OUT OF TOUCH
Many Irish politicians, celebs and sports stars still find it hard to acknowledge they're gay. But are their fears well-founded in the Ireland of 2007, asks Brian Finnegan
When Jodie Foster was branded a lesbian, or 'outed', on the cover of an American gay magazine this week, the revelation confirmed rumours that have been circulating about the 44-year-old Hollywood A-lister for most of her adult career.
Hers is the first major media case of 'outing' since 1992, when pop star Jason Donovan went to court after 'The Face' magazine printed a piece on the 'outing' of allegedly gay entertainers, illustrated by a mocked-up picture of Donovan wearing a T-shirt declaring, 'Queer as F***'.
Donovan sued for libel and won, saying that he had been made to look a liar about his sexuality - after his barrister had described the wrongful allegation of homosexuality a "poisonous slur".
Fifteen years later it's hard to imagine anyone considering an allegation of homosexuality a 'poisonous slur'. The fact that many gay men and lesbians in the public eye have chosen to be open about their sexuality and have not fallen out of favour with their fans and supporters suggests they are working in a more accepting climate.
In truth that climate of acceptance depends on what area of the public eye they are working in. Foster is part of a small band of elite actors who can open a movie across the USA.
To fulfil that role they have to be universally acceptable as heterosexual romantic and dramatic leads. The pervading fear in Hollywood is that an actor who is identified as gay cannot believably play those parts.
However on the Hollywood small screen, gay and lesbian actors and broadcasters have flourished. Ever since comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out 10 years ago on her own sitcom, the number of successful and overtly homosexual television stars has grown and grown.
Nowadays lesbian broadcaster Rosie O'Donnell battles at the top of the chat-show ratings board with DeGeneres, while Britain has its fair share of hosts who aren't afraid to pin their rainbow colours to the mast, including Irishman Graham Norton, Julian Clary and Paul O'Grady.
Even more indicative of the leading edge TV is taking on this issue is the fact that young stars like TR Knight who plays Dr George O'Malley on 'Grey's Anatomy' and Neil Patrick Harris from the hit sitcom, 'How I Met Your Mother', are entrusted with straight-guy roles despite the fact they're openly gay.
This trend is echoed in the pop industry with singers like Will Young and Westlife's Mark Feehily still riding high in the charts, singing love lyrics to largely female fans.
Like the Hollywood star system both the worlds of politics and sport, however, remain a murky areas for gay people.
Only a handful of professional sportsmen and women have exited the closet, most famously the tennis players Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King and the Olympic diving medallist, Greg Louganis. There are no openly gay Irish sports stars.
The only professional football player ever to have come out was Justin Fashanu, who sold his story to The Sun in 1990. Although he claimed that he was generally well accepted by his fellow players, Fashanu also admitted that they would often joke maliciously about his sexual orientation, and he also became the target of constant crowd abuse because of it. Fashanu committed suicide in 1998.
The fear of a negative reaction is understandable for pro-gay sports stars. But what about politicians? ?
Just as film actors want to appeal to a broad fanbase, politicians need to appeal to as many voters as possible.
To date there has not been one out gay person elected to government in Ireland, despite the fact that several of our representatives are rumoured to be gay, or living with an open secret.
This year's general election, however, sees four gay candidates jostling for position. Labour's Meath East candidate, Dominic Hannigan, Wexford-based Progressive Democrat, Colm O'Gorman, and Green's David Healy and Roderic O'Gorman, representing Dublin North East and Dublin West respectively.
"I wanted to be a politician long before I knew I was gay," says Roderic O'Gorman. "When I realised that I felt it might be a big, big problem for me. When I did go for selection, I made it clear to those who might not know, that I am gay so that they could factor that into their considerations. But it was not an issue."
However, in the dirty game that is politics, homosexuality is not so immaterial. In January 2006, Gorey-based Fianna Fail councillor, Malcolm Byrne, found his picture on the cover of The Irish Sun under the headline 'Bertie's FF Man in Gay Web Shame', after it was leaked to a paper in Wexford that Byrne had a profile on the dating website, Gaydar.
Although Byrne was not selected for candidacy in the forthcoming election, beyond the immediate pain the article caused his family, he found the experience an unexpectedly positive one.
"What surprised me most was the response of older people," he says. "I was overwhelmed by the number of handshakes, many from people I didn't even know. It really reaffirmed my faith in human decency."
Similarly Colm O'Gorman garnered universal support when RTE Radio 1's 'Liveline' devoted a whole show to a newspaper column attacking the politician for fostering two children with his long-term partner.
So is Ireland light years ahead of Hollywood and the American political system when it comes to gay people in the public eye? We have our Brendan Courtneys and our Anna Nolans, our Brian Kennedys and our Steven Gatelys - but will we have gay politicians elected to government this summer? Only time will tell, and if the public support shown to both Byrne and O'Gorman represents the majority, the prospect looks positive.
Now, which of our celebs is ready to come out?
Brian Finnegan is editor of 'Gay Community News' In Dublin