From Leo Varadkar to Mark Feehily, five Irish people share their coming-out stories

Five people share their coming-out experience and reflect on their journey to acceptance and happiness

Clockwise from top left: Mark Feehily, Jack Dunne, Leo Varadkar, Sinead Crowe and Luchia Fitzgerald

Leo Varadkar. Picture: Mark Condren

Jack Dunne: Picture: Steve Humphreys

Sinead Crowe. Picture: Frank McGrath

Mark Feehily and his daughter Layla

Mark Feehily in 2015 with'Vote Yes' written on his hand for the gay marriage referendum.

Luchia Fitzgerald

Katie Byrne

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar came out publicly in 2015 on Miriam O’Callaghan’s RTÉ Radio 1 show

On June 25, Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community, our allies, friends and family will celebrate Pride in Dublin for the first time since June 2019. Events will run all week but will culminate over the weekend with the parade and march, parties and cultural events. We’ll see people we haven’t seen for years, including a huge number of people who are coming home from abroad for the weekend.

It’s going to be a wonderful weekend. The only thing that can put a dampener on it is our unpredictable weather.

For e, it will be only my sixth Pride in my home city. I came out late, in my mid-30s, and did not go to it until I had. For me, the experience of coming out was a positive one. A lot of my internal fears and anxieties were swept away. I think it made me a better, more rounded, more tolerant person. It has certainly made me a happier one.

I often hear straight people taking about the life of a gay man or woman being a lonely one. It’s not. Our relationships and friendships might be different but they are numerous and deep. It is a great life, full of friendship, freedom and adventure.

I know everyone’s experience of coming out is not as positive as mine. Many are rejected by family or so-called friends. But I have yet to meet a single person who regrets it. For most, their only regret is that they did not do so sooner.

Leo Varadkar. Picture: Mark Condren

Of course, coming out to yourself, accepting who you are, is the most important step. I remember when I came out, I said it would not ‘define’ me, and I recall the great Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss) politely saying that could not be the case. He was right. Of course it defines you. It’s part of your identity, and as important and definite as your gender, as being Irish, or being from your home county.

Without coming out, you cannot be whole. I hope the colour, joy, warmth and kindness of Pride will encourage anyone thinking of taking the step to do so. It’s never too late.

Pride is not just a celebration of diversity. It is also a protest. That’s how it started in New York after the Stonewall riots, when gay people, led by a drag queen, fought back against police oppression. It started in Dublin as a response to homophobic violence, something that we know has not gone away. So, while marching on Saturday with my colleagues, co-workers and friends, I will be conscious of what is yet to be done; the need to modernise our laws on hate, to improve sex and relationships education in schools, to improve policing, sexual health services and services for people who are transgender.

Work is underway in most of these areas, with a lot that needs to be done. I will be conscious that while there are 30 or so countries that have legalised marriage equality, there are twice as many in which homosexual acts remain criminalised and some that even punish those acts with death.

And while progress is being made in many parts of the world, in some parts of the United States and Eastern Europe, we are going backwards, including in Putin’s Russia. I will march grateful for those who marched for my rights and freedoms before I even knew I needed them or believed in them. I will march knowing that it is my duty to do all I can, whenever I can, to ensure that the progress we have made is protected and further advances are made. Happy Pride.

Mark Feehily and his daughter Layla

‘I feel like I came out at a turning point’

Westlife singer Mark Feehily publicly came out as gay in 2005 when the boy band was at the height of its success

It was a very different time when I came out. We were playing 15 gigs in a row in The Point Theatre and I remember the boy-band mania, running out of hotels and people trying to grab lumps of your hair out of your head…

It was extremely positive but, simultaneous to all that, I had this kind of parallel experience of being scared out of my absolute wits about a truth that was just getting bigger and bigger, and harder and harder to ignore.

It was this kind of juxtaposition, or this dual sense of extreme elation, happiness and euphoric levels of, “Oh my God, I was doing my Leaving Cert 18 months ago and now this.” But then, at the same pace and rate that our success grew, my fear grew, and the whole ‘being gay’ thing just got bigger and bigger.

I think a lot of people who struggle to come out think mostly about what everyone around them will think. “What will my friends think? What will my family think?” For me, it was, “What will the millions of people that just bought our album think?” It just became bigger in my head and, I suppose, logically, you can understand why it did.

I remember this one night that we had this big head-to-head battle in the charts with the Spice Girls for number one. We were both releasing albums at the same time and we beat them.

They had this massive star-studded party in this big, fancy, five-star hotel in London, and there were celebrity DJs, and all the journalists were there and, you know, it was a huge deal. Yet somehow I was sitting in my hotel room feeling completely alone… Because I was alone… I always say that being gay doesn’t define me but it’s a massive part of who I am. So it felt very lonely that all of this was going on, yet nobody knew the real me.

It was a very heightened day, with a lot of heightened attention on the band, and I was extra-scared, because imagine if all these people at that party and all those fans in every airport that we landed in found out? And I remember just being in the hotel room going, “How can I not feel happy right now? How can I feel sad and lonely the day we beat the Spice Girls?”

I went down to the after-party and I kind of left it early and just went up to bed. I wished I could just be me, but I couldn’t be me, so I’d rather go up to bed.

I think that’s an example of how some people may feel when they’re in the closet. It mightn’t be a big Westlife launch day against the Spice Girls. It could just be their 21st birthday party, or it could even just be a family holiday. It’s a lonely journey being in the closet or dealing with something like that internally.

Over time, I came out to my nearest and dearest. But then there was the night before it was the front page [story] of one of the biggest tabloids in the world. There were a few slightly more hasty phone calls made to make sure that it was me that told certain people. It kind of sped up the process a little bit when it came to coming out to some of my family and friends.

Looking back, I feel like I came out at a turning point. It was the end of one era of what it meant for someone to come out in the public eye and the beginning of another one. I certainly didn’t create the end of one and the start of another, but I feel like the timing was that I was at the end of, say, the Stephen Gately-style coming out, and at the beginning of what has now become the status quo.

But it’s mad, even five or 10 years after all this happened, I wouldn’t have been ready to talk about it. Whereas now, time has passed, and there’s also being a father. There’s something about me feeling like I need to tell it as it was because, at the end of the day, it actually happened to me and, in the end, I overcame it.

And, you know, nobody in life is perfect, but I’m certainly much happier than what I’ve ever been. If you look at that day in the hotel room as Point A and today as Point B, things really do get so much better, and there’s a happy ending.

Luchia Fitzgerald

‘The idea of being put into a lunatic asylum was very, very scary’

Waterford-born activist Luchia Fitzgerald was forced to come out in 1961, at the age of 14, when her grandmother discovered a love letter in her school bag

I was 14 when my grandmother found out I was gay. Some girl in school left a little love letter in my school bag. I didn’t even know it was there.

In those days, everyone had crushes on everyone, and the idea of us being different didn’t occur to us. My sexuality hadn’t even developed. These were only feelings I had. I’d never had sex and I wasn’t interested in it

Anyway, my grandmother saw the note and she decided that if I didn’t mend my ways, I was going to be put into some sort of a home.

The idea of being put into what they used to describe then as a lunatic asylum was very, very scary. I knew she was either going to kill me with the beatings she was giving me or send me to a home, so I decided, there and then, to run away.

I knew where she hid her extra money, so I went to the drawer and took out a fiver. I got on my bike and then took a bus from Waterford to North Wall in Dublin. I bulls**tted my way onto the boat to Liverpool and found myself homeless on the streets of Manchester a few days later.

While I was ducking and diving, I met other kids in or around the same age as myself, and a few of them were Irish. I discovered then that lots of kids run away if their parents are very violent about the fact that they’re gay.

One night, I heard one of them saying something about this pub in town that was queer. I thought, “Well, I’ll go and see what this is all about.” I sat outside watching, night after night, as the girls went in and out. I thought, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with them, they haven’t got horns.” And then I thought, “I must be one of them.”

I still hadn’t had sex at this stage — I wasn’t interested — but I really enjoyed watching them all and looking at them all having a laugh. I’d never seen a drag queen in my life and some of them were Irish. They worked on building sites during the day; they were navvies!

When they found out I was Irish, suddenly everyone was looking after me. I managed to make friends with people in the pub and then they gave me little jobs, like cleaning or washing the glasses behind the bar. Nobody knew I was sleeping rough because I used to keep myself nice and clean and look after myself. I hid all my clothes in a secret hideout where [homeless children] still do today.

The LGBTQI+ community here in Manchester really looked after all the young people. Even the prostitutes who used to frequent the gay clubs were absolutely brilliant with the young kids on the street.

They’d always say, “Well, I’ll tell you what, meet me here tomorrow night and I’ll have fish and chips for you, and I might have somewhere you can crash for a couple of days.”

I looked after myself for years that way, until I was old enough to get a little flat. My grandmother had predicted that I’d “never make a fist of myself” — that’s the way she had put it — but I kept thinking, “I’ll prove you wrong.” She did me a favour…

Today, I give a lot of talks to young LGBTQI+ groups. And I always say, “Don’t ever give up on yourself.” As you get to know yourself a bit better, you recognise the beauty in everyone, and you let all the negative stuff go. Because we’re all different, and acceptance is everything.

Jack Dunne: Picture: Steve Humphreys

‘I was captain of my school’s rugby team, so it was kind of a big deal’

Dublin-born rugby player Jack Dunne publicly came out as bisexual in 2021

I came out in April of sixth year. For me, anyway, it was definitely quite a big thing. I was building up to it for three or four years. And it was really tough because, you know, you’re terrified of everyone finding out your big secret.

It was definitely a difficult few years. You can shut yourself away, and you can become isolated, too. I said it to a few friends first and then, when it went okay, I said it to a few more people. I was captain of my school’s rugby team, so it was kind of a big deal that a rugby player had come out. But to be honest, once I said it to the guys on the team, they were great about it. I went to an all-boys’ school and that’s probably more of an issue than the rugby itself.

Still, I didn’t realise biphobia was a thing until I came out. Even among the queer community, it still manifests itself, and you often hear things like, ‘pick a side’ or ‘it’s just a phase’. When I came out, I didn’t really have to deal with too much homophobic stigma. It was more just people saying things like, “You’re just afraid to come out as 100pc gay.”

A year after coming out to friends and family, I got my academy contract and, coming into Leinster Rugby, I think most of the guys already knew I was bisexual because they had heard about it. It would have been public knowledge in, say, Dublin, but then, eventually, I came out in the media, too.

When I was growing up, there were obviously [gay] people like Nigel Owens and other ex-players who’d been in the sport, but I really would have liked a current player to empathise with. So, I think I [publicly came out] for the kids growing up. I’ve since received loads of messages on Instagram from guys saying, “I’m 15, I play for X team, and I’m bi or I’m gay, so thanks so much for doing this.” Those sort of messages make it all worthwhile.

Why are there so few openly gay rugby players? I think the question is more, “Why does it seem like the proportion is lower?” I’d imagine quite a few people get squeezed out when they’re growing up. In adulthood, people have matured quite a bit, but the teenage dressing room is quite a macho place, and I can definitely see why a lot of people would stop playing their sport. And then, obviously, once they stop, they don’t have a chance to go professional. So, I’d imagine that has a lot to do with it.

At the same time, I think a shift is definitely beginning. Even just in recent months, there was Jake Daniels with Blackpool and Carl Nassib in the NFL [who both came out]. It’s obviously still way below the proportion you’d expect, but I think there are steps happening, and I think they’re starting to speed up.

Sinead Crowe. Picture: Frank McGrath

‘It was just a really gradual process of acceptance of myself’

Mother-of-two Sinead Crowe of Adonis Flower Designers was 33 when she came out. She’s marrying her fiancée, Anna, later this year

My ex-husband and I decided to separate in early 2015. We got married when we were very young and I loved him very much. There was never any major falling out, drama or big rows. We just weren’t in love with each other anymore.

When we separated, I had the freedom to explore what had been on my mind for a while. I was 33 then and I had been going out to burlesque shows in Dublin, where I met this wonderful community of really open, really positive people. A lot of them were gay or queer or bi or lesbian or whatever way they wanted to identify, and it was just such a natural way of being and way of existing.

I later met my ex-girlfriend and fell in love with her. It was just a really gradual process of acceptance of myself.

With my ex-husband, it was a process that we went through because we were, and still are, best friends, and he was always my sounding board. When we decided to separate, it was through a conversation that occurred between us where it came into play that I felt like I wasn’t straight. He almost gave me his blessing to go and be who I wanted to be.

We took a year to ourselves before either me or my ex-husband told either set of parents. When I did tell my parents, it was a bit of a shock, and it took them a little bit of adjustment. It was a little bit frightening to tell them, but they are amazing people and they came to terms with the shock very quickly, and they’re very accepting.

From the very first day that my ex-husband and I decided to separate, the focus was always that the kids were happy, felt secure, and felt loved. That’s been our number-one focus no matter what partners we’ve had or haven’t had in the time that’s passed.

My oldest child is a teenager now. But he was around nine or 10 when I said it to him. And he was kind of like, “Yeah, and… ?” He knew that Mum and Dad were separated, he knew that Mum had a girlfriend, but he never really made a big drama out of anything. My youngest fella is autistic and he just accepts life the way it is. He absolutely idolises my fiancée, Anna.

Did anyone tell me that they knew all along? Yes, lots of people. But I think when you spend so long in denial and then people tell you, “I knew that,” it’s a strange one to accept. You kind of wonder why no one told you sooner.

But it’s not really the sort of information you’re going to want to hear until you figure it out yourself. In fact, I remember about a year or two before I came out, being out with a friend and having too many drinks, and her saying to me, “You know, I think you’re gay,” and me getting really angry and thinking, “Absolutely not.”

And especially growing up in a small town in the northwest of Ireland, in a fairly conservative environment, it certainly wouldn’t have been something I would have been free to explore in my younger years.

Coming out has changed me in a lot of ways. I’m more upfront. I’m more straight-talking. I’m more self-confident. I lost my sister in 2010 and I think that was the catalyst for a huge shift in my entire attitude to everything.

I felt like I was strong enough to take over a business, Adonis Flower Designers, in January. I turn 40 in September and I’m getting married on my birthday. I’d never in a million years have thought that this is the person I would be now. It feels like the start of a new chapter.

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