Sunday 20 August 2017

'I came out as bi when I was nine... I knew I wanted to hold hands with both boys and girls'

Shane Duane and Bella FitzPatrick were married in 2015. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Shane Duane and Bella FitzPatrick were married in 2015. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

As she's married to Shane Duane, it would be easier in many respects for Bella FitzPatrick to identify as straight rather than bisexual. But she wouldn't be true to herself if she did that.

As Bella FitzPatrick has been married to Shane Duane since 2015, people usually assume she's straight. Many are surprised to discover that she's bisexual and her previous romantic relationships have included women.

"It's something that comes up when you're talking to a colleague about a bad break-up, for example," she says. "Unless I edit my past, I have to 'out' myself or I'm not being true to who I am."

Being true to herself is hugely important to Bella, who is managing director of ShoutOut.ie, which is dedicated to improving the school environment for LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning +) young people. It delivers workshops in schools to educate teenagers on different aspects of gender and sexuality, with the aim of tackling homophobic and transphobic bullying. "We explain what the letters in LGBTQ+ mean and terms like gender fluid and binary gender," she says. "I think a lot of the lack of tolerance comes from fear. When you're 15, even being straight is terrifying let alone any sort of other orientation or gender identity, so if you take that mystery away it does a world of good. When I was at school, at least six people in my year were LGBTQ+ and we had no representation."

Bella feels that being bisexual is regularly viewed negatively, even among the LGBTQ+ community. There's a sense of, "Oh, just pick a side," which exasperates her as it's totally wrong. Boy George was criticised last year for denouncing bisexuality on Twitter, and Bella feels that if people in the community are being bi-phobic, straight people won't feel the need to put any effort into understanding bi issues.

"There's something lovely about being in a minority, because even if the whole world is against you, you're in this really beautiful family," she says. "But if the family is also ridiculing you, it's an extremely lonely place to be. We're at the lower level of getting the word across, so we have to be radical and proud and put ourselves out there, because the next bi generation needs us to do that."

Bella, 27, was born in an apartment in Temple Bar. She lived with her mum Evelyn, to whom she is very close, in a one-room flat in a Victorian house in Dun Laoghaire from the age of three to 14. "There were 11 people living in our building," she recalls. "My childhood was brilliant, growing up beside the sea, and although we were really poor, it never impacted me in any negative way. My mom is a powerhouse of a woman and she has always been my main inspiration, When I was very young, I went to the Barnardo's playschool, so she could go back to work, and at 14, we were housed by the State in Dundrum."

Bella recalls being an "annoyingly chatty kid" who was really lively and happy, and she attended Newpark Comprehensive School prior to going to Trinity College to study medicinal chemistry. "I came out as bi when I was nine," she says. "It wasn't a sexual thing back then, but I knew I wanted to hold hands with both boys and girls. So many people have these feelings and think they're bad so they won't talk about them, but I'm lucky that I have always been able to talk to my mom. I went back and forth a million times - I was straight, I was gay, I was asexual, it was too complicated - but, for me, nothing has ever truly reflected my truth like the term 'bi'. "

The effervescent Bella struggled with her identity until she got to college, and met other bi people who were really open. She says she was far more interested in women than men for a long time, although she found it harder to meet them. "I wasn't in the LGBTQ+ scene a huge amount, and didn't really go to the bars, so generally I would develop these massive crushes that didn't really go anywhere," she says.

"Many women don't want to go out with a bi person because there's a lot of stigma. I think people would prefer things to be black and white, but that just doesn't reflect reality, People have this preconceived notion that being bi is a phase you go through on your way to coming out as gay, but it isn't. For me, it has to do with an intellectual and emotional connection, and I'm not going to necessarily gender that, which is the same for a lot of bi people."

Bella had 'imposter syndrome' when she got into Trinity, so she threw herself into college life in a big way. She joined the history and debating society and then set up the knitting society - she's an accomplished knitter. She met Shane in 2010 during Freshers' Week in third year, when they were both trying to recruit people to their respective societies. "I was sitting at the maths society's stand with my friend, and we were both talking about meeting girls," Shane recalls. "The knitting society's stand was right across from us, so we said we'd join because there would surely be loads of girls in that society? Bella was on the stand and we got chatting as I signed up. I saw her again the next day and she said there was a part of calculus that she never understood, so I explained it on the back of a napkin and it went from there. I fancied Bella, as I thought she was really cool and smart. She was good-looking and had her own way of doing things."

Shane was rather hungover that day, which Bella initially mistook for unfriendliness. She didn't fancy him at first, but once they got chatting, she fell for him in a big way. "He told me he played bass, so I was thinking, 'Who is this bass-playing maths wiz?'"she recalls. "He was so smart and unassuming and I found everything he said so interesting. I had never experienced anything like it before, as it was like falling down a rabbit hole."

The gentle Shane, 28, is from a small village near the town of Gort in south Galway. His parents were "brilliant," he says, and he had a great childhood. After a year studying engineering in Galway, he decided to switch to do theoretical physics at Trinity and enjoyed his time there. "The societies were the best part and I really loved the people in my class," he says. "I was in the maths and physics societies, like a big nerd, and was chair of the meditation society."

A week after they met, Shane asked Bella out, and they went to play chess for their first date. They kissed that evening and then went on a formal date for dinner and to the cinema. They saw each other non-stop after that and moved in together after two months.

"We literally said, 'I love you' after four days, and I felt physically sick for the first three months because I was so anxious," says Bella. "I wanted to see Shane all of the time, and we were truly lovesick. We weren't seeing our friends and I wasn't going to class, which is not like me at all, but we literally just stared at each other for three months. We actually decided to move in together to take our relationship down a notch, because we felt that if we lived together, we could still see our friends and know that the other person was going to be there when we got home. I thought I had been in love before, but I realised that this was what people meant by it."

Bella and Shane's relationship deepened and survived various curveballs, including a short break-up and the depression Shane experienced while doing his PhD in nanoscience. He found that particular academic experience isolating as he's more motivated by teamwork, so he left after two years. He now has a finance job with an airplane leasing company, which he feels is a very good fit for him.

"Bella was brilliant when I struggled with my mental health as she always seemed to know the right thing to say or do to make me feel better," he says. "She's very patient, understanding and wise, and is 100 per cent my rock and my support. I wouldn't be anything without her."

Bella says that she and Shane have agreed to be in a monogamous relationship, although she doesn't pass judgment on anyone else's way of conducting their relationship. She loves Shane's kindness, and how open-minded and accepting he is around other people.

"It never bothered me that Bella is bisexual and it wasn't a big deal when she first told me," he says. "It's hypocritical to assume that bi people would get with anybody, because there's a huge perception about straight men cheating too. You have to look at yourself and understand that there is no big deal in any of it. You like what you like and there is no point in trying to hide it, and as long as you aren't hurting anyone, what does it matter? Bella may have been with men or women before she met me, but all that mattered was that she was now coming home to me."

Bella worked on the Web Summit after graduating and currently works part-time on the Undergraduate Awards. Running ShoutOut.ie is very important to her, and she puts herself out there as she knows that bi people are not happy hiding behind other labels.

"I'm extremely proud and comfortable with myself so I have to stand up," she says. "Even with marriage equality, very little of the literature said anything about bi people, which is ridiculous because as far as I'm concerned, I have an LGBTQ+ marriage. It just happens to be with two cisgender people - one woman and one man."

www.shoutout.ie

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