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OPINION: Virginia Woolf helped me to come out

The first time I came out was to myself. It was something that took me a very long time to realise (32 years) and I struggled with the very notion of it.

Something had clicked in my head and I wanted to discuss it with people who knew me well and wouldn’t judge. My flatmate was at home in New Zealand. In fact all my best friends were dotted around the world.

It was quite the struggle wrestling with Catholic guilt. I’m an atheist but somehow I’ve managed to retain this single useless strand of my religious upbringing.

There was a lot of fear and months of feeling extremely lonely. Then, there was Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, in 1927

I first turned to Virginia Woolf, not because of her sexuality or mine, but because I was lonely and did as I always do; I read A Room of One’s Own.

I wanted to hear her words of confidence. I found this beautiful line:

“when a subject is highly controversial, one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold”.

If I stopped thinking that I’d lied to myself for years, and stopped stressing out that I was now lying to people by not coming out, I might just be able to navigate this new journey.

Growing up the world told me that if I fancied men I was straight. I was told that fancying girls was ‘perfectly normal’; it didn’t mean I was gay.

Well…it is normal, that’s correct, but it does mean I am gay. I didn’t question further. I thought everyone did it. At school, we were told all gay people should be put on an island and blasted into the sea. I grew up where nobody really spoke of sexual orientations and when they did there were only two.

Buoyed by the words of the wonderful Virginia, I started researching historical figures who were LGBT+. There was another reason I turned to this line of enquiry. While writing a book about Ireland, I had noticed that if I searched for historical Irish LGBT+ people I only found Oscar Wilde and 80s activists. However, when searching for historical Irish people of note, many of them turned out to identify as LGBT+.

Somewhere along the line things had become divided. You were either famous for your achievements (Eileen Gray) or famous for your sexuality or sexual identity (Dr James Barry). I wanted to find all of the people who had done great things, and like me belonged to this community.

And there she was, Virginia Woolf.

Vita Sackville West (left) was Virginia Woolf’s lover

Believe it or not, I had never known she was bisexual. I knew all about Leonard Woolf but virtually nothing of Vita Sackville West. Reading about an idol being bi gave me confidence, but it was a quote from a letter from Virginia to Vita describing her sister Vanessa Bell’s reaction to their relationship that changed everything:

“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemists shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women,’ she said—taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.”

If they were fearless in 1929, then I could be now. So I decided to take the next step and say the words out loud. And I did. That is where my own out and proud story began. I’ll see you in the next chapter.

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