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'I'd really wanted to become religion teacher, but that all changed at Queen's as I came to terms with being gay'

Published 18/07/2016

Fergal McFerran
Fergal McFerran
Fergal McFerran
Professor Patrick Johnston

NUS/USI president Fergal McFerran talks to Rebecca Black about the moment he came out to his parents and how he received support from Christians... and some criticism too.

Q. You were concerned about Queen's vice chancellor Patrick Johnston's comments about society not needing a 21-year-old who was a sixth century historian?

A. I am very proud to have gone to Queen's University and graduated from the humanities side. The specific comment that society does not need a 21-year-old sixth century historian, and also the wider language that he quite often uses - he talks about the university producing graduates and that students are seen consumers, international students have a price tag attached to them.

I think that there is a competing vision of what a university is for, here. For me, our members and so many others including academics and staff at Queen's, a university is not a factory to pump out graduates, it's not about the spin-off companies, it's not about balancing your books. It is as Professor Johnston himself talked about, producing citizens who can contribute to society, but to do that we need to ensure that all aspects of academia are respected and valued.

It is shown throughout society there are people in leadership roles regardless of what they studied. I do have genuine concerns about the direction of travel that the university - of which I am an alumni - is taking. I just hope that he takes the time to carefully and genuinely speak to the concerns not just of the current students and staff, but to those who so proudly hold an attachment to Queen's.

Q. Tell me about your background?

A. I come from a small village in north Antrim called Dunloy, attended a local Catholic primary school as a child and then went on to secondary school in Ballymena. I am the youngest of three and was the first in my family to graduate from university. I was always one of the kids in school who kept their head down and got on with work - I didn't want to get into trouble.

My dad has retired now, he was a car mechanic and always had a big interest in cars, rallying and all that. When I was younger he would always be taking me to get a new boilersuit in the hope I would get involved as well, but I haven't even learned how to drive yet, so he's maybe a bit disappointed in that! My mum has worked in the residential care of the elderly and driven school buses for kids who are disabled.

Mum and dad have worked hard all their lives, they are the kind of people who like to keep busy; I think they are probably the people that instilled my work ethic in me, they certainly never let me sit still.

Q. Did you have any specific ambitions when you were younger?

A. The thing I always thought I really wanted to do when I was growing up was to be a religious studies teacher. When I was younger I would have been involved with the church back home. I was always interested in religion, when I was making choices for A-levels at school I chose to do religious studies and the specific course because of the module about ethics; I found it really interesting because every class was different, there was always something new to debate.

I think the interest for me was that maybe some day I could be the teacher in the classroom that made people feel comfortable to debate and discuss things. That was why I went on to study theology at university. That was the only thing I was really firm about when I was younger. It hasn't transpired that way, but that's the way it goes.

Q. You went to Queen's University?

A. Yes, I arrived at Queen's in 2010 to study theology, I thought I'd get my degree and then do a PGCE and become an RE teacher. But in second year I decided to leave theology, and part of it was because it was around the time that I had kind of started to come to terms with the fact that I was gay, and at the time I was really struggling with it.

For someone who had been involved with the Church, I thought I had a strong faith and there was a lot of conflict there for me, so I needed to try and figure it all out. The one thing I was certain about was that theology was not where I needed to be at that point.

It was the officers of the Students' Union and the advice centre that supported me through the process of changing from theology and coming back to study politics, economics and philosophy (PPE). It was another three years from then that I came out to my family, which is another reflection of just how my experience at Queen's has really shaped me as a person, and helped connect me to who I am today.

Q. It must have been a tough time coming to university in Belfast, firstly from a rural setting to a city and then going through that personal development as well?

A. Yes, I think quite often people from Northern Ireland go to Liverpool or Coventry to get away; for me, going to Belfast was probably on the scale of things not that much different to that - particularly because I came to Belfast for uni and got a job, so I stayed, rarely went home.

I worked probably too many hours alongside my course every week. It was a brand new experience for me being in Belfast, meeting people from different backgrounds, and it was really healthy because it made me talk about issues that I maybe hadn't talked about before, it made me understand other people's experiences, it challenged my perceptions of them as well as myself, and, to be honest, if it hadn't been for that holistic experience I probably wouldn't have been in a space last year where I felt comfortable and confident enough to be so public whenever I did come out.

Q. You were very brave to speak out at the time about your personal journey. Did you experience any negative response?

A. I hadn't planned to speak out. I had been in London for work and decided to go home that weekend and speak to my mum and dad. So I flew home that evening and phoned my brother - someone I felt I could be quite open with and talk it through. I spoke to him, got on the first train home the next morning, and he met me off the train. I hadn't told my mum and dad that I was coming home, so I walked in the back door and they asked what I was doing there. I sat them down and said: "I have something I want to talk to you about."

It's difficult to articulate, but I have never felt relief like it. It's hard to put into words the scale of the feeling at the time. Even more so because their reaction was so positive. It was so overwhelmingly supportive, and I think the message in that is, of course it was going to be, they are my parents, they love me. But the issue is that society is structured in such a way that we are told we should expect to be afraid of it, because we are seen as unnatural or different.

Then I took a couple of days over that weekend and wrote about it for Slugger O Toole, and then ended up on the Nolan Show as well. I had Presbyterian ministers, Catholic priests, childhood friends and people I didn't even know getting in touch.

It was overwhelmingly positive, a lot of people seemed to resonate with the story I told, but there was of course some of the usual stuff - emails, tweets and letters from people, people who sent clippings, messages from Heaven and highlighted certain things.

I was very lucky in that I had lots of people around me, both within the student movement and other organisations, friends and family, who were supportive and helped me filter some of that stuff out and deal with it in a constructive way. I was lucky, there are people who don't have that support.

I know people say it was a brave thing to do, but there are lots of people who aren't in that situation, who can't be so public and open, who don't have that support network, for whom the brave thing to do every day is just to survive and carry on.

Q. Were you NUS-USI president at the time?

A. Yes,I started my first term on July 1, 2015, so I had been in post for about half of my first term and it was a couple of weeks just before the marriage equality vote in the Assembly, which I think is why it gained so much extra momentum at the time.

I think, for me, it did show a side of some of our politicians that we don't often see or talk about in that so many of them - even if they were uncertain about the issue of marriage equality or didn't agree - so many of them took the time to respond to me, write to me or talk about what I had talked about.

They had started to see beyond the label, they saw the human experience and realised there are issues there to be dealt with. From that perspective, it also gave me an insight into some of our politicians; that gave me a bit of hope.

It was the first vote that passed with a majority, even though it was blocked by a petition of concern. I am fairly confident now. If you look at who has been returned in the last Assembly election - the vast majority have said they are in favour in marriage equality. There is an outright majority there.

I have been proud that the student movement this year has joined forces with the Rainbow Project, Amnesty, LGBT charities and trade unions to say with one collective voice to civic society that this is about nothing more than equality.

Q. How concerned are you that student fees in Northern Ireland might increase?

A. I think we have done an awful lot of work in the last year to very articulately make the case that tuition fees are not just ideologically bad, but, if you look at the state of play in England, they actually economically do not work. If you raise fees all you are doing to putting students in immeasurable levels of debt, but doing it in such a way that those loans will never be paid off.

The system does not sustainably fund itself anyway. If you raise fees, more students can't pay them off, you have to raise fees again to make your balance books look as if they check off, it doesn't work in practice and all they are doing is delaying the inevitable - breaking the system. For me, I think our work has resonated with people that if higher and further education is something that is inherently important - not just to the economy but in enhancing social mobility and social cohesion - then it should be free at the point of access. Students shouldn't be deterred from entering into it.

Tuition fees can act as a deterrent to those from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, so the challenge is not should we raise fees or should we not, the challenge is how do we fund things properly so people can access education.

For us, it is about ensuring everyone who is in a place to contribute should do so fairly, to ensure that the system that so many of them benefited from is affordable to everyone else.

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