A Co Down man behind a dedicated helpline for gay farmers estimates that there are around 800 gay farmers or farm workers in Northern Ireland, many of whom are suffering in silence from mental health issues.
Canon Keith Ineson has been operating his helpline for the past six years and is receiving one new case every week.
He fears hundreds of farmers in the province are suffering marital and mental health problems, because they have never admitted they are gay.
A lifelong Christian, Keith came to faith via the Salvation Army. He is a Canon Emeritus of Chester Cathedral – in recognition of his work in agricultural chaplaincy - and he received a BEM from Her Majesty the Queen for services to agriculture. He came out as a gay man around nine years ago.
Keith started the agricultural chaplaincy team in his native Cheshire around 16 years ago. It began on a voluntary part time basis and has grown to comprise 16 chaplains working throughout the county, a fundraising group and a support group for farmers - around 40 people in the team run by ‘Churches Together in Cheshire’ covering all denominations.
Keith explained how the helpline began: “About six or seven years ago I worked with a couple of gay farmers and it suddenly hit me that you don’t hear about gay farmers - they don’t exist. And I thought, don’t be stupid of course they do.
One in four gay men will attempt suicide at some time
“So I did some homework and I went to the Office of National Statistics basically to find out how many gay farmers there were likely to be in Cheshire alone. I ended up with a figure of about 300 gay farmers or farm workers.
“I have done the same calculations for Northern Ireland so if we work that through there are about 800 gay farmers or farm workers.
“So we started up this helpline - a mobile phone and a single advert in the Farmers Guardian. I thought it was going to take months for this to get going, but it didn’t - immediately the first call came in over the Christmas period. The helpline ticked along for a couple of years and then the Methodist Church head office in London rang me and said the church has had such a bad press about gay issues it’s about time we put it right. So I went down to London to the publicity office down there and it took us about five months to get a good publicity campaign up and running and it was launched on a Monday morning on BBC Four’s Farming Today.”
Keith said that out of a massive publicity campaign he expected ‘the heavens to fall in round’ him but just 13 people contacted him who weren’t happy with the helpline.
Over the years the helpline has been running, Keith says he has already received calls from farmers in Northern Ireland.
“We have a social group running in the Cheshire area, so we go out for dinner every so often. We had a small social group ready to go last week in Northern Ireland and then we had those two days of good weather and everyone said ‘you must be joking, get out to the fields quick.’
“I myself used to farm and of course farmers talk to farmers. It’s as simple as that. Farming is top of the suicide league and mental health problems are rife and one in four gay men will attempt suicide at some stage of their lives, so if you put the suicide problems in the farming industry with the gay life as well you’ve got a real recipe for disaster. A lot of folk who ring the helpline are desperate, they really are,” explained Keith.
“The average person who rings the helpline will be about 50, married with children and they have got to the stage where the children are either running the farm or have left for university, or they are working elsewhere and the farmer thinks ‘what have I done?’. Again the normal tale is ‘I don’t want to hurt her, she’s not a bad woman’. In some senses it would be better if she was (a bad woman) because it would make life easier for them. And they are just trapped - they don’t know what to do.
“The pressure to marry and produce an heir, preferably a male heir, for the farm is tremendous and in fact very often their wife is chosen for them, perhaps from a neighbouring farm. You can’t divorce, because you can’t afford it. A lot of farms aren’t making money anyway so to split it down the middle is out of the question. The farm itself is worth a fortune, but the actual income from it is peanuts.”
Keith said that some farmers who find themselves in this situation do opt for divorce, but not that many and a lot of them simply carry on.
“With the helpline they have got somebody to talk to and very often I am the first person they ever tell that they are gay and they are in their fifties. Now what has that done to their mental health for the past 50 years, because they have known from when they were in their early teens. But of course, you cover it up and think ‘if I get married it will sort it out’, and then they get older and find that it doesn’t. They think ‘what am I going to do now’ and that’s when the mental health problems set in.
“The other thing as well, and certainly in small rural areas, if that particular farmer wanted to go to the doctor and talk about things, he knows the receptionist. Everybody knows everybody so again they daren’t talk to anybody about it. In a lot of cases they are related to everybody as well,” added Keith.
“So they do have a massive problem, but at least they have this outlet that they can talk to. On the whole it’s a case of talking, and in some cases there are practical things that they need help with. Farmers who are isolated can tend to be very naive so there will be practical things of a sexual nature that they will need to talk about. They don’t understand about Aids still, they know it exists somewhere, but how do you get it and how do you know you have it? That sort of thing. For instance I had one fellow who rang up on Sunday night in a mad panic. He had been out and for the first time had met a fellow and he was saying ‘what do I do know, what if? So I told him he could go to a sexual health clinic. He was scared silly to go to his own doctor so I told him to head off to a clinic 50 miles away. Again they are frightened that they will be stigmatised by the doctor or the nurses at the clinic, but of course they didn’t bat an eyelid,” added Keith.
“Interestingly when farmers do decide to come out, it isn’t a big deal.”
Keith says that in a lot of cases the families do not suspect the farmer is gay; “They are not Larry Grayson types, they are normal working farmers and of course in the farming community you have a very good excuse for not getting married if you don’t have to, maybe because you’ve never found the right person or they are too busy working.”
One farmer who contacted the helpline was afraid to come out after an incident when he was a child.
Keith explains: “This is a case that hit me because when I was a kid I used to love going out at night with my dad. We would go round the fields checking the gates were closed and the stock was all right. This lad used to go out with his father exactly as I used to and he came across a gate open which didn’t make sense, so they went to see what was going on. There was this car in the gateway with a hosepipe running from the exhaust through to the window. The man’s father smashed the window and pulled the fellow out and he said he was okay. He needed an ambulance, but he was okay. Then off course the police were involved and it turned out the fellow was trying to kill himself because he was gay and he couldn’t cope with it. And the man said ‘my father said if I had known he was gay I would have left him there to die’. Of course the lad already knew that he himself was gay and he had never admitted it to anybody. He would have been 50 odd when he told that story and that was the first time he had told anybody that he was gay.
“The burden and the mental health, depression, stress, everything that goes with it is enormous, it really is.”
Keith says that the Northern Ireland farmers who have contacted him already are looking for social contact as they are feeling lonely and isolated, but in general they too are older in age.
He believes it is more difficult for people in Northern Ireland to be gay, than their counterparts in England.
“Attitudes are definitely different from over on the mainland, there is no doubt about that. It’s a closer knit community in general, so it is more difficult and I’m afraid despite my faith background the church hasn’t helped,” he said.
Keith says, however, that things are changing and he believes a generation from now the helpline won’t be needed. “I think there is a world of difference between the ordinary person accepting gay people and the authorities - the hardline, official line. It is the hardliners who make the shouting and hit the headlines. It’s sad because the vast majority of folk are fine.”
Keith says to anyone thinking of calling the helpline: “Give us a ring - it’s as simple as that. Talk things through. It will at least ease the pressure. You may feel that there is no way you can cope with it, but there are ways of coping with anything.
“The helpline is totally anonymous, they don’t have to say where they are from, they don’t have to say who they are. You wouldn’t believe how many farmers are on called John.”
For anyone wishing to get in contact with Keith there is a dedicated website at gayfarmer.co.uk or the 24 hour helpline number is 07837 931894.