Friday 15 December 2017

Filmmaker Shauna Keogh: I'm so proud my secret is 'out' after living a huge lie

Shauna Keogh was 30 before she came out. Now, in a relationship with former Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh, she has co-directed a film about being gay in rural Ireland

TV producer Shauna Keogh. Photo: Steve Humphreys
TV producer Shauna Keogh. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Shauna Keogh, the Emmy-nominated TV producer and her girlfriend Maria Walsh say they would love to be positive role models for people in the LGBT community. Photo: Mark Condren

Emily Hourican

'I have a personal connection to this because I am gay, and I've not been out very long. I spent my entire life on the run from my own sexuality, and battling my internal feelings. I didn't want to be gay. I felt very homophobic towards myself, it was a real struggle accepting it. When I look back, I think my life would have been a lot less anxiety-ridden if I had been able to come out earlier."

So says Shauna Keogh, Emmy-nominated TV producer and director, maker of high-profile reality TV documentaries with Katie Price, Abbey Clancy and Kerry Katona, as well as sensitive, often controversial programmes about transgender children, teenage vampires and morbidly obese kids.

We meet in Cafe Java in Donnybrook two days before Halloween, and at first I think Shauna is dressed up - wearing a black leather jacket, a long black spandex skirt and long, shiny black hair, she is quite the most glamorous person I've seen in a long time; a kind of witch imagined by John Galliano. She isn't, it turns out, dressed up. This is her - unashamedly stunning.

She is here to talk about her most recent project, perhaps the one closest to her heart, an RTE documentary she co-directed called The Only Gay In The Village, about being gay in rural Ireland in the aftermath of the Equality Referendum. This is a sensitive, moving, sometimes hilarious, often heart-breaking look at the struggle to come out, to forge an identity and a life, in small, close-knit, often isolated, rural communities.

Shauna Keogh, the Emmy-nominated TV producer and her girlfriend Maria Walsh say they would love to be positive role models for people in the LGBT community. Photo: Mark Condren
Shauna Keogh, the Emmy-nominated TV producer and her girlfriend Maria Walsh say they would love to be positive role models for people in the LGBT community. Photo: Mark Condren

The documentary features young people taking their first steps into new, open and honest lives, with all the difficulties attendant on that, and older people, still carrying the ingrained prejudices of their youth, trying to live in a way that makes sense to them, yet within the context of their surroundings. Those involved talk directly, fearlessly and movingly about their experiences.

"I've been asked about doing documentaries about being gay many times," Shauna says, "but it just wasn't right - not the timing, or the tone. When Michael McCormack, the producer and director, gave me a call, I went and had a conversation with him about the message." Because for Shauna, it is all about the message. "Documentaries like this, someone like me speaking publicly - if there is anyone, girl or guy, who watches the documentary, or reads this, and knows what they're going through is OK, that's the whole purpose."

Shauna, 32, on the face of it, seems so entirely confident, articulate and outspoken that it is surprising to hear that she spent much of her adult life "living a lie," as she describes it. "I was in my 30s when I came out," she says now, "just a year and a half ago. I have an immensely close connection with all my family. My parents are hugely supportive, they brought us up to be hugely open-minded and liberal. But when I was growing up, the word 'gay' was whispered, or used in a negative way, and I never knew any gay women.

''I didn't have any role models for gay women growing up - maybe Ellen, but she was American, she wasn't close to home."

It is this lack of role models - in the documentary, one man talks sadly about "Julian Clary, and that was it" - the sneaking dismissal, the hint of something 'wrong,' that kept Shauna from openness for so long. And it is exactly these things that crop up again and again among the men and women featured in the documentary. There is Will, a 36-year-old farmer from Roscommon who never told his parents, now deceased, that he was gay. Oein de Bhairduin, a traveller from Tuam, Co Galway, who says, with heart-breaking understatement, "I believe my family love me, but I can be complicated for people." Seventeen-year-old Shauna, from Offaly, whose mother says of her coming out, "I couldn't believe, as a mother, I'd missed it. I felt I'd let her down so badly."

They all have very diverse stories, but talk about feeling different, feeling apart, the fear of not being accepted, of being beaten up - "there was always the fear around physical violence," as Oein de Bhairduin puts it - of never having an open relationship. In everything, there is resonance for Shauna. "I had multiple conversations in my head with myself about coming out, over a long period of time. There never seemed to be a right time. 'Coming out' means a lot of different things; for me, it meant having to acknowledge it and accept myself, and that took years."

She describes growing up in Kingswood, Tallaght, as a sporty kid - "I was my dad's tomboy; I liked to play football with the boys, I played Camogie for Dublin for years" - but always aware of being 'different'. "I knew I was. I was already on the outside. Nobody intentionally made me feel that way, but I knew. I wasn't like my friends. And I knew as I was getting older, those cracks were getting bigger.

"When you don't fit in, that's a horrible thing. Especially when you're younger. I used to say, 'I'm going out on a date'; I would try and cover my tracks. When you hold something back like that, it becomes shameful. And when you're holding on to shame, there is no worse emotion. It's a horrible thing to feel. The worry - will you be accepted?"

For Shauna, it was moving away, first to London, then to the US, that allowed her to begin to understand who she was.

"When I moved to London, I was starting to be exposed to more gay things. I worked with Katie Price and Peter Andre, I was with them almost every single day for about three years. I met one of their make-up artists, a gay man, married to his husband. I started to meet people, and I realised there were so many different types of gay people, and - wow! - gay women. But I was still very much in denial. It was still such a negative thing. It was only when I moved to the US, late in my 20s, that I had my first relationship. But that was behind closed doors."

Ironically, it was also this distance that allowed her to hide the truth of her sexuality for so long.

"If I had been living at home in Ireland, my situation would have been very different, but I was in the States, I was on the road for nine months at a time, for work, I'd check in at home when I could. And that's what made me come out in the end - the lying. I can't lie, I hate it. Especially to your parents. We all want our parents' approval and acceptance. I'd be coming home for Christmas, and I didn't want to have this secret, this other life. Which is what was happening. That would keep me awake at night. I was riddled with anxiety over it.

"When you're carrying a secret, when you feel you've done something wrong, or something you don't want people to know about - there's a tightness in your chest. Living with that every day can cause serious mental health issues."

Sprinkled throughout the documentary, in between the stories - some funny, some tragic, some deeply moving tales of acceptance and a journey travelled - are the kind of statistics that bring everything into very sharp focus: 60pc of LGBT people have considered ending their lives. One in five have been attacked for being LGBT. One in four are out, but haven't told a parent. Juxtaposed with the interviews - the mother of one young girl who, on being told that her daughter was gay, speculated, "did I do this? Did I not say enough prayers when I was pregnant?" Another mother, who inadvertently watched a bit of a lesbian porn when pregnant, was initially left wondering "Did it go into my head and somehow go down into the baby's brain?" - it is painfully obvious that, far as we have come along the road of tolerance and understanding, there is still a long way to go.

When Shauna did, finally, come out, it was spurred on by a combination of things: "I hit 30 and I hit a big turning point in my life. I was being offered another great five-year contract in the States, where I was working for the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel, and I loved my career, but I realised, 'I need to start making time for personal things, I need to stop running.' I'd always wanted to come home, and make TV in this country." But, she also knew she couldn't come home until she was ready to be fully open. She worried about the effect on her career as much as on her relationships. "I don't want to be judged for my sexuality, and I didn't want it to take away from the job opportunities I'd earned. I didn't want it to define me, and I still don't.

''That said, I've had a very good coming out, as much as my personal journey has been hard, and it's been emotional, and it's been filled with a lot of doubt and tears. It's an internal pain. Outwardly, I've had the best reaction and the best acceptance. My black cloud was lifted off my shoulders, and it was unbelievably heavy. My parents, they were super supportive. I think my mum might have had an inkling, but she would never have forced me to say anything, she was waiting. My only regret is not coming out sooner. But that's my cross to bear in life, and everybody's journey is different."

Prejudice and misunderstanding don't end with acceptance of being gay; there is a whole thing around appearances as well. Because of the way she looks, Shauna says that, in a funny kind of way, "I come out every day." She doesn't, as she readily admits, look "like the popular idea of a gay woman. I get told 'you don't look gay' all the time. And that's OK. For me, what's really important is that there is no stereotypical gay person. Being gay is everything, anybody. Women who are gay sometimes have a look, but that's all just identity, it's only clothes, it doesn't make them any different.

''For some women, who might shave their heads or have very tight haircuts, it's a way of not having to come out all the time. I love my femininity, I love my lip-gloss, my long hair, my heels, and sometimes it's easier for me to say I'm straight. Especially if I'm in a bar, to men." Why, I wonder? "Because it becomes sexual - if I say, 'I've got a girlfriend', the reaction is 'Where is she? Let me see you kiss her...' It becomes a sexual thing. It's hard." It's also pathetic - that these reactions can still exist - but it is also, I have no doubt, the exact truth.

At one stage, Shauna tells me "My first Gay Pride was this year. For me to be part of it this year was so huge, and to have my family supporting me at it, that was like winning the Lotto. I honestly never imagined being that happy. I never imagined I could have an open, happy relationship with somebody, and it not being a problem."

The relationship she mentions isn't just open and happy, it is also very public in its own way. Her girlfriend is Maria Walsh, broadcaster, businesswoman, former Rose of Tralee, and frankly, a bit of an icon, for women, for feminists and for Ireland, as well as for the gay community. So how is it, going from being with someone 'behind closed doors,' to being part of what is a decidedly high-profile romance? "We're very protective of the relationship," Shauna says. "We had a friendship for a long time before we ever turned our relationship romantic. For both of us, when we first met, our timings weren't right. We were both busy with our respective careers, but we spent a lot of time hanging out, so it just naturally progressed into something. If we can be a positive role model for people in the LGBT community, or their parents, that's brilliant. We're very selective in terms of what we're seen at and what we support, but we're very happy to be an image for other people, to help the younger generation."

Which, I say, is both brave and decent of them. After all, no one really sets out to be a role model. "It's not easy," Shauna admits. "I don't see myself as someone that people look up to at all. I'm very proud of my career, but being in a relationship... I've been involved in the entertainment industry, and I've seen what can happen. That's why I'm very protective. Maria and I are very separate individuals, we've both got our respective careers and we work very hard. We talk about everything between ourselves and we're super-supportive of each other. That's what's really important. But it's also important to be visible," she insists. "If someone else around the country sees us and thinks, about their own girlfriend, 'maybe we should be seen out together, maybe we should hold hands,' then we are more than happy to support that."

So how did they meet? "I wasn't in the country when Maria won the Rose of Tralee," Shauna says, "I was based in New York. I wasn't around for any of her Rose year. Maria and I met on the last day of the festival last year, briefly. We were running a 10k, we met for literally two minutes. She said I was rude," she laughs. "I say I wasn't. Then I went back to Dublin. I was working out of TV3 for a bit and Maria was in presenting for The Seven O'Clock Show, so we were hanging out on a more regular basis then. We were just building our friendship. We were both incredibly busy and it just didn't make sense to have anything else, but as time progressed, we realised, 'OK, there's feelings here, we're going to go for it!' So that's how we met, it's all good, and hopefully it continues that way."

For all the excitement around the Equality Referendum, for all the well-deserved back-slapping and congratulations, this documentary makes very clear that there is still a battle to be fought, and won, and that battle will be fought by people like Shauna, like Maria, like all the contributors to the documentary, simply going about their daily lives. Living, loving, getting married, getting dressed, having conversations and hopes and dreams. It's not about hectoring or lecturing, it's about being. And perhaps in the end it is put best in the documentary by Oein de Bhairduin's father, a Galway Traveller, who says to his son, "I couldn't give a f*** what you are. Blood's blood and family's family and either you accept it or you turn away. And if you turn away, that's a smaller family."

The Only Gay In The Village is on RTE2, November 9 at 9pm

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