Gay strongman Chris McNaghten on mental health, sexuality and Larne Pride

Chris McNaghten has been a strongman athlete for over ten years, we talk to him about his work, his mental health activism and Pride celebrations in Northern Ireland. 

Strongman Chris McNaughton flexing his arms in front of a blue screen

Strongman Chris McNaghten has a lovely Northern Irish accent and pleasant, personable phone manner to ensure that I warm to him immediately. Although his gym business, like every other business at the moment, is being adversely affected by COVID-19, he sounded cheerful about his businesses in general. “You’re so lucky down south,” he commented, “Leo Varadkar is looking after you, we don’t have anyone like that up here.” This was before the UK went into lockdown, when there was “absolutely nothing happening,” as Chris put it. After the inevitable Coronavirus-related chat, which every conversation these days must begin with, we get onto the topic of his other employment, where he goes into schools, businesses or wherever he is booked, to speak about his personal struggle to get to a point of mental health, his life since then, and the importance of getting help if it is needed. But the road wasn’t easy for Chris to get to this point.

Chris McNaghten has been a strongman athlete for over ten years, a career he entered when he was entering his twenties. In November 2018 he released a “very raw” interview-style documentary, Bear Strong, about his journey through depression and his struggles with mental health. Its inception came from an interview with ITV about how he deals with periods of low mood, after which he got a new surge in messages of support from all angles: people looking for advice, saying that they had found it inspiring, and those who didn’t like, or weren’t able to go down the professional route of getting help.

This ethos of finding a common ground from which people can relate differently has been at the backbone of Bear Strong from the beginning. Speaking about how hard the documentary was to make, Chris expressed his intention: “It had to be like that, or people couldn’t relate.” Now, the documentary can be booked for showing along with a talk from Chris, which has proved to be very effective in many contexts.

Bear Strong has been “well-received” in Dublin over the past three months: initially coming down for Winter Pride, Chris expressed his surprise at the “sense of community down south” among LGBT+ people. Coming from just outside Belfast, where the rate of mental illness, especially among the LGBT+ community is at an all-time high, Chris has had a struggle to popularise his documentary and accompanying talks in Northern Ireland. He regularly comes “down south”, as he puts it, for events such as the recent Sporting Pride: “My jaw was hitting the floor,” he exclaimed, at the amount of support, and at how well he was received.

strongman draped in a rainbow flag

However, he isn’t limited to events in Ireland: over the last few years, he has visited schools in the UK as well as Northern Ireland to show the documentary and discuss his experiences with mental health. In this way, his workshops seem to be somewhat similar to the Irish LGBT+ anti-bullying organisation ShoutOut, except there is only one of him.

“Sexuality is a touchy subject,” he says, especially in relation to secondary school students. However, his talks to schools will often focus primarily on mental health issues rather than on issues surrounding sexuality explicitly, although they often do blend together. I get the impression that he is very patient when it comes to explaining either issue. “When people understand something, they are a lot more peaceful about it,” he says, in relation to the sometimes tricky issue of speaking to teenagers on an equal level. “People go on the offensive because they don’t understand something.”

Does all this discussion take a toll? Yes. “Talking [two or three times a week] about the darkest and most depressing time of your life does have an effect.” Although there is a demand for more bookings, Chris has had to limit them to once or twice a week due to the content.

The messages of support that he gets after these talks though, are worth it for Chris. LGBT+ students, parents, and teachers from the schools have contacted him to express how important it was for them that he came to speak. He speaks especially fondly of the message he received from a “young trans lad” and how encouraged he had been by the talk. And for good reason: listening to Chris talk about how he talks is an inspiration in itself.

He speaks earnestly about encouraging people to see how far they can go, insisting that his business is more than a mental health brand. “It’s important that people understand that I went from [the bottom] to owning two successful businesses, to appearing on UTV as a semi-celebrity, to doing shows in Stormont. People can see where I was and where I am now; it gives them hope.” Although it is difficult to show such a vulnerable side to himself, Chris is very clear about how rewarding it is.

Coming out publicly as gay in an interview, although a nerve-racking experience, wasn’t as much of an ordeal for Chris as the Bear Strong documentary was. “I don’t see it as a weakness, I’ve had a weaker time in my life. The past [version of] me learned to accept it.”

 As a strongman Chris McNaghten, doesn’t fit the “typical” image of a gay man, and not once during the interview did he identify himself as gay. He has an unconcerned attitude to labels, and to masculinity, an attitude that must be refreshing in the sporting community. “I don’t feel like I need to be masculine: masculinity to me means absolutely nothing,” he says, explaining that he doesn’t like labels, either. “It’s the personalities that attract me. One of the most amazing things about being LGBT+ is the mixture of personalities that you meet, the different people – and that has nothing to do with labels. If you’re a dick, you’re a dick, you know.” Conversely, he recognises that the importance of labels can help people learn to live out their identity in a way that is meaningful for them. “Don’t forget that there’s a place for stereotypical people, too.”

“Come in with an open mind, take everyone as they come, spend time with people before you judge.”

The truth of this statement, lying behind every action of solidarity that McNaghten takes, can be seen in what was perhaps his most well-known action of support for young people: a Pride Festival in Larne, the first one in East Antrim. A couple of factors led to this. He was working with some LGBT+ school-age teenagers in the town of Larne, but they needed regular support that they were not getting. The closest support groups were in Belfast, an hour away by bus: many of them were not out to their parents, and taking public transport alone to the city on a weeknight was not an option for many. “I didn’t have the resources to set up a proper group an organisation, so I decided to set up a pride festival instead,” said McNaughten. “Mental health [of the teenagers] was the main reason behind it. I wanted a lot of youth to see that the perception wasn’t all a negative one: I wanted them to see how many people support them, and who those people are.”

The festival was a roaring success. Organised with the help of the community, it was held in a local pub, the Older Fleet Bar. A crowd of 500 was originally expected, but 2,500 attended in the end. “People would not believe how fun a night that was,” Mc Naughten commented, speaking fondly of the event. During the day, there were family-oriented activities, with a barbeque, a kids theme park, singers, Irish dancers and drag queens, creating a party atmosphere while remaining inclusive and child-friendly. Family dogs were even invited to take part, with a “Ruff Paul” competition being held throughout the day.

After 6 pm, the bar transformed to host a DJ and a drag show, including drag queens like Trudy Scrumptious. The majority of the attendees were straight adults and had never seen a drag show before. “Everybody partied together at Larne,” Chris reminisces fondly. “It was the best and biggest night the town ever had.”

However, all was not smooth sailing. The council had no involvement in the event, and the mayor similarly refused to support the event, stating that she was busy. No flag was hung from the town hall in support. The majority of political support came from the Alliance party:  “They helped us out a wee bit.” But on the day, there were no tensions and no protests. “No drama and no bother,” as Chris puts it. The local churches held a meeting to discuss a peaceful protest, but in the end, it didn’t go ahead.

Although many of the LGBT+ teenagers didn’t attend the event, it definitely bolstered the confidence of those in the town. The festival will be a regular thing and is set to run, Covid pending, on August 22nd.

  You can find out more about Chris on his website, bearstrong.co.uk 

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