News Analysis

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Why hurler's coming out is so crucial for gay pride

Donal Og Cusack's announcement brings the idea of being gay as close to home as you can get, writes Donal Lynch

Published 25/10/2009 | 05:00

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THE American radio producer was well aware that Donal Og Cusack's announcement of his homosexuality was important. But just to make sure that his New York listeners grasped the full enormity of the event, I had to look for parallels as I recorded a piece on a seismic week for the GAA star and our understanding of modern Ireland.

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"It would be like A-Rod or David Beckham...," I said, grasping to put it in terms he would understand. "It would be the equivalent of one of them saying they were gay. It's earthshaking."

But somehow, that was only partly right. Cusack may be a sports god at home, but he was never a corporate, pretty-boy celebrity like Becks, and there is no "international equivalent" of hurling. It is a uniquely Irish sport; intertwined with nationalist history, Celtic legend and a local sense of place; it is somehow manlier, grittier, and wilder than what would have once upon a time been called those "garrison games".

Its stars are revered but they still work in the bank or the local insurance office and live next door. They're household names, but they're also very much "one of us".

This is one of the reasons why Donal Og's announcement is so significant. By coming out, he has brought the idea of being gay as close to home as you can get without being gay yourself, or having a gay relative. More than any of the distant, out-and-proud constellations of the entertainment world, he is living proof that it could be your brother or your son, that it happens in the best of families.

This is especially important in Ireland because of the divide in attitudes to homosexuality that have emerged between city and country.

Being gay is still, for many Irish people, something that happens with proper discretion "up there" in Dublin. It has been written elsewhere that our cosmopolitan capital now has now more gay men per capita than San Francisco, but this is partly because most of them left their home towns and villages as soon as humanly possible.

They fall into the bar and club scene, but still live with the vague terror of being recognised by someone from home. A stubborn seam of homophobia runs deep through rural Ireland, as seen by the terrace chants that Cusack and his family have had to deal with. Donal Og is the "Smalltown Boy" who faced down the bigots.

He is undoubtedly courageous, but part of what puts him in an good position to do this is that, as a hurling star, he is one of our designated Paragons of Manliness.

Almost 90 years ago, the American scholar Dr Walter Cannon called sport man's "substitute for war" and wrote of how interlinked athletics was with ideals of masculinity and dominance. As a hurling legend, the public image of Cusack is one of chest-thumping valour. He is a one-man contradiction of the cliched notion of the effete gay male. All of the cowardly slurs about limp wrists and shirt-lifting can roll right off his jersey.

The reaction of his team mates has been instructive. Elite sportsmen tend to be very secure in their masculinity. I can think of a couple of instances of top amateur-level Irish athletes in other sports coming out to team mates, with the friendships being strengthened rather than weakened by the news. It's the frustrated five-a-side merchants who tend to harbour the most prejudices.

It's interesting but not surprising that the wider reaction to his coming out has been generally positive. Of course, everyone is going to say he's "brave" -- what else can they say? Irish people are very liberal when it comes to other people (hence the relative lack of opposition to civil union), but less so when it comes to their own. Privately, some observers have also noted that the revelation won't harm sales of Cusack's autobiography, Come What May, and there have also been murmurs that he chose to serialise it in a newspaper, the British arm of which has historically been extremely hostile to gay rights and which last week published Jan Moir's virulently homophobic piece on Stephen Gately. But maybe this is just nit-picking, a detail to be lost in the overall narrative of his coming out.

Much was made last week about how "Cusack's stand" has ushered in a new era of modernity for the GAA. The association could make an even greater contribution to progress if took the same stance against homophobic abuse (on and off the pitch) that it and other sports bodies have taken against racism. It should not merely be hoped that the hecklers who abuse Cusack and his family will eventually see the light.

One of the association's most respected players -- and others like him -- surely deserve protection, and the terrace bigots should be banned for good. So intertwined is the GAA with Irish life that a policy like this would have a knock-on effect in other sports and could eventually trickle down to the language of the schoolyard -- which is the first place any gay person learns to be afraid. Cusack, like every other gay man in Ireland, grew up hearing the term "gay" as a catch-all term of abuse -- little wonder that he was 32 years old before he felt able to come out publicly.

In the middle of a piece mostly in praise of Cusack, the sports writer Martin Breheny last week still couldn't help wondering if the player's coming out would "actually serve any purpose" and wrote: "quite why he felt the need to share such personal information with the world is something only he can rationalise".

There's a whiff of the politic Irish attitude that equates showing any kind of difference to making a show of yourself.

It also ignores the fact that in the wider world, sexuality -- as distinct from the nitty gritty of sex -- actually manages to straddle the boundary between personal and public information.

When a man and woman get married, this is public expression of their love and their heterosexuality. An announcement is often put in the paper, and even if it isn't, we'd hardly refer to their sexuality as very "personal information". The only thing that makes gay people different is the shame around the whole thing, and if Cusack is saying he isn't ashamed, why should anyone else tut-tut about him telling us?

Anyway, some of the details of his sexuality were leaking out already when he made the decision to write this book; so why shouldn't he wrest control of the message?

In the grander scheme of things, his coming out is almost as significant a leap for the gay rights movement as the passing into law of civil unions. In the 16 years since decriminalisation of homosexual acts, Ireland has come a long way -- we have liberalised at a speed seen by no other Western nation -- but a top GAA player coming out represents the final frontier.

You can give a minority rights but you can't legislate hearts and minds, and Cusack, through his combination of courage, sports stardom and down-home normality, has undoubtedly helped to ease open closet doors all around the country.

Sunday Independent

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