‘With the stigma that still exists, it’s very hard to come out’: LGBT Ireland CEO sheds light on revealing your sexuality

Photo: Twitter/@LGBT_ie

After ITV star Phillip Schofield went public about his sexuality last week, LGBT Ireland CEO reveals ‘enormous’ secret turmoil within certain marriages

By Paul Caffrey

Large numbers of married people secretly struggling with their sexuality – just like TV favourite Phillip Schofield – are calling Ireland’s main LGBT support line “day in, day out”, TheCity.ie can reveal.

Being LGBT in Ireland still carries a heavy “stigma” that makes it an “enormous” undertaking to come out even in 2020, LGBT Ireland chief executive Paul Fagan has said in an interview with this website. 

According to figures we’ve obtained, the LGBT Ireland support line gets about 2,000 calls a year – over 500 of which which relate to the significant challenge of coming out as gay, bisexual or transgender.

Although it’s not known exactly how many of those calls are from distressed people in heterosexual marriages, it’s believed to be a significant group out of the 500. 

Further to those who call the LGBT Ireland helpline or chat online with their volunteers daily, at least 25 people attend their monthly face-to-face peer marriage support groups in Dublin, Fagan reveals.  

Father-of-two Schofield, who’s been married to Stephanie Lowe for 27 years, gave an emotional TV interview on Friday – having revealed on Instagram that he was gay. 

The 57-year-old ITV star says he’s had “incredible” support from his wife and two adult daughters.  

But his announcement sent shockwaves through his tight-knit family. Lowe was reportedly stunned to discover that she and Schofield had been “living a lie for so long”. 

Phillip Schofield opened up to his co-host Holly Willoughby (Photo: This Morning)

Despite a successful 2015 marriage equality referendum and nearly three years of an openly gay Taoiseach, it’s still “very hard” for those considering coming out in Ireland in 2020, Fagan says. 

Many people genuinely don’t discover their true sexuality until later in life, she explains.

Speaking to TheCity.ie, the respected gay rights leader said: “When a celebrity like Philip Schofield comes out, it adds visibility to the fact that so many people are LGBT.

“He was quite courageous and I think it’s massively helpful for others in a similar situation,” she continued. “It gives them courage and hope to see that he can do it – and the positive support he’s got from his employer and his colleagues.

“You can see from his interview how much thought he put into it. It feels enormous for the person doing it – and that’s the weight of the stigma they still feel,” Fagan adds.

“This is very welcome. Without question, it’s a good thing when this happens. But it shows that it’s quite tough to come out, even in 2020. 

“It’s still very hard to do it.”

WATCH: In full, Phillip Schofield’s 13-minute TV interview (Video: ITV/Youtube)

Leo Varadkar also struggled with going public about his sexuality. So much so that in January 2010, he gave a deeply conservative Dáil speech in which he poured cold water on the idea of “two men or two women having a family”.

But in early 2015, months ahead of the marriage equality referendum, he had a change of heart and, in an RTE Radio interview with Miriam O’Callaghan, revealed he was gay. By then he’d been a TD for eight years. 

On January 18, 2015 the then Health Minister told the nation: “It’s not a secret, but not something everyone would necessarily know – but it isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before now.”

At the time, it seemed he was widely commended for his bravery. In June 2017, he became Ireland’s first openly gay Taoiseach.

But Varadkar, whose partner is cardiologist Dr Matthew Barrett, recently revealed he’s been subjected to homophobic abuse since coming out as gay.

The 41-year-old said two months ago: “If you’re a gay man or a gay woman you do experience a degree of homophobia. 

“It’s just the way it is…it can certainly range from name-calling and things like that as you walk down the street – or it can be the kind of stuff you can see for yourself online, or it can be just the fact that people treat you differently.”

And even though our young people are presumed to be the most open minded, the 2019 School Climate survey indicated that 73% of LGBT students feel unsafe at school in Ireland. 

Over 85% of the LGBT secondary school pupils, surveyed by charity BeLonG To, said they felt deliberately excluded by their peers. 

However, Ireland is “generally speaking much more positive and inclusive” with the vast majority of people having “good intentions” and a supportive attitude, according to Fagan.

Announcements like Schofield’s and Varadkar’s are crucial reminders to people struggling with their sexuality that they aren’t alone, she points out.

Schofield posted a statement online. Photo: Phillip Schofield Instagram

The LGBT CEO told TheCity.ie: “We get a lot of calls from people in heterosexual marriages who didn’t realise that this [coming out] was even an option. 

“Then it becomes too hard for them.

“What everyone says when they come to our marriage support group is, ‘I thought I was the only person going through this’.”

Former Children’s BBC presenter Schofield told viewers of his ITV show This Morning during a 13-minute interview on Friday: “I’ve had to deal with this in my head for quite some time.” 

As a result, it seems likely that usage of support services provided by LGBT Ireland, the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI), and other organisations, can only increase.

Other celebrities who have come out later in life include actors Cynthia Nixon, who was 37, Wanda Sykes, who was 43 and Ian McKellen, who was 49, as well as singer Ricky Martin, who was 38.

Fagan said:

“It can feel hopeless, especially when you have children. We see it day in, day out with people ringing our helpline and coming to our peer support groups.

“Even though society is a lot more accepting, there’s still a lack of visibility.  People are still surprised when celebrities come out,” Fagan adds.

“It’s only once you realise you are LGBT yourself that you realise the stigma that’s still there.”

– LGBT Ireland provides confidential support via its helpline, 1890929539, and online at lgbt.ie.

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