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'Uttered by a socially conservative politician, the words 'I am a gay man' reach further into remoter pockets of the national psyche'

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John Butler

John Butler

John Butler

I had to permit myself a little smile when, at a dinner party recently, a straight journalist acquaintance noted that, as he hadn't encountered any homophobia recently, public life for gay people in Ireland was now pretty much the same as it was for those born straight.

Was I pleased to hear that he hadn't recently seen a moustachioed man in leather cap and chaps being attacked on Grafton Street? Of course I was. Might I have expected him to intuit the multiple insidious ways homophobia presents itself to gay people, weekly?

Perhaps not. He is, after all, a straight man working in the liberal arts in a major city in Western Europe in which homosexuality has been decriminalised for 21 years. Why is this even an issue?

A similar reaction greeted the confirmation last week by Minister Leo Varadkar that he was gay, a reaction that - for me - overlooked two very important distinctions between this and other comings-out. Why is he telling us? Why is this even an issue?

Firstly, because uttered by a socially conservative politician in a suit and tie, the words "I am a gay man" reach further, into remoter pockets of the national psyche than when spoken by pop stars or chat-show hosts. There are homes in the country that don't live-tweet the Academy Awards, but which do watch the Six-One news nightly. It might now be more conceivable that a member of the LGBT community lives in - or next door to - one of those homes.

Like Minister Varadkar, I also have something I'd like to confess. I too am... an introvert.

When the Minister also implied as much, for me that was far more interesting to contemplate. As a shy kid, the struggle of my youth was finding someone out there who was gay; to whom I could realistically aspire, in whom I could hope to find myself reflected. All I could find were archetypes to whom (through desperate insecurity) I simply couldn't relate.

The word "flaunt" is wrong because of the negative connotations, but the way those people could so confidently "own" the more extreme expressions of their identity gave me the gravest doubt as to whether, with my dim sense of who I might be, I wasn't just losing my mind. At that point, internalised homophobia goes to work, trapping you in a hall of mirrors from which it becomes more difficult to escape in adulthood.

Ideally, as a boy, I wouldn't have needed validation from without, and would have gone forth into the world and boldly been the first "me" in existence, much as Senator Norris, Kathleen Zappone, Panti, Tonie Walsh and other trail-blazers had done before me.

Every gay person in the country (and every introvert) owes a debt of gratitude to those who were gay in the spotlight when our country offered far more resistance to the notion than it does now. But the need for public statements like Varadkar's remains.

Gay experience runs the gamut of human existence, and for that introverted kid searching for another "me", the coming-out of a conservative (some might say bland) government minister would have been hugely significant, as would have been the coming-out of a rugby player or boring teacher.

At a certain point in the war against lazy assumptions of the kind you hear lobbed around the table at dinner parties, the blandness becomes the point. This can get tricky, and can easily be misunderstood. I'm not for a minute talking about campness, or the suppression of feminine traits. I reject the very idea of "straight-acting", just as surely as there is no gay type of person, and that's exactly why this "coming out" is still news, is still important.

It's also a fact of life. I'm not a public figure (particularly), but I've kept a running tally and since coming out, I'm called upon to repeat the exercise on average about five times a week. It happens in the course of work, meeting friends of friends, it happens at home and abroad, via email and on Twitter.

"You married with kids, John?" the guy asks, walking off the soccer pitch, and I know he's not asking if I'm gay, exactly, but the natural response is to tell him I am. Hopefully, come summertime, that will no longer be the right answer to that particular question - for Leo Varadkar, or me.

Whenever I feel any reticence about discussing my sexual orientation, I try to unpick that reticence and ask myself whether shame is a constituent part of it, or whether I'm just an introvert, and whether that, unlike homosexuality, is something of which I'm supposed to be ashamed. For now, though, it is important to say it. It is, in fact, exactly as significant as not saying it.

John Butler was the screenwriter on The Stag

Indo Review