‘I’ve had an absolute bellyful - I still call Derry a narrow-minded village’

Derry woman, Susannah Toland.
Derry woman, Susannah Toland.

Susannah Toland was standing outside a city centre pub last week when a random stranger approached.

“I was having a smoke and she shouted: ‘I don’t even know if you’re a man or a woman’.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God’, into myself but I could feel my anger.”

Minutes later Susannah, who has suffered from alopecia for the past few years, was once again the brunt of a pass-remarkable passery-by’s unsolicited judgment.

Another woman, commenting unbidden on her shaven head, suggested she had cancer.

These are only the latest examples of an insidious bigotry Susannah has said she has been forced to put up with on an almost weekly basis in Derry.

Though no shrinking violet - Susannah is both a bouncer and a support worker for vulnerable women and children in the city - she found herself overwhelmed that day.

“When I broke down on Friday, in here [her parental home in the Bogside] with my parents, I cried. I hadn’t cried in a long time,” she admitted.

“I just cried for four hours. I couldn’t stop crying.

“I cried for four hours with my parents, just uncontrollable, I was broke, like a broken woman.

“I was talking to my father this morning. I was still so upset, that I got upset, because I don’t get upset, you know, being a door woman, you know what you’re to do.

“I feel better now, but it’s still there. It’s like an ache. It’s sore. I could cry now talking about it, but I’m not going to. But it does upset me.”

Growing up black, gay and Catholic in Derry, Susannah, explained how she has suffered more than her share of hate speech and abuse over the years.

However, last week’s incidents were a bit like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Susannah’s visceral reaction to the abuse - from someone so used to shrugging her shoulders and swaggering on - shocked her.

She said she’s had enough of the racism, enough of the homophobia, and now, having suffered from hair loss over the past few years, enough of the igorance over her medical condition.

“It happens pretty often but more so now because I’ve had alopecia for three years, so I’ve no hair,” she said.

“No matter where I am. If I’m in a pub or café or in a public place, I’m actually a door woman as well, so I’m well known, the half of Derry that knows me, knows me, and the other half will have something to say.”

But how do you deal with mindless bigotry in 2017?

Susannah said she’s gone down the route of seeking prosecutions under hate legislation in the past, with mixed success.

She said she’d be going to the police and the courts every other week if she reported every single incident.

Notwithstanding her relucance to spend hours on end giving statements to investigating officers for every hateful volley of abuse hurled in her direction, she insisted this is the right thing to do.

She said the love and support of her own family was what gave her the courage to raise her head above the paparpet.

“There’s a fear factor about speaking out. I know that because I come from a loving family and they support me. That makes me strong.

“I could write a book, ‘Black, Irish, Catholic and Lesbian.’ I’ve got it all angles growing up but I can deal with it. But I’ve had enough. If you don’t like my face don’t comment.

“I would call on people to report it. If things are happening report it.”

Susannah’s story belies any notion that racism, sexism, sectarianism and homophobia have been eradicaed in Derry.

It’s also an indictment of the fact that such ugly intolerance is still comfortable rearing its ugly head so frequently.

“I’ve had a bellyful. An absolute bellyful. I’ve lived in Donegal twice in the last few years and I’d live there tomorrow again only my mum doesn’t keep well.

“It’s just a whole different lifestyle.

“I say to my da and I say to my mum all the time, ‘I’m so ashamed to be from here’. It’s amazing the tourists are flowing but they don’t see the other darker side.

“I still call it a narrow-minded village.”

“I haven’t seen any progress. If you’re white you’re alright.

“If you’re Polish, Asian, Chinese, forget about it.”