“I went out with nice women and good women, but sure, I still knew. I wanted something else. I get more out of men. I just do. Always have. I know I am different but just in this way.”
With those words, Cork hurler Donal Og Cusack this week telescoped the national gaze onto the role of gay people in Irish sport and, by extension, Irish society. For a leading GAA figure to candidly discuss his homosexuality in his own autobiography, Come What May, and with Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show last night, and for him to receive such warm support from colleagues and the majority of the public, is a true milestone in the history of Irish gay life.
The question now is to what extent Donal Og’s honesty will impact on other gay Irish sportsmen in the GAA and beyond. Sport, along with politics, are the two ‘last frontiers’ when it comes to gay visibility within its ranks. Will this past week go down in history as the moment when the closet doors were finally blown off of these two traditional bastions of Irish social and public life?
In the midst of the intense media coverage of Donal Og’s coming out last week, Review spoke to one young gay man, Brian (not his real name), who is actively involved in club hurling in his hometown in the rural southwest of Ireland. Brian, who is in his late 20s, isn’t out to his teammates, and doesn’t think he’s ready to follow Cork goalie Donal Og’s example.
“I haven’t considered it at all, to be honest,” admits Brian. “I suppose I haven’t come out to my teammates because I’m not entirely comfortable with my sexuality yet. Donal Og is speaking quite retrospectively. He’s gone through the heartache, so to speak. He’s come out to his parents and his team, and he’s very comfortable with who he is. That’s a grand position to be in to come out. I still have my own inhibitions.
“It’s a very macho, male environment in a hurling club. You’re encouraged to be a tough, hard guy. Stereotypes are enforced in many ways. There would be homophobic humour in the changing rooms, and not just jokes. A classic way of getting at your opponent is calling him a ‘faggot’ or whatever. That’s done all the time.
“I remember one guy I used to play in college, the first thing he’d do on the pitch is grab his opponent’s arse because the guy would turn on him and go f*cking nuts. The referee would send him off straight away.”
Brian believes that, had Donal Og come out 10 years ago at the start of his career, that “he would not have made the senior panel”.
“No, definitely not,” he states. “He would have had to be established as a very good hurler to provide that comfort zone to allow him to come out. I wouldn’t judge the guy for not doing it before now.”
As if further proof were needed, Brian confirms that he himself knows lots of gay sportsmen who are not out to their teams or anyone else for that matter. “I know a guy who plays inter-county football, and another who plays inter-provincial rugby, and both are completely in the closet,” he says. “They would be clandestinely homosexual. They might meet guys online or whatever. They’re not going out for dinner holding hands with guys.
“I was out one night and met a guy on a rival team. I suspect it was his first night in a gay club because he was very nervous. When he saw me he died. I said hello, and he was like, ‘Jesus, please don’t tell anyone’, and I replied, ‘Look man, I’m here too.’ He went on to play senior for his club, but he’s still not out to anyone.”
Irrespective of his own situation, Brian admits that Donal Og’s coming out is a positive thing, but cautions that the real test of the fans’ and the organisation’s attitude is yet to come.
“What’s important about Donal Og is how straight guys have responded to it, the stereotypically red-blooded males that have been heroes in terms of Cork sport and Cork supporters,” Brian says. “These guys are saying, ‘We don’t care. Donal Og is a good hurler. We’re there for him, we’ll stand up for him’.
“I think older members - older selectors and chairmen - might be a little uncomfortable about it. They are being confronted with a model of a GAA player that they never really have seen.
“I read that Donal Og got a good bit of homophobic abuse from rivals and the crowds. Other players might use it to get at him. The next few games will be very interesting to see how Donal Og is treated.
“With him being a goalie, he’ll have two umpires on either side of him. If they hear any homophobic abuse directed at Donal, they should put up their hands, notify the ref, and get the stewards in to remove these people, be they players or supporters.
“The GAA needs to make clear that it will not tolerate prejudice towards its gay players. I think a lot of gay hurlers will remain in the closet otherwise. I know lots of gay guys who played hurling, and loved it, but they stopped because they didn’t feel supported in an overt way.”
If Donal Og’s stature in the hurling arena were to be transmuted into the world of Irish politics, he would be the equivalent of a Government minister or, at the very least, a prominent TD. But today, Senators David Norris (Ind) and Labour’s Dominic Hannigan are the only out and proud members of the Oireachtas. No TD, past or present, has yet come out.
However, there are several young openly gay party councillors who are doing their bit to raise the rainbow flag in Irish politics, a new generation of politicians who could very well be TDs after the next general election.
One such figure is Roderic O’Gorman, the deputy chair of the Green Party’s national council, who ran (unsuccessfully) as a candidate for the party in the 2004 and 2009 local elections, and also in the 2007 general election.
“My sexuality was certainly known within the party, but it was simply never an issue,” Roderic says. “Even out on the hustings, I’ve never had any negative comments directed towards myself personally.
“On a few occasions, people have taken issue with the party’s stance on gay marriage, and so I would explain to them, as a gay man, why I believed marriage equality was the right policy, whether they accepted my argument or not.”
Similarly, Malcolm Byrne, a Fianna Fail councillor from Gorey, Co Wexford who was “outed” by a silly and salacious article in The Sun in early 2006, says that the public were, and have been, overwhelmingly supportive, adding that his sexuality hasn’t been a bugbear with constituents.
“My family and friends knew that I was gay, but I was amazed by the number of calls, texts, emails, letters, and handshakes I got, many from people I didn’t even know,” Malcolm says. “I think Irish people are fundamentally very fair. I faced the electorate again this summer in the local elections. The issue wasn’t raised on the doorsteps. I see myself as a politician who happens to be gay, rather than a gay politician.”
It seems that Irish voters don’t seem to really care about a public representative’s sexual preference. So why aren’t there any openly gay TDs in this country? “I suppose it’s because the two main parties [Fianna Fail and Fine Gael], the ones that hold the majority of seats, both have quite traditional viewpoints on the issue of homosexuality,” Roderic O’Gorman replies.
“Certainly it’s changing in both parties, but it does narrow the scope for gay party members to feel that they can be open about their sexuality and seek high office at the same time.
“Most modern European nations have gay men and women in positions of power, such as Johanna Sigurdardottir, the prime minister of Iceland. Look at the UK: Peter Mandelson, whatever his faults, is essentially the deputy prime minister.
“I think the Irish political system makes it harder because many of these other countries have a list system where people can be elected according to the party’s national vote, rather than having to depend on the parochial constituency format we have here in Ireland.”
Malcolm Byrne adds that for a TD to come out, he or she will have to contend with seeing their private life magnified in the public eye. “The increased level of media scrutiny is a challenge for anyone in politics these days,” he says.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before Ireland has its first openly gay, directly elected TD. But I think it’s fair to say that they won’t be elected because they’re gay and they won’t not be elected because they’re gay. People will vote for them based on their performance, and their wider set of issues and interests.”
Ruairi Quinn, Labour TD and former party leader, has been actively involved in national politics for the last three decades, but he says he has never known of a gay TD in this country. “You’d have a suspicion about some people, but nothing more than that,” he says.
“There was coverage in the press last week of the first meeting of openly gay members of the INTO [Irish National Teacher’s Organisation]. A lot of the fears common to gay teachers - the fear of lack of promotion and of discrimination - would be felt by politicians too.”
Inevitably, Quinn argues, the real extent of the Irish public’s acceptance of gay political candidates will only be gauged when a “first” puts themselves forward. That moment could arrive sooner than we think.
“Senator David Norris could very well be our first openly gay presidential candidate [in 2011],” Quinn says. “That would be a test case. It would be similar to the candidacy of Mary Robinson in 1990. Her gender was second to her manifest other abilities, but, for some, it was still a factor.”
For his part, Senator Norris has this to say on both his presidential ambitions and his chances: “I can tell you I got a standing ovation in Cork on Tuesday at that very suggestion.”
Also read a lengthy interview with Donal Og in today's Irish Times.