ennis, since 1965, which is a long time. But I go back there - I still have a father who’s alive, thank God, and in very good health - and my husband and I have a home there on the Atlantic coast that we built in the last ten years. So I have a lot of connections to, a lot of grá for Ireland even though I wouldn’t claim to know Ireland.
…I was faced, in a most unusual time, with immanent young death and I had to do a lot of eating, drinking, sleeping very bitter truths about what it was to be human. It changed my life and gave me a maturation that no study or degree - I got a kind of experience. I’m not saying I have it all together - I certainly do not. Maybe I have less answers than ever but I do think I understand the questions.
The longer you keep at it… the more you know that you don’t know.
Exactly. Very well said.
At what stage did you start working with LGBT groups?
Way back in New York. I was… I guess I was always gay, but growing up as I did in County Clare the word “gay” did not exist or if it did it was “Irish eyes are smiling, all the world is bright and gay”, even the word “homosexual”, in my home town in my own experience.
And so while I was quite educated, I did not… come to terms or find the words for my own sexual identity until, I guess, I was 27 and I was studying for a doctorate in psychology and theology as I said. And my mentor, Tom Hennessy, insisted I myself go in for psychoanalysis as a prerequisite of graduation.
There were two prerequisites. One - that I go to psychoanalysis - I don’t know about you growing up in Dublin, if it was a bit different on the east coast but anyone going for psychoanalysis in Ennis in County Clare was a looney. I mean only the crazy.
So the fact that he insisted on this for me was quite a challenge but he did. I wouldn’t get into program otherwise. And that I’d get an A, B+ average in my studies which I had no problem doing. But going in for psychoanalysis, it was in that dialectic that I discovered that [hushed] I am gay.
Now it wasn’t… I suppose discovery is a misnomer - I accepted - because I had tried so hard not to be gay and to reject gay and try to be straight and even buy some Playboys with naked women to, you know, see how could I turn myself on in that way but it was all self-deluding. When I became aware of it I was, like anyone, I guess, Lesbian Gay Transgender Bisexual, I was very afraid of it. I immediately gravitated towards a Catholic support group which was the organisation that I ultimately became leader of in New York, one of the leaders.
1,200 people, it was the largest [group of its kind] in the United States. There were 1,200 people in New York city alone. Catholics of Italian, Irish, Dutch, Canadian, all, you know, English, Scottish descent. And I was shocked to discover that the Catholic Church was such a Trojan opposition to any kind of freedom for gay people. This shocked me.
I mean, I marched for civil rights as far back as 1969 in Newry at the beginning of the troubles. I was always - I worked in Africa - I was always committed to justice, not out of any pious reasoning but in a very simple way. That’s how I understood the Gospel. It hadn’t got to do with religion. For me, it had to do with justice. It had to do with the core quality of people. It had to do with “love one another as I have loved you”. It was an anthropology rather than a theology and it’s my initial education saw it and indeed empowered me to see.
So then, you know, here I was in Africa for “the poor”. Here I was in Northern Ireland marching for civil rights with my own religious denomination and now I was in New York and I discovered that I’m one of oppressed in my own way. And here my church is one of the harbingers of the most hateful rhetoric and oppositional stand to our human and civil rights.
So that’s why I became so involved and I paid a terrible price for that. I was stripped of my licence, as we would say in England, to work, though I continued to work because of course I was well qualified and I continued to exercise my priesthood within certain restrictions.
But my own church ultimately - and you can check this out on Youtube - it’s called “A Priest On Trial” - my own church, together with the FBI basically forced one of the boys at my school - I was teaching - to give false testimony against me and the whole case went to trial in 1989 for a whole year. In court, and I said you can see this - Channel 4 made a documentary with footage from the trial, the judge and the boy - he was nineteen then when he brought these charges against - basally admitted on the stand that he was put up to this to defame me and to undermine my work for human and civil rights of gay people and for people with AIDS.
Now I was lucky that I suppose it came to that but unlucky in that I had to go through that ignominious ordeal. And this was long before all these true allegations of priests and brothers came out, abusing young people and engaging in the most horrific acts of violence against children.
But the church new what it was doing in bringing this about under Cardinal John O’Connor and no priest since, which is kind of interesting, no priest since has ever publicly opposed the church on gay issues. No priest either in the United States or the United Kingdom or Ireland or anywhere else that I know of. And that is what they wanted to achieve. It wasn’t really about me. I happened to be the scapegoat…
And that was probably the lowest point of my life because even though I am no saint - I never was, and I hope I would never be in that pious sense - I could not believe that the Catholic Church could do such an evil. I mean, I’ve read history…
I just could not believe… you know, you hear about the De Medicis, you’ve [Machiavelli], you hear about John Paul I being “gotten rid of”, etc., etc., but my father did say to me, alright, in Ireland - and my father is of farming stock - he did say to me when I was involved in the AIDS pandemic at its height and I was opposing the Church and advocating use of condoms and saying we’ve got to take care of people and, you know, OK the Church teaches you can’t use condoms but if you’ve got a choice between life and death, for goodness sake, use a condom, he did say to me, in his wisdom, “Don’t oppose the Catholic Church. It will destroy you.” This was long before anything happened. And I, of course, being the eldest son, maybe like a lot of eldest sons, gloriously ignored him and paid a very high price.
But I’m very happy today. I’m very grateful today. I’m very free today. As much and more in love with my partner, Billy, than I was twenty years ago. That was the greatest gift. I suppose if I had stayed on the straight and narrow I wouldn’t have been gifted with such a relationship.
I would like to do what I can even though I am very tired at a soul level from all the struggle, the AIDS and the trial and so on. But I still want to make some contribution, for as long as I’m alive and I have the strength.
It sounds like an obviously hugely difficult part of your life, and in all sense there’s something hugely wrong with the way society was dealing with that from all sides.
…From all sides, but particularly the Church. I mean, the Church condemned gay people for being sexual and at the same time, because of the way it constructed it’s ethic, it forced gay people into promiscuity. In other words, you could go to confession, to take a very straight line, no pun intended, and confess that you’d been with ten men on a given week and if you said you were sorry the priest would give you absolution.
Whereas if you went - and this is still true and this is the absurdity of the position - whereas if you go to confession and say to a priest, “I’m in love with a man,” or if it’s a woman, “I’m in love with a woman and I’m living in glorious “fidelity” (whatever that means), and truthful[ness] and yes we do express our relationship sexually (and what loving relationship does not express itself sexually in a marriage),” they cannot forgive you. A priest cannot forgive you because you are technically living in sin and that’s the absurdity of the Catholic Churches position.
And not only… you know, that’s OK, but in an era of AIDS where having a lot of sex with a lot of different men was tantamount to getting a virus that could ultimately kill you. The only thing the Church offered was total abstinence which was - I mean how many spontaneous men and women in the world who naturally can and do abstain from sexual congress. I mean, according to my psychological research about five percent and that’s even borne out in what we know about priests themselves, in that priests themselves… we ourselves cannot live up to the vow we make with all the support we had to do that.
And yet this was imposed on lesbian women and gay men. You know, “Don’t be sexual, don’t express yourself sexually, do not have relationships, do not fall in love and express it in the most normal way that God has made you”. I use the phraseology I am made in the gay image of God. She is made in the lesbian image of God. So come on. If you’re made that way…
And it’s interesting that even though my father and mother were not - I mean they were secondary schooled but there was no opportunity in those days to have third level education - but I remember when I came out to them in 1982, which was a long time ago, I remember them both saying separately that that’s the way God made you. So they were using their own religiose language as a way of ameliorating for themselves, and for me, acceptance.
And yourself, are you still religious?
Well I mean, “Are you still religious?” I think the word religious is loaded, I’m…
Do you have faith, I guess, is what mean.
I’m spiritual and I do believe. But belief is a strong word. I think I do hope. I don’t know that I could have, would have been able to do what I did, in all humility, if I didn’t have hope. And hope particularly for the young men [who have died]. It’s interesting, that question. What do I hope for? I hope that we do go on in some kind of way but I don’t have any concrete, empirical proof of that whatsoever or I don’t even have it conceptualised, like heaven, purgatory, hell. Like what they are.
But I do have a hope. I am able to say, having seen and been with so many people dying, that [as Emily Dickinson says] “This life is not conclusion”. I think there is a possibility of more, whatever that more is, and to be able to help people to be open to the possibility of more without using religious terminology - you can call it God, you can call it Buddha, you can call it love, you can call it the universe - to be able help people to be open to that possibility and have that artistic sensibility is to be able to enable to live. And to die.
Doctor Evelyn Hooker did a lot of research around it in the 80s and she found that people who were, especially in young death, that were open to that possibility - without any proof and were not necessarily religious or good in that very moralistic sense - if they were open to that possibility she found out that they were able not only to accept more gracefully what was [happening], but they were able to live longer.
So I would say, yes, I hope. And I find myself, the nearer I get to my own death because I’m now much older, the more open I am to that. But it’s not the god or religion I grew up with. It’s a god or goddess, a higher power that transcends all religion. In fact I would say that all religion is about the denial of God. If there is a god, we do not know anything about her or him or it. We don’t. And that’s where I like to start with people when they ask me to “help them believe”. I can’t help them to believe; that’s a choice.
But in a very simple way, it’s like Santa Claus. When you believe in Santa Claus, Santa Claus comes. When you stop believing, he doesn’t. When you believe in the possibility of love, which is my word for God - when you believe in the possibility of love eternal, something happens in the inside that changes you forever. That belief is not an intellectual asset. God is for the heart; it’s not for the head. And so it’s not an argument for an atheist or an agnostic. I don’t think atheism is possible and I don’t think theism is possible. I think the most truthful intellectual statement is agnosticism. I think the most we can say is “we don’t know”, no matter how mellifluous we are on these subjects.
And, OK, I can say “I don’t know” but I’m open to the possibility of love, going on and on in some way. And I don’t think that necessarily is as absurd as it may initially sound. I think that, our evolution from you know whatever the big bang, material earth to plant to animal to human being and then the counter, the way back again. There’s ninety-something percent that we don’t know and I would think it would be arrogant on my part to say there isn’t more, and it would be equally arrogant to say I know what that more is, and that’s what religion tries to do.
It manipulates the mystery of what it is to be human, the mystery of what it is to die, and it corrals it into a system that basically disempowers people from experiencing the freedom that I understand is God. I mean for me to live as God, what did Tolstoy say? That the most difficult thing and yet the one thing necessary is to love life, to love it even while we suffer, for life is all, life is everything, life is God, and the woman or man that loves life loves God. Therefore, when I say for me to live as God that is not a pious statement. Everything is God, you’re god, she’s god, we’re God, we’re expressions - I’m not talking about pantheism - because we’re expressions of life. You spoke earlier about music, and maybe music is the prayer of the universe, it’s the universal touchstone of reality, no matter what is it, whether it’s classical or jazz or rock…
I think for me it’s the one part of my life where I think there is something that can’t be quantified, or can’t be measured: where that comes from, where that kind of creativity comes from. Because you can’t make it, you can’t sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper - it’s very hard to create in that situation. Something that I heard recently was: you go to the studio or you sit down at your desk or you do whatever you do [in the place you go to] to be creative and 80% of the days you’ll feel nothing, do little, it won’t feel good, but then sometimes if you keep going something will appear.
And it’s that kind of appearance - I guess people call it muse or whatever - that’s something in my life that I can’t explain. I don’t know where it comes from. So I guess there’s a kind of a spiritual element to that.
It’s a real transcendentalism.
And it’s analogous to love between two people, you know? We know what love is but show me it. In the same way we know what music is and we can read the notes and we can hear it but we can’t see it.
Do you know what I’m saying? And it’s the same with love. And to me that’s why I made such a connection between what prayer is and music and what God is (goddess, god, whatever): love. Because they’re both very clear in a way but completely, you can’t… as you say, it either happens or it doesn’t happen, you get it or you don’t get it. You communicate it or you don’t communicate it, maybe that’s the gift of the musician. Maybe the musician as artist and the lover are the same. If I love you I will teach you things you do not know. And I think that’s what a musician does. It brings into my knowledge, my knowing, something that I cannot recognise.
(In conversation with Door to Door volunteer Rob Costello)