Eóin Tennyson hopes to be first openly gay MLA
'I came out when I was 19 and before I did I wondered if my sexuality might hold me back from certain things in life'
Eóin Tennyson says homophobic and sectarian haters won’t stop his drive to get to Stormont.
Last week the 23-year-old Alliance Assembly hopeful was subjected to abuse from a man who went to considerable effort to track him down in his car just to abuse him for pushing an election leaflet through his door.
Having reported the barrage of foul-mouthed abuse to the police, he says he was taken back by the vitriol but his ‘hater’ didn’t make it clear if it was his sexuality or his religion or just a pathological hatred of the colour yellow that raised his ire.
But Eóin, already an accomplished councillor in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon, has had no shortage of homophobic hate mail telling him he’s “disgusting” and even suggestions of where he could obtain gay conversion therapy.
He’s also been questioned about his religion, with one woman looking at his name on his leaflet and asking: “Well, you’re clearly not a Prod are you?”
And in a week when two men were murdered in Sligo, Eóin believes it even more important that people like him stand up to be counted on election day.
“I came out when I was 19 and before I did I wondered if my sexuality might hold me back from certain things in life,” says Eóin.
“I was lucky I had a very supportive family behind me. I had a great aunt who was a lesbian when it was definitely not cool and my mum was very supportive of her.
“It’s important for young people from the gay community to see people like them reflected in society, especially for young people because it gives them hope.
“Seeing gay and lesbian people being elected makes you feel included while having people elected with different lived experiences leads to better outcomes for everyone I think.”
After announcing he was going to stand in the May election, he received an unpleasant call from a constituent telling him he was “going to hell” and that he was “disgusting and sinful”.
“It’s water off a duck’s back to be honest,” says the accountant who went to St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon.
“There’s a lot of abuse on social media but my generation have grown up with that so we are able to cope with it better.
“Last Saturday when the guy tracked us down in his car was a bit scary because I’d often have people as young as 17 canvassing for me and it worried me what would have happened if this guy actually opened the door to one of them.
“We had been canvassing and dropping leaflets in a mixed area of Craigavon when this guy came flying round in his car and when he spotted me he stopped and let rip.
“He launched a tirade lasting about two minutes filled with swear words telling me not to come back and that I wasn’t welcome. It was disconcerting because there was only a few of us and he was very aggressive.”
And he blames that aggression on other parties he says are inflaming the debate unnecessarily.
“It’s not helped by some people deliberately stirring things up and scaring people just to win votes and protect their own party seats,” he says. “People need to dial down on some of the things they are saying and realise that what they say will have consequences. Just debate the issues in a measured way.”
But he says the positive feedback he gets from members of the LGBTQ+ community more than makes up for the abuse.
“Honestly we’ve knocked around 10,000 doors already this election and the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Eóin.
“People are much more tolerant of sexuality and don’t care about it – they just want things to be done better.
“But I get a lot of people from the LGBTQ+ community getting in touch to tell me how pleased they are to see me running and that far outweighs the negative stuff.”
Northern Ireland may be a more tolerant place for the LGBTQ+ community than it was a quarter of a century ago when the Good Friday Agreement was signed but we’ve yet to elect an openly gay or lesbian candidate to Stormont.
Eóin would be breaking a couple of records should he be elected in May in the crowded
constituency of Upper Bann which features heavy hitters like the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd, UUP leader Doug Beattie and one of the DUP’s rising stars, Jonathan Buckley.
He’d certainly become the youngest MLA ever elected – he’s actually younger than the Good Friday Agreement.
But he’d also become the first – and perhaps one of several firsts if others standing are also elected – openly gay candidates to make it into Parliament Buildings.
His two Alliance colleagues Andrew Muir (North Down) and John Blair (South Antrim) are openly gay and are sitting MLAs but they were co-opted onto their seats rather than being elected.
The May 5 Assembly election will almost certainly be a landmark moment for the LGBTQ+ community.
Aside from the three aforementioned Alliance candidates, there are two UUP hopefuls who are gay – Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston in North Belfast and Lauren Kerr in South Belfast, and there are others standing too.
Eóin may have been attracted to the politics of the Alliance Party because of the injustice and exclusion suffered by the LGBTQ+ community but having served a couple of years as a councillor he’s clued in to know what else makes people tick.
He says he’s passionate about the environment, climate change and renewable energy and says he’s been surprised how little people are talking about the Protocol on the doorsteps.
“Health and cost of living – that’s what comes up at almost every door,” he says.
And he likes to do things his own way.
Born and raised in the Co Armagh village of Maghery into a traditionally nationalist family, it was as much a surprise to them when he “came out” as Alliance as when he announced he was gay.
“My dad took a double take when I said I was joining the Alliance Party but their politics was much more suited to mine,” he says.
“I didn’t like how Sinn Féin were slow to get on board and support integrated education and they are effectively now an establishment party because of the way they and the DUP have carved things up at Stormont and the way they have abused the petition of concern mechanism.
“Nationalist politics of either side doesn’t appeal to me and I think Stormont needs to be reformed to make things work more effectively for the people.
“I didn’t set out to be an MLA when I got involved in politics, I thought I’d have a career and then maybe stand when I was older but I believe in the values of the party and here I am, it’s just the way things have worked out.”
In three weeks we’ll know if Eoin is to become the youngest ever elected MLA but either way he’ll not be quitting the political scene for quite a few years.
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