Monday 12 November 2018

'How I found my Pride' - Emmy-nominated TV producer Shauna Keogh on coming out to her parents aged 32

At the age of 32, Emmy-nominated TV producer Shauna Keogh told her parents she was gay. But being 'out' didn't automatically put an end to her internal struggle. Now, with her own fashion label, 5428, she wants to help others in the LGBT community to be comfortable with their identity

Wear it's at: Shauna Keogh's new clothing range, 5428 was inspired by being proud of her sexuality. Photo: Eduardo Nogueira
Wear it's at: Shauna Keogh's new clothing range, 5428 was inspired by being proud of her sexuality. Photo: Eduardo Nogueira
5428 clothing range by Shauna Keogh, picture Eduardo Nogueira
Clothes encounter: Shauna Keogh models some of the garments from her new 5428 clothing range. Photo: Eduardo Nogueira

It was on September 3, 2014, at 32 years of age, that I sat across from my mum at our kitchen table and told her I was gay. I had lived away from home for almost 14 years and coming home to visit was the thing I looked forward to the most every year. This trip, however, was one I was fearful of - and one that I never thought I'd make.

My relationship with my family is unbreakable, we have always been a really close unit. I always felt lucky to have such amazing parents, but it wasn't until I moved away that I truly appreciated how blessed I was to have such great role models.

My mum is my idol. She is the strongest, most loyal and determined human being I know. My dad is my hero; I have always been his tomboy, and I treasure the relationship we have built over the years. Yet still, for someone who told the truth for a living, sitting at that kitchen table in 2014 to tell my own truth was one of the scariest moments of my life.

Growing up in Tallaght in Dublin, my parents raised me and my two sisters to be loving, kind, independent and fiercely strong. That upbringing equipped me to leave Ireland to pursue my ambitions to create and produce documentaries.

Clothes encounter: Shauna Keogh models some of the garments from her new 5428 clothing range. Photo: Eduardo Nogueira
Clothes encounter: Shauna Keogh models some of the garments from her new 5428 clothing range. Photo: Eduardo Nogueira

After studying television production at Ballyfermot College, I left for London in the summer of 2004 to gain work experience. The idea was to go away and try to get a runner's job to earn some experience and then return to finish my Master's. During that time I'm a Celeb… Get me Out of Here! was on air and Katie Price and Peter Andre were all over the news. The whole world was watching their love story unfold. I was working part-time in a bar when I realised that MTV reality shows Newlyweds and The Osbournes were taking America by storm. I thought that Peter and Katie would make a great reality show, so I found a contact for their management and after a conversation over coffee I basically pitched When Jordan Met Peter.

The next minute I found myself hiring a camera in the middle of Soho; the next day I met with Peter and we flew to Glasgow for a signing of his No1 single Mysterious Girl. Thus began the whirlwind - I would go on to spend almost every day of the next three years with the couple.

While in London, I also created, produced and filmed numerous other reality shows as well as edgy documentaries such as Teenage Vampires, The Real 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the Channel 4 series 999: What's your Emergency?. I gained a reputation for dealing with sensitive subject areas and building trusted relationships with interviewees.

I was then offered a contract to work on a series in America called Too Fat For Fifteen, which centred around a number of morbidly obese teenagers who were battling weight and self-esteem issues. I was nominated for an Emmy for the series, and I settled permanently in New York.

Determined to challenge myself, I went to work for the Discovery and National Geographic channels. I produced shows about looking for truffles in Oregon, catching 'gators in the swamps of Louisiana and living off grid with families in Minnesota and in teepees in Montana.

I built a career around telling people's stories - but I had never told my own.

5428 clothing range by Shauna Keogh, picture Eduardo Nogueira
5428 clothing range by Shauna Keogh, picture Eduardo Nogueira

And so, as I sat across from my mum that September night, I needed my truth to come out. I looked at her and instantly my eyes filled with tears. My mum asked me what was wrong, and I struggled to contain my emotions as I told her I had a girlfriend. I never said I was gay, I said: "I have a girlfriend." Even at the point of finally coming out I was struggling to utter the words.

My dad then came into the kitchen to get his cup of tea and he instantly asked what was wrong. I looked at my mum and she said: "It's OK, angel, tell him." I blurted out the same sentence. My dad's reaction was, "So what?" as he threw his arms around me. We group hugged - I was crying uncontrollably by that point.

It's very difficult to put into words how I felt at that moment, it was such a surreal experience. Even now, almost four years on as I write this, the tears are falling just as fast as they did that night. My entire life, I had internalised my feelings and suppressed any ideas that coming out was ever going to be OK. And yet here I was being hugged and comforted by the most important people in my life. It was pretty overwhelming for all of us.

We sat around the table and talked, and my mum had said that she had an idea about me being gay but never wanted to force me to 'come out'. For my siblings and my closest friends, it was completely out of the blue. I spent so much time away and on the road in the States that keeping my sexuality under wraps was easy. But I was so fortunate that everybody was extremely supportive - I cherish having such amazing people in my world.

Ironically, one of my favourite documentaries to produce had been Age Eight and Wanting a Sex Change. To be honest, I wasn't overly familiar with transgender issues, but when Channel 4 commissioned the project in 2009 I couldn't wait to make it. I was so intrigued how these children realised they were born into the wrong body at such a young age. It made me think about my childhood and when I started to feel different. I can't put it down to one exact moment, I just knew that something was different with me.

I remember really admiring certain women in my life, but just put that down to role models and being impressionable. During my school years there wasn't one 'out' person so it was hard to relate. Those years are extremely hard to navigate through and being part of the clique is so important. Fitting in and not being 'that girl' is so essential. 'Lesbian' was a foreign term, and definitely one that was only brought up in slagging situations.

Through these years, sport was my outlet. I loved playing camogie, I played for Good Counsel GAA in Drimnagh for many years. I loved the people involved in this club - there was always a sense of acceptance and belonging. Although I was never 'out', I was always myself there. My closest friendships to this day are with my teammates from my teenage years playing at that club.

Clothing, too, has always played a part of my identity. Whether it was a football jersey, a fashion label or the name of a band on a T-shirt, I could always relate to somebody who was rocking the same style as me. Sexuality, identity and clothing started to merge in my 20s. When I was still struggling with my sexuality I always found comfort in being able to express that through my outfits.

As I slowly started to socialise in LGBT places I started to feel part of the community. The majority of my LGBT friends and I had similar styles, and these styles became our ways of setting our own trends. In a way, it was me slowly coming out.

I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, when I really found my feet. My circle of friends were super hip and socialising was usually on a porch swing or around a fire, listening to bluegrass music and having a few beers. Some of my friends were gay and wearing the V-neck T-shirts alongside snapback hats and check shirts. I would always find myself buying or borrowing one of the hats or shirts before the night was out. We felt connected through our clothes. There was no weird looks or nasty comments - it was a 'safe' place.

I met my first girlfriend in North Carolina. That relationship was everything that relationships are when you first fall in love. However, it was still hidden. When I would Skype or Facetime home, the guilt would eat me up - the lying and the hiding. My partner at the time was also not out, and on a daily basis we would do all we could to not be seen together. We became increasingly worried that people would start to figure it out. This eventually caught up to us and living in secret behind closed doors began to cause problems.

Later on, I think that one of the things that was hardest for my parents was that they could see how much this 'secret' had affected me. For me, the moment that I told them, the burden of years was lifted, but I don't think I will ever fully appreciate what it must have been like for my parents. I often wonder about their conversations when they lay in bed that night. It's one my biggest regrets, actually, not giving them more time to ask questions. I never thought about what it must have been like in their shoes at that time.

Instead, the morning after our talk I was on the red-eye back to New York. My dad dropped me to the airport like he had done every time for the last 10 years. The hug my dad gave me beside the car at drop-off was one of the warmest and most special moments of my life.

I was 'out' now and processing that in itself was a challenge. The flight back to the States seemed like an eternity. I sat by the window and replayed the conversation over and over - at times, throughout the flight I couldn't stop the tears. I remember my mum asking me if being gay was the reason for me leaving Ireland. It wasn't, I had left Ireland to build a career in TV. However, looking back now, I think that subconsciously my sexuality was a factor in my going. There was an ocean in between for safety, so being 'outed' wasn't a worry.

Back in New York, I realised that although I had come out to my family, I wasn't ready to come out at work. I was afraid of losing contracts. My career was so important to me. I had worked extremely hard to get there and I didn't want anything to get in the way of that, especially my sexuality.

This fear stemmed from a comment that was made in the early years when I was working on a production. There was a woman in charge who was very high up in the media world and extraordinarily talented in her field. I was part of an all-male crew and we'd just finished a meeting with this woman. Afterwards, there were comments like, "She is so cold, she has to be a lesbian" and "Total dyke acting like a man". These words never left me.

That was just one of the many occasions where I have witnessed a negative perception of lesbians. There were many other such comments over time, so I knew it was easier to play it straight. All these factors pushed me further down the rabbit hole. I was set on silencing thoughts and emotions in order to continue to be successful.

Eventually, a few months after I'd told my parents, I was sitting on set with a really good friend, Patrick Conway, who had been like a big brother to me when I first moved to New York. He was married with two kids and he was talking about being a parent. I asked him how would he feel if one of his kids was gay and, without a second thought, he said: "Why would that matter?" I looked at him and said: "Patrick, I'm gay..." He laughed and said: "Are you serious?" Then: "Good for you." It was the first time I had told anybody at work and his reaction was paramount.

I was anxious going to the office the next day, but it was business as usual. Internally, however, my struggle was ongoing, so I decided that I would stay hidden as much as possible. Only a select few people knew, and I could contain that and continue to live in secret, blending into the New York background without anybody asking questions.

In May 2015, the marriage equality referendum was huge for me. I was home from New York for a couple of days and I spent it with my family. It was strange as I only came out to them a few months previously, and I was still adjusting. We didn't go into Dublin Castle but we did go into the city later that afternoon. I never thought I would be standing in my home town celebrating that monumental day. The prospect of living in Ireland 'out' at one point in time seemed like such a laughable idea. And now, there we were shoulder to shoulder with so many other families who were experiencing the same thing. It really gave me hope for my future.

The turning point came when my sister's daughter was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. My niece would need to start chemotherapy immediately. This completely devastated our family, and I would fly home as often as I could and then return to the States, living only half a life. Those flights became increasingly lonely but they were my thinking time. It wasn't long before I decided to make the move back to Ireland to be with my family.

When I returned home it was such a huge adjustment. Ireland had changed - as it should - but my world especially. I knew that in order to live a happy life I had to be honest and open, which meant acknowledging my sexuality. However, I was still going through my own acceptance. When you spend years living in denial or hidden, just because you come out doesn't mean the next day your life switches and all the heaviness has been lifted. It most definitely helps but it takes time to live as 'gay'. That might sound crazy, but it's true.

The one thing that I always feel good about is being creative, so I started my own production company, Empire Elite Ltd, and began to make documentaries. In 2016, when I was asked to come on board to co-direct The Only Gay In The Village for RTÉ's Reality Bites series, it was an empowering way for me to give an honest depiction into what it's like to be gay in rural Ireland.

It was suggested that I might like to share own my story on camera, but the whole point was to hear it from those who were actually experiencing it. I think one of the most important messages in the documentary was to illustrate the challenges of being gay while living in smaller rural town. It's very different to the busy streets of city life where it feels much more accepted.

Making the documentary was a way for me to take ownership of my sexuality, but in truth I still found it hard to acknowledge at times. One of those featured in the programme was a psychologist, and during the filming I learned a lot about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

I realised that the issue with accepting myself as gay was with me, and not the people who I surrounded myself with. My family and friends never changed - in fact, their love and support grew stronger - so I decided I would go to therapy.

My therapist, Constantin Tui, wanted to work with me on my cognitive thoughts. I needed to work at changing my engrained perceptions of what being gay was and to work on my internal homophobia. When you're hiding something it brings shame and that is a heavy emotion. I had lots of that from spending so many years in hiding and then the guilt of lying.

It is, of course, strange at the beginning to go into therapy but after each session I felt so much better. Therapy takes time, it's a process. I wanted to do it because I wanted to change things in my life, so I went regularly. Once I did, my outlook shifted and I felt stronger.

I still go every two weeks, and it's been the best investment I could have made in myself. It's not just to deal with my sexuality, it involves all aspects of my life. And I firmly believe it really helped in moulding where I am today - extremely happy and comfortable in my own skin.

When The Only Gay In The Village aired, I was asked to do media interviews about the show. I felt really honoured to champion for LGBT rights. I would like to be a role model: if there is a person or family going through a hard time with their sexuality and they are reading this and can relate, then me opening up and sharing has been worth it. Being gay really shouldn't define you, it's a part of who you are and that's it. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter once you're a good person? I have been told so many times that I "don't look gay", and for me breaking the stereotypical image is important.

At that time I was in a relationship with Maria Walsh, who was the first openly gay woman to win the Rose of Tralee. My relationship with Maria was something I was very protective of - you share too much of that publicly and you lose the intimacy of what's between you and your partner. I have also seen through the shows I have produced how too much media attention can fundamentally ruin relationships. At the same time, I have always been very proud of Maria and our relationship, and I felt it was really important to be role models and to be visible. For me it was about finding a balance.

Some time back, Maria and I ended our romantic relationship. It just ran its course. We truly have a great friendship and working relationship. I know that sounds like a line but it really isn't! In fact, my next documentary with GAA star Cora Staunton is airing this September. Maria and I worked together on this production out in Australia. We will always have a huge amount of respect and love for each other.

The first Pride festival I ever attended was two years ago, when I was working on The Only Gay In The Village. Last year I was away working on a job in the US, so this weekend I really can't wait to be home and be part of it. I have a really amazing circle of gay friends and we will be in the Street 66 bar enjoying the weekend.

It's really fun to dress up in rainbows and unicorns for the Pride parade, but I certainly wouldn't go into work dressed like that. It's not because of fear any more, it's just that fundamentally that isn't reflective of my personality.

The idea for creating my own clothing line has been in my head for years. I've called it '5428' - standing for 'LGBT' numerically on your keypad. It's is a subtle but strong message that lets the wearers feel connected and part of a community. You're wearing who you are on your sleeve, but that doesn't mean that you're defined by it. The process of getting the line to where it is now was the same as how I create TV shows. From an initial concept, I worked at developing and then producing the final finished piece. I designed the logo with Darragh Kerrigan at Creative Design. I then connected with a T-shirt company, and manufacturing the line began. I had lots of support from my friends and family, who were constantly giving feedback.

Just like with my TV work, the connection is personal. I always have to feel passionate about a project. It's also my way of giving back as a percentage of the sales goes to the LGBT community. But, ultimately, it's about the story and message.

I have weekly calls with the US and it's so uplifting to hear how people talk about Ireland. I am so proud of being Irish and this country is leading the charge for change.

I feel that we are part of something amazing here in this country. I would like the clothing line to represent a part of that change. On a personal level, it's remarkable to be on the other side now.

The 5428 range will be available to buy exclusively in Street 66 in Dublin's Temple Bar, street66.bar. See the full range at 5428apparel.com

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