Thursday 19 July 2018

'I was called a fa***t every single day and society agreed with them' - Brendan Courtney on growing up in an Ireland where being gay was a crime

Broadcaster and stylist Brendan Courtney. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Broadcaster and stylist Brendan Courtney. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Brendan Courtney. Picture: Mark Condren
Brendan Courtney and Sonya Lennon at Fashion is Repealing
TV presenter Brendan Courtney. Picture: Mark Condren
At the State reception at Dublin Castle to mark the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality were Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Brendan Courtney
Caitlin McBride

Caitlin McBride

Brendan Courtney has a lot to say.

The RTE presenter (47) caused something of a Twitter storm earlier this week when he expressed his disappointment at not being invited to a state sanctioned event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland. I called him afterwards to discuss his upset at the initial snub (he was later invited) and our conversation naturally digresses to his adolescence; one where he was tormented by secondary school bullies and as an adult, when he has been verbally and physically attacked a number of times over the years.

But it was during the 1980s, when he was a young, not quite open yet, gay man, that he was learning how to navigate life in a time when homosexuality would still be considered a crime until 1993.

"Cast your mind back: I was bullied really badly at school because I was camp, because I was different," he tells Independent.ie Style. "When you were camp, they pushed you onto the football pitch. I was called a fa***t every single day and society agreed with them. The teachers agreed with them and so did their parents.

TV presenter Brendan Courtney. Picture: Mark Condren
TV presenter Brendan Courtney. Picture: Mark Condren

"I was lucky that I had really lovely parents who took me out of that school when I was 14. I had the confidence their support afforded me and a lot people didn't have that. At the age of 19, 50% of the people I knew had no relationship with their Irish families because they kicked them out for being gay. They didn't have that same foundation of support and so they stayed in the closet."

After coming out at the age of 17, he said there was an "undercurrent of fear" around homosexuality, "If someone attacked you, you couldn't bring charges against them for harassment on the fact that you were gay."

Throughout his life, he was targeted a number of times based on his sexuality, most recently in 2011 on Dublin's George's Street.

It's this reason why he felt such upset at being overlooked to be part of the celebrations at Dublin Castle last Sunday, which were hosted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Ireland's first openly gay Taoiseach. Mr Courtney says there were a number of high profile people who were overlooked for invitations, also citing Anna Nolan, a television producer who became an Irish and British television star on the inaugural series of Big Brother in 2000.

"I was punched to the ground in the street for being open and out. I was the first openly gay tv presenter in Ireland and I was working in an industry that treated me harshly for it," he explains.

"The point was that lots people who should have been there, weren't. The deeper issue is that people of a certain political persuasion didn't come out until it was safe, a path which was paved forward by people like me.

"We didn't see it as a choice or a campaign, we were just out. When someone was taking ownership for the decriminalisation of homosexuality..when one of those people wasn't one of the people who came out in time...they must acknowledge those who did.

"I wasn't a drag queen, so I couldn't hide behind my costume. People recognised me on the street because I was on television and there were very few people on that level at that time. Graham Norton wasn't even out at that time.

At the State reception at Dublin Castle to mark the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality were Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
At the State reception at Dublin Castle to mark the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality were Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Colin O’Riordan

"I've seen a lot of change and one of the main elements is that we don't look back and only look forward, but this is really important to me. I am really proud of the work I've done."

Mr Courtney went on to say to he believes his lack of invite was an "oversight". "It just shows a lack of awareness based on a lack of interest and involvement in a scene that made it possible for the Taoiseach to be out later in life. We created his opportunity and he took advantage of it. He did it when it was safe. He wasn't a trailblazer."

At Sunday's event at Dublin Castle, Mr Varadkar paid homage to Senator David Norris, who challenged the Supreme Court's stance on homosexuality back in 1983. His speech also addressed the "unknown heroes" whose efforts made that historic day in 1993 possible.

"I want to pay a special tribute to the unknown heroes, the thousands of people whose names we do not know, who were criminalised by our forbears. We cannot erase the wrong that was done to them. What we can say is that we have learned as a society from their suffering," Mr Varadkar said.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan issued a formal apology for the law speaking in the Seanad, during which time he said: "Nothing that can be said here today can undo the unjust suffering and discrimination that the homosexual community experienced in the years prior to decriminalisation."

After the Marriage Equality Act was passed in 2015, Irish people of all sexualities are afforded the same rights. And Mr Courtney went on to say he sees now as a "time to help our international brothers" in countries like Russia and is hopeful that Mr Varadkar has visions for how gay people around the world are represented.

With Pride weekend celebrations taking place across Dublin this weekend, he recalled the early days of celebrating his personal pride, with his first in 1988; which was less of a parade and more of a large group of approximately 100 men walking the streets of Dublin together saying they wouldn't be silenced for who they are.

Brendan Courtney
Brendan Courtney

It was also a time when many were forced to bring umbrellas as protection as he says women would throw expired tomatoes at them in protest.

"The liberation at the end of reaching the march made it worth it," he says.

This culture was part (albeit, he says a tiny one) of the reason he moved to London, aged, 19, where he could fully be himself; least of all because two of his aunts were openly gay and living there too.

"London was really gay friendly. My mum's twin sisters are both gay and so I could see gayness everywhere. My aunt was out and going out with a woman and she had a full, flourishing life so I knew there was a path to find," he says.

As people from around the world celebrate Pride in Dublin this weekend, is it still something that matters to him personally?

"My life is a living Pride march because I've been out and on tv for 22 years. I was a trailblazer and showed young people they can have a successful career and be yourself. I have always gone on the march on the Panti float because it's great fun," he says.

"Pride is more than just gay men and women, it's about inclusion. It's very important to make a big, positive noise and it develops into Mardi Gras eventually."

Part of the his ethos looking towards the future and not reflecting too much on the obstacles overcome in the past, but this milestone anniversary offers an opportunity for reflection.

"I always felt I would never be one of those older gays who looks at younger people and says, 'Do you know what we had to do for you to be here?' Through persecution, stamina and tenacity, we have reached a world where we are accepted."

When contacted by Independent.ie, a spokesperson for the Taoiseach's office said: "A special event was held in Dublin Castle on Sunday June 24th to mark the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.  The principle aim of the event was to acknowledge the wrong which was done to Irish gay people for so many years, and to recognise the work of the many activists who helped to bring about change.

"The Department of the Taoiseach consulted with a range of Government Departments, LGBTI groups and stakeholders in drawing up a guest list in an attempt to make the event as inclusive as possible. More than 1,000 people were invited, including Mr Courtney."

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