Conleth Kane: Why I'm proud to reveal my true self after the historic Yes vote on same sex marriage in Republic of Ireland
Lurgan-born West End star says childhood was torture due to his sexuality. Una Brankin reports
Actor and singer Conleth Kane is calling for equality of marriage rights in Northern Ireland, after receiving thousands of messages of support when he posted a message on Facebook about being proud to be gay.
The Lurgan-born West End stage star, who stole the show as Dandini in a recent Grand Opera House production of Cinderella, changed it to support a Yes vote in the Republic's referendum on same-sex marriage.
"I'm blown away by the response; my Facebook page has been shared to thousands of people and I have receiving calls and texts ever since," said the 31-year-old, who's based in London.
"I didn't expect it at all but now, with Ireland having such a victorious result in the referendum, and England, Scotland and Wales already having passed this law, I feel it's time to speak up for the first time as a young gay man who wanted out of Northern Ireland from as young as I can remember, all because I was 'different'.
"It shouldn't be like that any more. Northern Ireland needs to follow the rest of the UK and Ireland. We need to think about the kids of the future."
Conleth survived years of beatings and vicious taunts before leaving home at 16 and moving at 18 to London, where he has appeared in television series such as Casualty. He has received excellent reviews for his stage performances, with one critic describing him recently as "the new Alan Cumming" (the acclaimed Scottish actor).
Although Conleth's working-class parents, Gerard and Priscilla, have been wholly supportive since he came out at 15, he endured a "tortured" childhood and teenage years in Lurgan and Craigavon at the hands of homophobic bullies.
"I knew I was gay from I was seven or eight and as I was always very, very close to my mum, it came to the point, in the midst of horrendous physical, mental and verbal abuse on the streets, where I had to tell her - and my dad and my siblings - why I had become so withdrawn," said Conleth, a columnist with the LGBT magazine, GNI.
"Their response was brilliant; my dad said, 'You're still the son you were two minutes ago', and my mother told me that I was still young and to go out and live my life, and that if I still felt the same way in a few years, then that was fine by her."
Brought up Catholic, the charismatic performer still has his Christian beliefs and occasionally attends a "beautiful" church beside his home in Chiswick. He is greatly encouraged by the example shown by former Irish President Mary McAleese, who urged a Yes vote to same-sex marriage in the Republic despite her devout beliefs.
Said Conleth: "I believe God created us all and He meant me to be born this way. It would have been easier to have been born straight; it wouldn't have been such an uphill struggle. But the point about equality of marriage is that it's not about marriage before God - it's about equal rights, legally and socially, for everyone. It's not just about gay rights; it's about human rights - and that includes people of all beliefs.
"I was so hurt by what Jim Wells said about the children of same-sex couples being more at risk of abuse," he added. "What about the risk with heterosexual couples? I have worked with children often and I love my nieces and nephews, and I would never, ever dream of (abusing a child)."
The rapturous response Conleth received during the 2013-14 Grand Opera House panto in Belfast has earned him another starring role in the 2015-16 extravaganza, opposite veteran performer May McFettridge.
Belfast holds bittersweet memories for Conleth, having been mugged and robbed by homophobic thugs on his way home from the Odyssey one night. But his worst experiences were endured in his home town of Lurgan and at Lismore Comprehensive School in Craigavon.
"I was suicidal at age 11," he admitted. "I got picked on because I liked the Spice Girls instead of Oasis and didn't want to play football because I was no good at sports. I had to be taken out of Lismore after a year and moved to St Paul's, where the teachers looked out for me.
"But it was bad on the streets. I got beaten to a pulp one day when I was walking to my granny's with my sister, who's three years younger than me. All I could hear above them shouting 'faggot' and 'queer' was my sister screaming. She ran to get help. I wasn't able to walk home.
"But experiences like that made me stronger in the long run. I'm no longer this fat little kid from Lurgan with no friends, who spent all his time comfort eating in his room. I'm someone who wants to change the future, to save kids having to endure what I went through. I just want to give them hope."
Single for the last six years, Conleth doesn't see himself getting married in the near future, and doesn't want to adopt or have children via surrogacy.
"As much as I love kids, I like to hand them back at the end of the day," he laughs. "I'm happy with my dog. But, as I was saying to my mum on Skype after the vote yesterday, if I ever met the guy of my dreams, wouldn't it be wonderful to have the option to come back and get married in my home town?
"She agreed, and she's a little woman from Portadown who has never really left the area. You don't need to be widely travelled to have a broad mind.
"I just hope those in power in Northern Ireland will one day listen to people like her and give us all the equal rights we deserve."
The Facebook post by Conleth that went viral:
"I'll tell you why I want Equal Marriage in Ireland after today. Growing up was torture. I was teased, beaten, assaulted by groups, taken out of one school and put into another, constantly taunted, afraid to be who I was and at points felt there was no point in carrying on in life. Why? Because homosexuality was viewed as 'wrong' and 'disgusting'. I was always different. Do you think if I could choose my sexuality I would have chosen to be gay considering the constant battle for equality I've had to face my entire life? I was born this way and I wouldn't change myself for the world. It's not just about equal marriage. It's about an equal life, an equal future. To think the kids of the future won't be bullied in school anymore because it's 'ok to be gay', because their next door neighbours are two married men, or women. I pray for equality today. Then Northern Ireland will be next."