Despite Gately, coming out still hard for gays

 

Whether Stephen Gately jumped or was pushed out of the closet this week may continue to be contested, but the fact remains that for the State's gay community, coming out is hard to do.

However, according to gay activists, the largely positive reaction to the young Boyzone singer's painfully personal revelations suggests that this traumatic stage in the life of gay men and women may be getting easier.

First there was the headline in the Sun, the paper which broke the story. "I'm Gay and I'm In Love" it swooned, charitably allowing for the fact that homosexuals like Gately might actually experience loving relationships. Then there was that ultra-sensitive barometer, the morning radio chat show. A woman from Sheriff Street phoned Marian Finucane's programme full of support for her former neighbour. "Whether he is bisexual or heterosexual or homosexual or whatever, it does not take away from the fact that he is a good singer, a very good son to his mother and kind to everybody on the road," she said.

"I do think there has been quite a radical change in attitudes," says Chris Robinson, chairperson of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. "The reaction was either `that's great' or `that's his own business'. He said the occasional lament over the airwaves for Stephen's "poor parents" was somewhat understandable.

"It takes a long time for an individual gay man or woman to come to terms with his own sexuality and to expect their parents to do it in 24 hours is a bit much," he said.

Orla Richardson (24) the lesbian, gay and bisexual rights officer for the Union of Students in Ireland, described what it was like before she told friends and family she was gay. "You feel out of place, isolated from your peers and alone," she said. She has been pleasantly surprised by the caring attitude of many shown to Gately this week.

Richardson came out to friends in college when she was 20 and then later to her parents. "My father had an idea but my mother was very shocked," she says. For someone as famous as Gately, coming out is a once-off thing but for most gay people, she says, it is a continual process that begins with close friends and leads on to family. "But you still have to consider at what stage you will come out to a new employer, or new people you meet," she says.

Legislation governing homosexuality, which has received much attention in the past six years, is cited as opening up the issue. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in 1993 and discrimination against a person at work by virtue of their sexual orientation has since been outlawed in the workplace. High-profile gays such as George Michael, Elton John and TV star Ellen De Generes have also kept homosexuality in the headlines.

While things are improving there is still a dark side to coming out. According to Brian Sheehan, director of the Gay Switchboard in Dublin, some of the worst cases involve sons or daughters being thrown out of homes and never spoken to again. Others have been beaten up by family members. He said one of the causes for the increase in male suicides has its roots in the struggle of some men to come to terms with their sexuality.

According to Sheehan, Gately's revelations mean that "we now have a second gay man in Ireland". Before Gately was outed, Senator David Norris was the only prominent person in the State to discuss his homosexuality openly.

NORRIS doesn't remember ever "being very far in". He says he was aware of his sexuality at a very early age, when he thought what he felt about people of his own gender was natural. "I believed my friends were strange because they were showing this rather perverse interest in women," he said.

He knows one or two people who are "hovering on the brink" of coming out. "Adolescence is a time of confusion anyway, and when the subject of sexuality is factored in, it can cause considerable trauma." He wouldn't tell anyone what to do, he added, but if more people in public life came out it would improve life for a lot of the gay community.

Twenty-five year old Graham (not his real name) was outed four years ago when his parents found a love letter from his first real boyfriend. His family are "fairly conservative Catholics" and his father's reaction was to tell him to get his act together and get a girlfriend. It has since transpired that one of his brothers is also gay and relations with his parents are strained. "I think what Stephen has done will make it easier for young gay men. There is a lack of gay role models and I know it would have helped me when I first started to realise I was gay at the age of 14," he said.

Anyone contemplating revealing their sexuality to family members are advised by counsellors to seek as much support as possible before the event. There are a number of support groups around the State for both parents and children. "You also have to be really, really sure about what you are doing and be prepared for an adverse reaction," said one person who had gone through the experience. "But if your parents support you, it makes it makes coping with the rest of it a lot easier."

"When I came out six years ago my parents didn't know anybody else who was gay," says Brian Sheehan. "Now at least there is George Michael and now Stephen. The fact that this handsome, articulate, talented man is gay means that in five years' time, when a son or daughter comes out to their parents, they can say, "oh yeah. Gay. Like that Stephen Gately. He was nice".

The Gay Pride March takes place in Dublin next Saturday. The phone number for the Gay Switchboard Dublin is 01 872 1055