‘I came out to a friend when I was 33’
5 MIN READ
‘It wasn’t a conscious or unconscious decision to come out, in the end, it was just what I had to do because I finally realised who I was.
Some people say that they always knew they were gay and had to hide their sexuality, but I genuinely didn’t know.
I just don’t think I ever allowed myself to consider that I might be.’
It may be difficult to be believe now but when Laura O’Keefe, Co-Chair of Bank of Ireland’s With Pride employee network, was born in the late 70s, homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland.
‘A standard Irish, Catholic upbringing’
‘I grew up in County Donegal on the outskirts of a small village,’ she says.
‘Mum and Dad, two older sisters, one younger brother.
Nothing remarkable, really. Just the same as everyone else around me – a standard Irish, Catholic upbringing.
Everyone there looked and sounded like me.’
When she pictured her future, she says she had the same dreams as many other girls of the time.
‘My expectation was to grow up, meet a guy, get married in a beautiful white dress, have kids.’
Ireland was a place of shared similarities at that time where some differences had to be denied or hidden.
But things were changing.
Not that she was aware of it at the time, but when Laura was 5 years old the first Irish gay pride festival was held to highlight violence against lesbians and gay men following the killing of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park, Dublin.
I didn’t think I was any different from anyone else
‘I went through secondary school, I went through college – pretty normal,’ she says.
As she became a teenager, she says she liked boys and had boyfriends.
‘I spent a lot of time with boys because I got on really well with them and I liked sports. But I never really committed to anybody. I found it difficult to,’ she says.
It wasn’t until she was 26 that she met somebody and ‘I realised that there was something different.
I thought at first that it was just a friendship but eventually it grew into something more.’
It was a huge surprise to her, she says, because it had just never crossed her mind.
‘I found it very difficult to admit to myself that I was gay’
In 1993, when Laura was in her teens, Ireland passed the legislation which finally decriminalised homosexuality.
But it takes longer to change beliefs and attitudes you have grown up with from birth.
‘Even though I helped some of my friends to come out,’ says Laura, ‘I never thought that I was gay.’
Even after she split up with her girlfriend, a couple of years later, she still thought that the relationship was, in her words, ‘just a phase’.
Laura just thought that she had fallen for this one particular woman not that she was attracted to womankind in general.
‘I tried seeing a guy shortly afterwards but just couldn’t,’ she says.
It took her another 6 months before she could finally admit it to herself.
‘I came out to a friend when I was 33’
Laura started working in financial services in Dublin, in 2001, and has worked in the same sector ever since.
She took a year out to complete an MBA in 2009-2010 and met a Dutch guy, Jurien, in college who she got on really well with.
‘He decided to tell me that he was in love with me,’ she says. ‘That hit me hard because I hadn’t seen it coming.’
She chose to confide in a friend whom, she knew, ‘would make me do something about it if I said it out loud’ and then told her, ‘but I don’t like guys, I’m gay.’
‘It was a bit of a release for me to have told somebody,’ she says, ‘but it was hard to say those words because I still hadn’t fully accepted it myself.’
‘I don’t want to be different’
‘I’ve never wanted to stand out from the crowd or be different,’ she says. ‘I really, really wanted the easy path but I just couldn’t go down it.’
The next week she told her close friends.
It was very difficult to start with because Laura had previously been in a relationship, in secret, with a woman whom her friends knew.
‘My friends felt really hurt by that. ‘Why couldn’t I have just been honest?’ Well, the problem was I wasn’t being honest with myself. Yes I was hiding part of my life but I didn’t want to have to hide it.’
It took a bit of time for her and her friends to work through things and for them to trust her again, she says.
‘Let’s go to a gay bar!’
When Laura met up with Jurien, whose declaration of love had prompted her to come out, and explained things to him, he eventually said, ‘look I’m really disappointed because I really want to be with you but I completely understand and I’m here for you.’
Then he said, ‘let’s go to a gay bar!’
‘He’s still a really close friend of mine and the plan is for him to walk me down the aisle one day. The future I pictured as a child is still very much in my plans just with a girl instead of a guy.’
5 years ago Laura met her girlfriend, Emma, who is English but has lived in Brussels all her life. They now spend their time between Dublin, Brussels, Donegal and anywhere in between.
‘I’m a Programme Manager by trade,’ Laura says, ‘so a lot of my time is spent using Excel spreadsheets to work out where Emma and I are going to be. We have a schedule!’
‘Ireland has come so far, it is amazing but it’s not the whole answer’
Laura recognises how much things have changed since she was growing up in Donegal in the 1980s and the historic importance of the Marriage Equality legislation that came into law in 2015.
Today, of course, Ireland has an openly gay Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who told Miriam O’Callaghan, in 2015:
‘I am a gay man, it’s not a secret, but not something that everyone would necessarily know but isn’t something I’ve spoken publicly about before.
It’s not something that defines me, I’m not a half-Indian politician or a doctor politician, I’m not a gay politician for that matter, it’s just part of who I am.’
‘It’s hugely important to have the rights and equality but that hasn’t fully changed society,’ Laura says.
‘Ireland is more progressive than it was when I was growing up but it’s still not easy all the time.’
She gives the example of getting into a taxi.
‘If I get into a taxi there is always an assumption by the driver that I have a boyfriend or a husband.
‘What does he do?’ It’s just the language that people use.’
She knows that it is not meant unkindly but it still puts her in a difficult position.
‘I face the decision to come out, over and over, or Emma becomes a boy, or I use gender neutral pronouns.’
She says she makes these decisions, ‘all the time, on the fly.’
‘Why do you have to constantly talk about it?’
Laura says that her heterosexual friends sometimes ask her, ‘why do you have to constantly talk about it?’
‘To be honest,’ she says, ‘being a lesbian merely identifies who I love. Like everyone, there are so many aspects that define me as a person.
We love to put people in boxes and make assumptions based on stereotypes. It’s part of being human.
Despite booking a double room in a hotel, we’ll often have a receptionist think they are doing us a favour by offering or giving us a twin room.
I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen if Emma was a guy.
But you do have to think about whether to out yourself or not a lot of the time.
This is something you don’t have to do if you’re a straight person – ‘by the way I have a husband’.
Still not every place or situation is safe
In May, people were shocked to read that a woman and her girlfriend, travelling on a bus in London, were violently attacked after refusing to kiss each other when told to do so by a group of young men.
Laura is well aware of the dangers of being open about her sexuality in some places but says the abuse she has experienced has been more verbal than physical to date..
‘Depending on what street I am walking down in Dublin, I wouldn’t always feel safe holding Emma’s hand because of comments we might get,’ she says.
‘I have also had comments on nights out when I tell guys who are aiming to chat me up, ‘sorry I have a girlfriend.’
They accuse me of lying to them because I don’t like them.
And men do sometimes want to change me. You do hear them say ‘you just haven’t met the right guy yet’. Yes, these things do still exist,’ she says.
So she says she is always aware of her surroundings and, wherever she is, she has to work out whether she is ‘comfortable to be me’.
Which is not something that straight people have to consider very often.
Changes in attitudes in the workplace
One of the areas in which attitudes have changed most, she says, is the world of work.
‘In terms of financial services,’ she says, ‘there’s been a huge emphasis on bringing your whole self to work. One of the most positive factors I’ve seen is how many organisations now have LGBT+ and other diversity networks in place.’
‘Diversity in the workplace and in the boardroom is now a strategic goal for many companies as they look to realise the benefits that it can bring.
Difference is now a good thing but diversity is only the start. Inclusion is the real key to drive us forward’
Laura also mentions the collaborative networks that now exist between companies.
‘FuSIoN (Financial Services Inclusion Network), for example, is a network of networks that drives forward LGBT+ equality and diversity in the financial services sector and Bank of Ireland was a key founding member.’
Find out more from our partners
BeLonG To publish a Coming Out Guide for Young People and a Coming Out Guide for Parents. Both are available free of charge for young people, families, schools, youth services and anyone working with LGBTI+ young people. You can find them here.
More information is available on a range of LGBT+ issues from the following organisations on their websites: