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'As a teacher I saw homophobic bullying and even as a kid myself I was aware of that term 'you're so gay' being used at school'

Mother-of-two Shirley-Anne McMillan from Co Down tells Stephanie Bell why she wanted to include a gay character in her novel for teenagers

Having helped to set up Northern Ireland's first school youth group to combat homophobic bullying, it seemed natural to local author Shirley-Anne McMillan that she would include a gay character in her first novel for teens.

In fact, the mum-of-two, who lives just outside Dundrum, says she would have found it odd to write a novel about young people for young people today and not include a character from the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.

Shirley-Anne (40) is passionate about the rights of the LGBT people, although she stresses her book has not been written for that purpose.

As a former teacher and youth worker she has a grip on what it is like for young people growing up today. And while many are still being bullied because of their sexuality, she says that, generally, young people are growing up comfortable in the company of gay friends.

She says: "My book wasn't about focusing on gender or sexuality, but young people today have gay friends and it is not something they are uncomfortable talking about, so writing about teenagers and not including a gay character would have been more strange to me, or I think it would have been more of an agenda if I had left it out."

Her book, A Good Hiding, is a compellingly, realistic and contemporary narrative which she wanted ultimately to be full of hope.

She describes A Good Hiding as a dual story told by two characters - a straight girl (Nollaig) and a gay boy (Stephen).

And she hasn't shied away from the hard-hitting reality for gay men, as she explains: "Part of the story explores what I would describe as the logical conclusion of the religious exclusion and demonisation of LGBT people. That conclusion being violence.

"Nollaig's story is bound up with Stephen's in a way which is, to my mind, completely inextricable to this novel. They are separate people, but their stories are intertwined. Stephen's experience of homophobia as a young man touches Nollaig's story.

"Nollaig's experience of marginalisation as a young woman touches Stephen's story. Because they are friends, it's one story, told by both of them as separate people."

The book, she says, reflects her own feelings about her gay friends and their experiences. "This is about how I feel about my loved ones who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer. We have our own stories but we also share a story.

"Violence against them is violence to my world because they are in my world. Words used against them which hurt them, hurt my story, because they are part of it.

"Laws against them which cause them to feel that our government hates them, make me feel angry and sad.

"I can't take their place and, even worse, the people causing the pain are the ones who look like me in terms of sexual orientation and gender conformity. Sometimes it makes me wonder where on earth I belong. But as long as they will let me, I will stand beside them."

The launch of her novel - the first in a two-book deal - is the culmination of 20 years of working towards her dream of becoming a published author.

A former English teacher at Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle, where her husband Ian (41) also teaches, she took time out to write while also being at home with her two children Ana (11) and Eoin, who is just two.

She also wanted to do something practical and volunteered to help out in the after-school clubs at Shimna where she became involved in setting up the Gay Straight Alliance youth group, the very first of its kind in Northern Ireland.

After five years the group has proved such a success that Hazelwood Integrated College in Newtownabbey has also now set one up for its students.

The groups are aimed at LGBT students and their friends who meet once a week to take part in a variety of activities as well as host guest speakers.

Shirley-Anne explains: "As a teacher you do see quite a lot of homophobic bullying, and even as a kid myself I would have been aware of it and that term 'you're so gay' being used in school.

"When you hear children's personal experiences it does make you wonder if anything can be done and, thankfully, yes it can.

"The group has really helped and we are led by the young people and what they want to do each week. We've had guest speakers talking about being gay and Catholic and about being gay and Protestant and it makes a difference to the young people to hear those stories.

"Every year we ask the students what they feel the impact of the group has been and every year they have said that bullying in school has been reduced. It helps create awareness among their friends and it helps them feel more empowered."

She is also passionate about young adult fiction and would love to see more of it coming out of Northern Ireland.

Shirley-Anne, who was born in Lisburn, now lives in the townland of Maghera on the south Down coast.

She studied English at Queen's University Belfast, where she decided she wanted to pursue a career as a writer and has been writing ever since. Five years ago she completed her Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

As part of her Masters she self-published her first novel, Widow's Row, which is still available on Amazon.

She was just about to give birth to her second child, Eoin, two years ago when she secured her first publishing deal for A Good Hiding.

"After waiting so long to get published everything seemed to happen at once, and I had Eoin a couple of months after signing the deal and was writing while looking after a newborn," she says.

"It was brilliant to finally sign a publishing deal as obviously I've always longed for it. I really like young adult books and there is such a massive variety now and the standard is so high.

"They are written for the 14-plus age group but you always get kids who will read books that are for older kids and that's fine. Many of them are also bought by adults.

"I'm lucky that my husband is a teacher so when he is off during the summer I try to write for longer periods and then, during term-time, I try to work in the evenings."

Now working on her second book due out this time next year, she says her stories will always be based in Northern Ireland and will deal with different issues relating to their teenage audience.

A Good Hiding is set in a church in Belfast at Christmas, where a boy, a girl and a priest are in hiding.

One of the main characters, 15-year-old Nollaig, has survived life in Belfast with her alcoholic father thanks to her wit, courage and the gift of the gab. But now she's frightened - not for herself, but for the baby she's secretly carrying.

She decides to run away and finds refuge in the little-used crypt of a local church. She plans to stay there until after Christmas, when she'll be sixteen and free to leave home for good.

The only person she tells about her pregnancy, her plans and her hiding place is her best friend, Stephen. He knows only too well how dangerous the truth can be, if the truth marks you out as 'different'.

When the church's vicar discovers them, they think their time is up; but they've discovered his little secret - and will use it against him if he reveals theirs.

Overlooked by an angel in the stained glass, these three souls-in-hiding face the choice before them: a life hidden in the safety of shadows, or a life lived freely, fully fledged and in plain sight.

The book is due to be launched at The Black Box in Belfast on August 2 at 6pm as part of the Belfast Pride Festival. It is a big day for the author who has waited since she was a student to do her first official book signing.

"I would just love to be able to keep on writing and I hope my books are very successful. We don't have a lot of writers of young adult fiction coming out of Northern Ireland and yet it is massive at the minute," says Shirley-Anne.

"The vast majority are in England although we do have some good ones here such as Sheena Wilkinson, who is brilliant."

Shirley-Anne, however, adds: "It is not something you expect to make your fortune from and most writers have other jobs as well. I think we all do it for the love of writing."

  • A Good Hiding will be on sale in all good book shops and can also be pre-ordered on Amazon

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