Leo and Me

October 11, 2015

The main thing that struck me about Minister Leo Varadkars interview with Miriam O Callaghan this past Sunday was not how articulate, courageous and open he was, although he was all of those things and more. Instead it was how awkward-and painfully familiar the whole thing felt. As he and Miriam pirouetted around the elephant that they were clearly there to discuss, the
tightening timber in his voice awakened a dreaded feeling of déjà vu in me, and surely in many other gay men and women, who could sense that loaded question cocked in the wings. 

Most gays have, at one time or another, sat in their closet, as a conversation skirted dangerously close to home, its content making the blood rush to our head and our hearts pound like the 5am techno so favored by those nightmare neighbours.

“Have you got a… ‘partner’,” a family friend might ask. “Is there anybody special in your life,” queries another.

Excuses are made, self-effacing jokes concocted, but as time wears on, the questions become sharper. “You’re gay aren’t you,” a mate prods when they’ve got you alone, hitting you with those ‘I don’t believe you’ eyes as you splutter your half-hearted denials, that corrode, but don’t give way, with every follow up question. 

Some put you on public display, asking private questions in a crowded room, placing their curiosity above your readiness. They use the suspicion that you’re keeping something from them as moral Teflon, with friendship-or the public interest acting as the ‘WMDs’ they need as an excuse to invade your personal affairs. 

And while the conversation with Miriam differed from this entirely, in that he had agreed to it as a topic of conversation, one can’t help but feel that Minister Varadkers openness was a pre-emptive strike against those waiting to exploit it. It was a proud day for Ireland to say we had an openly gay minster in our cabinet. But there was also something deeply disconcerting about a grown man having to divulge the personal details of his sexuality so that he could go about doing the job he was elected to do, without the threat of being outed, shamed and demonised.

Whatever Minister Varadkers reasons for speaking publically, his conversation with O’Callaghan will inspire even those not enamored with his work as Minister for Health.

“I was going to say it was important for the LGBT community, that they should have there relationships recognised,” he says recalling the arguments he had prepared for the upcoming referendum, “and that wouldn’t be entirely honest.

Because what I would really want to say is that I would like the referendum to pass, as I would like to be an equal citizen in my own country.”

“If people want to come out, I think they should,” he says. “If they don’t, they shouldn’t have to.” While, as gays, our visibility is our voice, hopefully his announcement has gotten us one step closer to a world where people’s sexual preferences won’t continue being like the foie gras of public consumption.

Minister Varadkar isn’t that much older than I am. Like him, I came out comparatively late. And as with him, it was no big surprise to those who knew me. Red Bull may have given other people wings, but mine were there from birth. It just took a while for my comfort levels to catch up with my gait and my gob. 

The casual homophobia in school or after school activities probably didn’t help. I got called a ‘faggot’, occasionally, although honestly not that much and no more than anyone else. But they weren’t all actually gay, so it was enough to create negative connotations in my mind. I never felt like there was anti-gay sentiment in its speaking, (it was more anti-ass hole, which I, like most teens, had a tendency to be).

But a ‘faggot’ was clearly something you didn’t aspire to, since it seemed to be the ‘one slag fits all’ for things that were embarrassing, pathetic, idiotic and unseemly. Gays may no longer have been considered criminals, but they didn’t play for Manchester United, survive as Hollywood heartthrobs or run a government office, all things I’d planned for in my youth.

The worst homophobia I suffered was internalised. Even as I took those first tentative steps out of the closet, I was quick to reassure myself that I was ‘different’ from those other gays, the ones prancing in their underwear outside the Dail, snogging on the streets during pride and generally fighting for my rights. In my note, coming out to my parents, I even stated that I wasn’t a ‘campaigning’ gay, as if that were something to be proud of.

So I can identify with the minister’s discomfort as he was forced to detail his reasons for waiting to come out. My heart went out to him as O’Callaghan was forced to do ask for the information we somehow feel we have the right to.

Like him, my own coming out story did not end in a family trip to a Barbara Streisand concert…though my fear of some high notes being hit meant I felt more comfortable writing a letter than saying the words face to face. And while it wasn’t all hugs and kisses- hugging a member of my immediate family is like hugging a stainless steel fork. That, in itself would have been a nightmare reaction- I knew my parents would be there for me in the end.

We’ve become so blasé as a society as to how difficult the act of coming out can actually be. At the start of 2014, the coming out section was the third most visited section of the National LGBT Hotline’s website with 21,000 hits. Society may have moved on, but I’m still fairly sure I’m the only gay my father knows by name. Which would account for why he didn’t speak to me for a month after I came out. Not because he had an issue with it. But because he genuinely didn’t know what to say.

One pint together and the awkwardness dissipated. I knew it would. But in the run up to ‘my big reveal’ people still peddled a fairytale reaction which had I bought into could have been devastating to me. The answer to the question, ‘who cares’ is still today, ‘far to many’.

Its 21 years since homosexuality was decriminalised, and as D: Ream prophesied, things have gotten better. Varadkers openness means that a gay Taoiseach is not beyond the realm of possibility within the next decade, though the thoughts of Fine Gael still maintaining power that long may be chilling to some.

Maybe that will provide some ease to parents still shaken by the news their child is gay. That his sexuality wasn’t an inhibitor to him climbing to the highest office in the land. But mainly I hope that it’s a building stone to a world where the ministers wish to be treated equal will be extended to all its citizens, removing the demand on gays to ‘come out’.


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