Out and Proud: Gay power list 2015
Today in LIFE Magazine, we celebrate Ireland's most influential gay people, across the worlds of business, politics, show business, the law and media. Some are obvious, some you've never heard of. Tthe LIFE gay power list is compiled
Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30
Lists run the gamut from the ones people clamour to be on - Schindler's, Santa Claus's - to those that send a shudder down the spine - Senator McCarthy's, anything the HSE ever came up with. Where does a gay power list come into this? We're not that far away from a time when being gay was something of which people were ashamed. Have we really come so far that we can celebrate a group of gay people for their success? Or is the notion of a gay power list in dubious taste?
Humans love hierarchies. However meritocratic we try to make things, rankings emerge; even Buddhist monks and communists have strict pecking orders. For a short-attention-span generation, flicking distractedly from Netflix to news, lists also let us know where exactly we're at - how many billions shy of Hilary Weston our bank accounts are; which classical composer we'd be in a past life; or the top 15 things you know to be true if you're from Waterford.
Gay people could hardly remain immune from this rampant appendicising. Equality may be dandy, but the next obvious question is, which ones are more equal than others? For LIFE's list, we defined power as influence in society, the ability to change opinions, the person before whom a restaurant maitre d' might most quake, should they demand a table.
What stood out above all about the list was the sheer number of prominent Irish people who are now out. There is no condescension in our use of the word power. If we based this list on the incidence of homosexuality in the general population, this list should only constitute about 10pc of the influence in the country. But with a cabinet minister, a High Court judge, several sports icons, a beauty queen, the CEO of one of the largest airlines in the world, and more showbiz legends than you can shake an Ifta at, it often looks like a great deal more than that.
What makes this list more timely is that this supernova of influence is a relatively recent phenomenon. When GI (Gay Ireland) magazine was launched 15 years ago, it seemed to run out of well-known cover models (and readers) within about five issues. Twenty-five names into our list, we were still leaving household names off it. It ranges from the areas you'd expect, such as showbiz, politics, fashion; to areas you probably wouldn't, such as business, industry, puppetry. It says a lot about the sheer diversity of gay people in Ireland that this list's presidential candidate and running mate would be a stiff-looking young fogey in a suit (Leo) and a seven-foot drag queen (Panti).
Some themes emerge from our list. There are two Irelands: a clear division emerges between the North and the South, and not just in terms of attitudes to blasphemous confectionery. We looked for influential gay figures in the North but, aside from Jeffrey Dudgeon, who stood up to Paisley in the North; and David Trimble's former adviser Steven King, both of whom are featured in our diaspora section, we came up short. There are a few local councillors, but these would obviously have been tokenism when set against the wide cultural influence of, erm, Bosco. Where are the gay actors, designers and businesspeople from Ulster? Elected representatives and their advisers aside, the political and cultural landscape in the North has clearly affected visibility for gay people.
As the French might say, cherchez la femme: Not counting Panti, less than a third of our list is female, and bar Aileen Donnelly and Christine Quinn, none of them are in the upper echelon of power and influence, none are politicians. What does this say? Perhaps that it's still a man's world and that even in the gay community there is a glass ceiling to be shattered. The difference is that we have the lesbians to construct a nice wooden loft in its place.
There is often a kind of conservatism associated with the Irish abroad, the perception being that their values ossified the moment they left the country, while those who stayed behind took note of social progress. However, some of the best-known gay people in the world are of Irish heritage. However parched the soil, there will always be pansies in bloom.
As has become clear in the last few years, there are many degrees of out; sometimes someone might be openly gay to family and friends, but not at work. Sometimes the only people they're out to are the people they sleep with. We only included people who have publicly acknowledged being gay, although, of course, there are several prominent Irish people whose sexuality is an open secret. Everyone on our list is out in all aspects of their lives, including in the media.
That there is even a whiff of sulphur about grouping these people together is in itself telling, though. The threadbare sentence "I don't want to be defined by my sexuality" is almost a coming-out cliche at this point, and a gay power list is undeniably doing just that, corralling poor Leo under the same glitter ball as Panti, when he'd probably much rather an early night. But everyone who is on this list has already defined themselves in a more overarching and public way than sexuality - by their success. Their gayness is just the icing on the same-sex wedding cake. It's worth remembering that the people who object to people being grouped together by sexuality - think: the NYC St Patrick's Day Parade organisers - are also the very ones generally accused of having a problem with the gay community. Cordoning off someone's sexuality into an antiseptic area marked 'their private life' was perhaps the most invidious last gasp of old-school homophobia, particularly when the person is already out.
Someone may choose to keep their sexuality secret, and that's their prerogative, but for the majority of the straight population, sexuality isn't a wrong to be hushed-up, nor should it be. Rather than trying to imagine a future in which we simply no longer pass comment on someone's sexuality either way, we are better off celebrating difference and highlighting the best and brightest. We already do this with other categories: women; Irish people; businesspeople. If being gay is to be just another heading, as unmistakable yet unremarkable as nationality or gender, then there should be no objection to categorising people together because of it.
If throwing the best and brightest of our nation's friends Of Dorothy a party in print is distasteful to some, then it's also worth remembering that embracing tackiness, appreciating it ironically and making it your own shows a particularly knowing sense of humour: what could be more gay?
1. Leo Varadkar
Are we ready for a gay Taoiseach? If anyone can do for Irish gays what Barack Obama did for American blacks - show that someone who is probably not exactly the community's idea of a homeboy can still fly the flag admirably - it's surely our Leo. He's got the hard power of being an actual cabinet minister - even if it is just as a receptacle for everyone's hatred of the health system - and the soft power of being an indisputable part of social history.
He has a high IQ, a low tolerance for schmoozing, and as the gay child of an immigrant to this country, is emblematic of a brave new Ireland. By the time he came out earlier this year, we'd already gotten used to the idea that politicians could be gay, and we were borderline getting to the point where we wouldn't even call them brave any more. But what Leo's exit from the closet showed was that even hyper-ambitious young fogeys could come out, without it damaging their careers. He's drinking deeply of the poisoned chalice that is the health portfolio and seemingly thriving. What else can Enda throw at him?
2. Panti (Rory O'Neill)
When John Waters and those Iona Institute members fired off solicitors' letters to RTE, they seemed to quickly convert the country's undecideds to the gay cause, and the movement's slightly startled figurehead was one Pandora Bliss.
Fast-forward 15 months and it's her republic, you just live in it. Would anyone really be all that surprised if they announced a Panti-watermarked banknote, or decided that it was high time a drag queen presented the Late Late? Mates with Madonna and Graham Norton, Panti is the de facto figurehead of gay Ireland, and if this were just about influence within the community, she would certainly top the list.
For the uninitiated, imagine one part D4 mom, one part Dolly Parton, one part farmer's daughter, and you are getting somewhere close to the force of nature that is Panti. Lofty rhetoric, vertiginous heels and crucially, unlike her opponents on the other side of the referendum debate, she always leavens her politics with a sense of humour. She's described herself as "a clown in a wig - everyone loves a clown" but her influence is no joke.
3. Graham Norton
Back in the old days of the 1980s, gay chat-show hosts had to be inoffensive and were strictly consigned to the closet. Russell Harty had an Irish boyfriend (the writing genius that is Jamie O'Neill) but nobody knew about him until Harty died. Another generation later, and Britain was ready for another laconic gay Irish wit.
Norton, Harty's heir apparent, is one of those men of whom Quentin Crisp once said "the closet would always have been redundant" and he basks in being gloriously offensive. He's living proof that while others forge ahead in areas such as politics, law and sport, light entertainment will always be the preserve of a certain type of gay talent.
His 2004 show was called The Graham Norton Effect and it might have just as easily referred to the Corkman's wide influence as to the spell that he was casting on audiences. Debrett's frequently places him among the 500 most important people living in Britain, and last year, The Guardian named him the most influential gay man in Britain, asking "Is this man unstoppable?". Unless someone else manages the knack of making humourless A-listers funny, then he probably is.
Bonus marks for describing the anti-gay-marriage crowd as rats panicking in the corner of a barn.
4. David Norris
Imagine if the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was still alive today and throwing herself under the king's horses. That's essentially what the Irish gay movement has in the person of David Norris. If, by 'horses' you meant 'the Senate', and by 'still throwing' you meant 'still talking'.
They're falling over themselves to come out these days and expecting pats on the back for their bravery, but back when it was genuinely unpopular and when gay rights hadn't been co-opted by corporations, there was just one man flying the flag all on his own.
As Colm Toibin pointed out, Norris never appeared all that disadvantaged by his apparently lowly standing in society, and that, more than anything, may have been the fatal flaw in his argument that he had been negatively impacted by the law criminalising homosexuality.
Still, his trio of cases, during which he was represented by Mary Robinson, formed the lead-up to decriminalisation and, in the intervening decades, Norris has fought the good fight in the Upper House. He also came this close to becoming Ireland's first gay President.
5. Colm Toibin
Toibin is probably Ireland's most eminent living writer and has now amassed a body of work that places him firmly in the country's literary pantheon. Not known for his storytelling, Toibin is instead a master of style and form. He has been named by The Observer as one of Britain's most important intellectuals; his books have been made into movies; his cultural commentary is always essential, and the list of awards he has won stretches on for pages - the Impac, Costa and Lambda awards.
But there's perhaps a sense that the very biggest awards - notably the Booker, which he should have won twice by now - have unjustly snubbed him. Toibin is a member of Aosdana, and has been visiting professor at a number of universities including Princeton, Columbia and Manchester, where he succeeded the novelist Martin Amis.
6. Aileen Donnelly
Not to look down our noses at the rest of this list - everyone's a winner, guys - but there are lots of different levels of gay power and influence. Maybe a lot of people know your name and VIP magazine might like to meet you in your gracious home. Or maybe you're on the bench of the High Court.
Justice Donnelly, who was one of two new justices appointed to the High Court last year (both women) was also a board member and co-chair of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties between 1996 and 2002.
Traditionally, the courts in Ireland have been a place where progress on gay issues has stalled - as Katherine Zappone and David Norris will attest - with the legislature being more active in reframing our society to accommodate both gay people and the will of the majority (compared to America, where successful challenges to oppressive laws have been a cornerstone of the gay movement). Perhaps the visibility of one of the most respected members of the legal profession coming out will go a small way towards changing that.
7. Philip Treacy
It takes a particular kind of genius to be born in a small town in rural Ireland and, by dint of talent and hard work, haul yourself up to household-name status in Britain. Philip Treacy grew up idolising another gay Irishman - Boy George - and, as a student, had attracted the attention of then Tatler style editor Isabella Blow. He would later say of her, "she invented me".
As Blow's resident hat designer, Treacy became the darling of Vogue, and in 1991 Karl Lagerfeld invited him to design hats for Chanel Haute Couture. These days, he is easily the most successful milliner in the world, designing for the likes of Lady Gaga and the entire female contingent at royal weddings, but still winning our hearts with quotes such as: "Sometimes I just prefer a housewife who really believes in her hat."
8. Derek Mooney
At first, you want to big Derek Mooney up as showing that it is possible to quietly come out and still remain one of the all-time housewives' choices. But then you remember that housewives have always gone mad for gay men who aren't out yet. And you begin to wonder if it's like animals and the weather - are housewives always the first to know?
Anyway, Derek, who has long since come out, always knew he wanted to be Gay. Gay Byrne, that is, whom he idolised as a child. After gaining valuable experience as a runner in RTE during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics coverage, Mooney went on to become one of the best-known television personalities in the country and a notably prolific broadcaster of middle-of-the-road programming.
He owned the middle-of-that-road and, if rumours of his retirement from TV are true, he will be missed. After water charges and years of austerity, that's all the country's housewives need. Bonus marks for striking his own little blow for equality after a complaint against his radio programme was upheld by the BAI last year.
9. Dominic Hannigan
When he was first elected as a TD, they were calling Dominic Hannigan 'the gay JFK' (some wag asked him on Twitter if he "needed a Jackie or a Marilyn") but this was understood to refer to his good looks rather than his statesmanship. Perhaps a more apt descriptor was Speedy Gonzales, which The Meath Chronicle dubbed him for his ability to move at high speed from one appointment to the next on the campaign trail.
The Meath East TD was considered an outside chance in the Labour Party leadership race last summer and overcame a couple of media gaffes (including being memorably savaged by Vincent Browne) to gain election as chairperson of the European Union Affairs Committee. He married his long-term partner, Chris, in a ceremony in London last New Year's Eve, and seemed to have missed the memo that gay weddings are supposed to be gloriously over the top. "There was no cake or anything" was the headline.
10. Alan Joyce
Did you know that the $5m-a-year-earning CEO of Qantas, one of the largest companies in Australia, is a gay man from Tallaght? You heard me: from Tallaght.
Alan Joyce went to a country that wouldn't judge him for his accent to become one of the most successful gay emigrants. Qantas is a publicly quoted company, which gives him enormous business clout. He was named Australia's most influential business leader in 2011 and his every public statement creates media and political ripples Down Under. And though nobody expects him to overtly wave the flag, just by existing he's easily dispelling the hoary old myth that gays are only good at showbiz or arts stuff. And the myth that Irish heads of airlines have to be like Michael O'Leary: irritating, gurning showboaters.
11. Jerry Buttimer
Like many gay men of a certain age, Buttimer thought that his choices were either the wrong kind of marriage or the priesthood. Then he remembered that there was a third way to place creative compromise at the heart of your life: politics.
Undoubtedly, Buttimer would have made a splendid cardinal by now, but Rome's loss was Leinster House's gain. He once refused to propose to his partner live on camera during an interview - just because there's a referendum, we don't have to be performing seals about it.
As Fine Gael's former spokesman on Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in the Seanad and the current TD for Cork South-Central, he has huge political influence. He is also current chair of Fine Gael's LGBT group.
12. Donal Og cusack and Conor Cusack
During the early 1990s, Martina Navratilova, then seemingly the only out professional sportsperson in the world, used to give her Wimbledon press conferences wearing a T-shirt that simply said, "It happens in the best of families".
She might have been referring to Donal Og Cusack and Conor Cusack, who obviously won the genetic lottery on a number of levels; both are intelligent, articulate and champion sportsmen - and are notable also because of the rarity of having two gay brothers in one family.
Their coming out was significant to the gay community because hurling is intertwined with nationalist history, Celtic legend, and hot guys in sports kit. The Cusacks were also significant because they are country boys who stayed down home. For most of Ireland's history, coming out was something that had to happen discreetly in Dublin; the brothers Cusack showed that being gay was something that could happen in the best of families, the smallest of parishes and the skimpiest of shorts.
13. Don O'Neill
Sometimes the most arid landscape produces the most spectacular blooms. OK, so Kerry isn't arid, but you know what we mean. Artistically arid. Parched of the kind of hip-cool fashion moments you know you will one day create.
Picture how far, far away from the metropolis hubs of world fashion Don O'Neill was, as he hacked foam out of a burnt-out car to make the shoulder pads for his sister's debs dress. It was the 80s, you see.
She won a prize for that dress, and Don was off and running. He threw his CV over the wall at Valentino's villa; he wowed Ralph Lauren with his lookbook; he made dresses with "slits up to here and boobs out to there" for Givenchy; and eventually designed dresses for stars of the calibre of Oprah and Taylor Swift.
Today, he runs his own label in New York, and is one of the most important Irish figures in world fashion. Throughout it all, he has remained one of the most down-to-earth people you could meet. He recently proposed to his long-term partner, Pascal. Using a skywriter, naturally. No point in getting marriage rights if you're not going to go all out with the wedding build-up.
14. Pat Carey
We might now live in a world where a rainbow flag on the moon wouldn't seem a stretch, but there remained, in some quarters, a sense that being gay was a fad.
Pat Carey did not look like a man who might have succumbed to a fad in his life, and his unfortunate lifestyle choices were limited to his political affiliations - he is a former Fianna Fail minister and government chief whip. And yet it was his position as one of the respected elders of Fianna Fail that made his belated exit from the closet all the more remarkable - in a reflection of historical positions, Fianna Fail voters are still the least supportive of gay marriage among all voters.
In explaining, with great dignity, that he had grown up without a word to describe himself, and that he had been on his own for 35 years, throwing himself into his work to stave off loneliness, Carey painted a graphic picture of the fate this country once consigned gay people to. "There, but for the grace of God, goes Leo", you couldn't help thinking. It also showed how far we have come. Interestingly, Carey's already vast influence was probably amplified by coming out, as it involved him in one of the big social issues of the day.
15. Colm O'Gorman
You think the gay marriage referendum is not about children? Try telling that to Colm O'Gorman, who seems to be media producers' perennial go-to guy for 'gays can be good dads' pieces.
O'Gorman is a brilliant dad, who handles it all with good humour. He will, of course, always be associated with hastening the demise of a once venerable Irish institution. We're talking about the PDs, for which he was a failed election candidate in 2007, two years before the party was disbanded, but we might also be referring to the Catholic Church.
O'Gorman, who had been sexually abused by Fr Sean Fortune, successfully campaigned for the setting-up of the Ferns Inquiry into clerical sexual abuse in 2005 and was awarded €300,000 in a court settlement with the diocese.
He went on to become the director of Amnesty International in Ireland, and it's thought the organisation may become involved at a human-rights level if he's asked to submit to one more daddy segment.
16. John Lyons
They say politics is showbiz for ugly people, but the annihilation of Fianna Fail at the 2011 General Election culled a shitload of fugliness from Leinster House and made room for some slightly more presentable-looking new specimens, such as John Lyons, who was also, along with Dominic Hannigan, the first openly gay TD elected to the Dail.
The Dublin North-West Labour TD has said in the past that he wishes he didn't have to talk publicly about his sexuality, but he's done so a fair bit since then, and for a young and little-known new deputy, it also afforded him a good deal of national exposure and raised him above the crop of 2011 no-names, which can't have hurt his ambitions. Regarded as talented and capable, he's one of Fine Gael's coming men.
17. Andrew Scott
In the BBC Two drama The Hour, Andrew Scott played a secretly gay failed actor. The 'secret gay' and 'failed' bits were understood to hang together. Scott's own outlook could not have been more different to that of his character. During his coming-out interviews last year, the Sherlock star insisted that he had never really been 'in'.
He also refuted the notion that being openly gay will harm an actor's career. It certainly doesn't seem to have does his much damage. He won a Bafta and Ifta in consecutive years for his brilliant turn as Moriarty in Sherlock. He's also won a number of stage awards and was recently named on the Rainbow List in Britain, a celebration of lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people who make a real difference.
18. Markus Feehily
Spotting the gay one in a boyband is one of those timeless parlour games that will remain with us as long as cute young men are still being thrown together by cynical moguls to make crap music.
If coming out is difficult for civilians, can you imagine how it feels for a guy who has to be the repository for the sexual fantasies of a million pubescent girls? For this reason, it's not over-egging the pudding to call the decision of Westlife's Markus Feehily to come out during a 2005 interview 'brave'.
It seems extraordinary that some members of the biggest boy band in Irish history are now consigned to low-key radio roles, but does the same fate await Feehily? The multi-platinum-selling singer was named as one of the 50 most influential gay people in the UK, and he's launching his debut solo single today, so we'll find out more very soon.
19. Emma Donoghue
Dublin-born Donoghue is another who gets credit for coming out long before it was cool, and, far from making the usual noises about her sexuality not defining her, she made it a central component of her work.
Her lesbian-themed fiction won, or was shortlisted for, numerous awards during the mid-1990s and early 2000s, but it was with the publication of Room in 2010, that she really ascended the international best-seller lists.
The book, which was inspired by the story of Austrian father-from-hell Josef Fritzl, hit the Man Booker and Orange Prize shortlists and she was praised to the heavens by critics on both sides of the Atlantic ("one of the pure triumphs of fiction in recent times", according to The New York Times). She lives in Canada, with her partner, Chris.
20. Darren Kennedy
We'll never forget being moved to tears of laughter at Darren Kennedy's documentary Gay Daddy, which made very clear at every level that Darren hadn't the slightest bit of interest in becoming a gay daddy, but thought that making a documentary about what would happen if he did want to, would be a great telly "journey."
Previously indifferent to Kennedy's charms, this warmed us to him: how poignant to have to make an impassioned pitch for rights you're not fully sure you want to ever use - the modern gay dilemma. Daz is, of course, already busy raising a very promising media career and has been striking a pose on zillions of telly journeys since then. Along with Brendan Courtney, he is probably Ireland's leading fashionista.
With the shrillest falsetto of the 1980s and the campest use of Irish this side of Michael D, Bosco is, of course, a shoo-in for our list. Not for nothing does his portrait hang in The George; Bosco's whole set-up was like a secret rainbow-coloured message to the youth of Ireland, which was only just recovering from Pope mania.
He was of dubious gender, he lived in a box (closet?), and squeaked out a message of love and tolerance. Quite frankly, between him and He-Man - who was, let's face it, a beefcake who wore a harness in his double life - we didn't stand much of a chance with heterosexuality.
22. Margot Slattery
There aren't many women at the vanguard of Irish business to begin with, and Margot Slattery is the only openly lesbian one we know about. She's an important role model as, even today, most business graduates in Ireland go back into the closet once they enter the workforce; the feeling remains that being openly gay can still damage your chances in certain fields.
It hasn't damaged Margot's. She's a go- getter who hauled herself up from working as a commis chef in London to heading up a multi-million-euro catering company in Limerick. She lives in a stunning home in Blackrock, which gives lie to the notion that only gay men understand interior design.
23. Valerie Mulcahy and Nikki Symmons
"Female softball player comes out as straight" read one famous headline in The Onion, the joke being, of course, that in some sports for women, the presumptions about sexuality can be reversed.
We're fairly sure that ladies Gaelic football isn't one of these, however, and when Cork's nine-time All-Ireland winner, Valerie Mulcahy, pictured right, came out last summer, it was still a national sensation. The message of her coming out was clear - this could be any family's daughter.
Nikki Symmons, pictured far right, who won 208 caps for Ireland during her playing career, has been described as "the Brian O'Driscoll" of field hockey and since her playing career ended, she has gone on to a forge a career in media, appearing on Ireland's Fittest Family and writing a weekly column for Sports International magazine, as well as doing a masters in sports administration in Lausanne.
Like many athletes who came out in recent times, both women waited until the end of their sporting careers before going public with their sexuality.
24. Oliver Callan
Panti isn't the only person from a rural background who knows how to rock a wig, y'know. Oliver Callan was once accused of homophobia but had the best defence ever. Just as black comedians are allowed to use the N-word, in the same way, a gay comedian can get away with vicious take-offs of famous Irish gay people. Monaghan's finest once joked that he knew he was gay growing up when he was late to drive a tractor; and that when his father found out that Callan was gay, he "screamed on the steps of the opera house like that Al Pacino scene in Godfather III when he sees his daughter gunned down." Coming out didn't harm his career, however, and today Callan is one of Ireland's most successful comedians and impressionists, with the added frisson of the long-running feud with his former colleague Mario Rosenstock. The restrictions on RTE people commenting on the referendum may make Callan feel like a jessed eagle in terms of joking about the whole situation, but he has promised to go "full Cher" this year, which may be a compelling gay-rights political point in itself.
25. The Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh
There's a few queens on this list, it has to be said, but only one beauty queen. Yet t'was not her beauty alone that won us, oh no t'was the truth in her eyes ever dawning - and the fact that she is the first openly lesbian winner of this most homely of Irish institutions.
Ok, so maybe the Rose of Tralee isn't exactly that powerful per se but, as they might say on House Of Cards, the office is more important that the individual. When she rocked up to a Mayo match in her county jersey, looking a million dollars, she single-handedly made the competition relevant again - the Rose, that is, not the All Ireland.
It's a little bit like if the Tayto Man came out; the cultural influence is huge. Also: are we allowed to observe that she's hot and that's important too? It's cool when we have intelligent, sensitive, brilliant, people coming out, but we like some hot ones in the mix.
Just to have something to look at, while we're learning and becoming more tolerant.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine