From keeping his true self secret for years to coming out later in life on the side of a Dublin Bus, Tom shares his story

Six Dubliners who couldn't share their coming out journey during a Pride Parade will come out with Dublin Bus!

An older man wrapped in a Pride flag

The last 16 months we have been told to stay at home, often only allowed to go outside to get groceries or go for a walk. So how has it been for LGBTQ+ people who came out at a time where we all had to stay in? GCN has partnered with Dublin Bus and DoDublin for the Coming Out With campaign, bringing you the stories of six LGBTQ+ people living in Dublin who have told the world who they are during a time where it has been closed down.

The prevailing narrative around ‘coming out’ in films and the media is one where the protagonist struggles in their youth, overcomes difficulties and comes out sure of who they are, usually in their teens or early twenties. However, the reality is often not that straightforward for many LGBTQ+ people, particularly those who grew up in hostile homophobic environments, such as Ireland in previous decades.

This was the case for 66 year-old Tom Cavanagh. As a young man he realised he was gay and secretly acted on his feelings. 

“In my 20’s, I got an almighty crush on somebody,” he told GCN. “I was initially quite confused. And then I found an ad in the back of a Dublin magazine that was for the Gay Switchboard as it was then. It was in the Hirschfeld Centre. So I phoned them, and then dropped around to have a little chat and stayed there when they had the nightclub there. And that was a revelation to me. Before that I was always very, very tense, in nightclubs and in parties and things like that. But once I found myself in the gay nightclub, I was just so much more relaxed. It was a total revelation. I could have never felt that comfortable in an ordinary disco or nightclub.”

That feeling is one many LGBTQ+ people can relate to. But the climate of stigma and shame weighed heavily and Tom did not want to be gay so he ended up going to ‘conversion therapy’. He was seen by a psychologist licensed by the then equivalent of the HSE.

“It was based on that sexuality was a learned behavior,” Tom said. “So because I was a virgin in both areas of my life, it was assumed that I just needed to concentrate on meeting a girl and once I’d meet a girl everything would be magic, like kissing Sleeping Beauty and I’d wake up and live happily ever after.”

Of course this would not be the case. Tom married a woman and fell into a chronic depression. He feels anger that therapies such as the one he attended still exist in Ireland today. 

“It messed up my life a bit and I would like to have it not mess up anyone else’s life and it also messed up my wife’s life a bit. It doesn’t just hurt the person going through it.”

Tom compares it to other types of treatment such as surgery and how if a surgery had a less than 1% success rate it would be outlawed. The campaign to end the practice on the island of Ireland has gained momentum in recent months but there are still those who want certain exceptions.

“They want to argue for a religious exemption,” Tom said. “That would be like having a religious exemption for burying babies. You know, it’s as ridiculous as that.”

When he reached his mid-50’s the internal battle surrounding his sexuality was becoming too much. He attended a support group for gay men who were married to women.

“I found it very, very supportive. And it’s helped me work through an awful lot of the emotional turmoil that I was going through, the emotional relationships that I was going through, so it was really helpful. It was a long story, and a long journey to get from there, to where I am now.”  

Following on from that, the pressure eventually built until he told his wife that he was gay. It was a desperately hard thing to do, but Tom says she has been wonderful and supported him. They initially stayed together before eventually separating. “I work better as a gay best friend [to my wife] than a husband,” Tom said. 

“Halfway through 2019, I decided to come out totally within the village here. And I just dropped it in conversation,” Tom recalled. “The way we told one of our one mutual friends, my wife and I, we met him out in the woods one day, and we told him we were splitting up. And he said, ‘Oh God, why?’. And I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just be her gay best friend.’ And then you could see his brain going ‘What the hell is going on here?’” 

The reaction has thankfully been overwhelmingly positive and it has allowed Tom to finally breathe and be his authentic self after 60-plus years of shame and fear. “It’s so much more relaxing,” he said. “Not to have to pretend at all, to be able to say things without thinking.

“When I was in the closet I could be in a large group of friends and feel terribly alone. After being out that loneliness was gone even while being isolated in the depths of the lockdown, separated from friends and family.”

Going from keeping his true self secret for years to sharing his coming out story on the sides of Dublin Bus, Tom has had quite the journey. He has been somewhat taken aback at just how positive the response has been, even from his own family.

“I’ve two 90 year-old aunts who are nuns, one is the next Reverend Mother. And they have no problem. So if a 90 year-old next Reverend Mother can accept someone who’s gay, what’s the problem?”

With more stories to share from the wonderful people who feature in the Dublin Bus Coming Out With campaign, be sure to check back on GCN! And catch the campaign on the sides of the Dublin Bus fleet and bus shelters across the city!

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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