The main thing that struck me about Minister for Health Leo Varadkar’s interview with Miriam O Callaghan on RTÉ recently was not how articulate, courageous and open he was, although he was all of those and more.
Instead it was how awkward and painfully familiar it sounded.
As he and Miriam pirouetted around the elephant they were clearly there to discuss, the tightening timbre in his voice awakened a feeling of déjà vu in me and surely in many other gay men and women, who could sense that loaded question.
Most gays have, at one time or another, sat in their closet as a conversation skirted dangerously close to the secret they were keeping; its content making the blood rush to our head and our hearts pound like a techno drumbeat.
“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 half-hearted denials.
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 supposed public interest acting as the ‘WMDs’ they need as an excuse to invade your private life.
And while, obviously 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 Varadkar’s 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.
Whatever Minister Varadkar’s reasons for speaking publicly, his conversation with O’Callaghan will inspire even those not enamored with his work as Minister for Health.
“If people want to come out, I think they should,” he says. “If they don’t, they shouldn’t have to.” And 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 aren’t for 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. 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. Many of the other so called ‘faggots’ weren’t gay but the name calling was was enough to create negative connotations of homosexuality in my mind.
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.
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 Dáil, 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. My heart went out to him as O’Callaghan was forced to do ask for 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 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 be. 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. The answer to the question, ‘who cares’ is still ‘far too many’.
Maybe Varadkar’s disclosure will offer ease to parents shaken by the news their child is gay? That his sexuality wasn’t an inhibitor to him climbing to ministerial office? But mainly I hope it’s a stepping stone; that a ministers wish to be treated equally will be extended to all citizens, thereby removing the need for gays to ‘come out’.
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