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'My dad was a prison officer in charge of the gym at the Maze... there could hardly be a more masculine job than that - yet he always supported my career as a flamboyant drag queen'

Marcus Hunter-Neill, well known as drag act Lady Portia Diamante, and his father are taking part in Radio Ulster programme Frocks, Locks and H-Blocks tomorrow. He tells Leona O'Neill why he hopes it will give others inspiration and courage

Marcus Hunter-Neill will be on Radio Ulster tomorrow with his dad
Marcus Hunter-Neill will be on Radio Ulster tomorrow with his dad
Marcus Hunter-Neill
Marcus Hunter-Neill as Lady Portia Diamante
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

His father Billy ran the gym in the Maze Prison during the darkest days of the Troubles, and his family lived under constant threat from republican terrorists - but Marcus Hunter-Neill has flourished as one of Northern Ireland's best known drag queens, Lady Portia Diamante.

Marcus (37), from Bangor, says that he has long followed his father's example of fighting for the underdog and standing up for what's right.

His father worked hard to make the life of prisoners in his care as good as possible and Marcus says this inspired him to fight for LGBT rights and on anti-bullying campaigns with the same strength and courage.

Despite his father's dangerous occupation - the family had to have bulletproof windows fitted to their home - Marcus says that he had a perfectly normal upbringing.

He says: "I was born and bred in Bangor. I did speech and drama down there and joined gymnastics but I found gymnastics too rough so I left that. Then dad took me once to wrestling for three weeks and that didn't work out. And then I went to football for a while too.

"Because I'm the youngest I had the burden of responsibility of being my dad's sports star. I was more of a cabaret star as a child than a sports star, but dad said that I should go to the football on a Saturday morning.

"Dad bought me the boots, shorts and socks and I put on the boots and walked up and down the driveway and realised that they sounded like stilettos.

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"So, I put them on and danced up and down the driveway pretending I was in Dynasty.

"When I got on to the football field, I got hit with the ball and it really stung. And I thought, 'This isn't really for me'. And that was the end of that with regards a sporting career."

Growing up with older brother Aaron (40), and sister, Catherine (42), Marcus was aware that a veil of secrecy had to be cast around his father's job, but at the time he accepted it as completely run-of-the-mill.

"We could never tell people what dad did for a living but I never really thought anything of it," he says.

"Dad ran the gym in the Maze from when the gym was re-opened after the hunger strikes to when it closed following the peace process.

"We never experienced any fear surrounding dad's job. I think behind the scenes there were lots of things going on and my parents had to be very vigilant. Mum and dad, as far as I was aware, got new front doors and windows, but I only found out later they were bulletproof. As a child I just thought we were getting nice new windows.

"Perhaps when I was in primary seven I thought that maybe was something going on with dad's job, probably because the risks that came with serving in the security forces meant that all the prison officers and the guys from dad's team socialised only with one another.

"In my family, on my dad's side, there are two prison officers, and on my mum's side there is one prison officer.

"If a family member got a new boyfriend or girlfriend they were taken aside and told they couldn't disclose what people did for a living. It was all kept very in-house."

Interestingly, when it comes to conversations that needed to be had, Marcus felt that a very personal one didn't need to take place. He reveals that he never really officially came out to his parents as he knew they suspected for years that he was gay. And although he knew he was gay since he was a child, he didn't really confront the issue of his sexuality until he was a teenager.

Marcus says: "I have never been in the closet. From day dot I knew that I was gay. But because of the teachings from the Bible that a relationship was something between a man and woman I felt very alone. I found myself asking 'What is wrong with me?'

"Then there was the fact that I have always been very flamboyantly fabulous. The Bible also said that God created me and I told myself that if God has made me this way, then this is the way He made me... and I didn't really dwell on it after that."

Marcus wasn't the only member of the family coming to terms with his sexuality.

"My older brother, who is the middle child, is also gay. It really bothered him because he felt the burden of responsibility about carrying on the family name to the next generation. He knew that my sister was going to get married and therefore change her surname and it was so clear that I, too, was gay.

"So he felt the burden of being gay much more than I did. I think that is one of the reasons why I am such an advocate for marriage equality in Northern Ireland."

If Marcus didn't feel that being gay was an issue for him in the family home, he didn't have such an easy time outside it. He says he was mercilessly bullied at school over his sexuality, but couldn't tell his parents about the beatings and the mental torture because he wasn't ready to tell them he was gay.

"I was bullied horrifically when I was a teenager," he says.

"I was brutally bullied for five years, in fact. I was such an alien concept to the people at my school.

"I was just a lamb to the slaughter. I'd be walking down the corridor and people wouldn't think anything of banging your head off a wall as they walked past you. I was spat on. It was a constant tirade of 'fruity boy' or a kick in the leg, or someone trying to trip you up.

"I remember having my head flushed down the toilet.

"I never said anything because of the nature of the bullying. I was it was all about the fact that I was gay.

"I knew that if I said that I was being bullied for being gay my parents would know that I was gay and I didn't want them to know at that stage. I just dealt with it myself and got on with it.

"Now, though, I do a lot of anti-bullying work and I'm an ambassador for Kidscape. When I look back at the child who went through all that it breaks my heart, but then I remember that I also made it through all of that and I'm out the other side.

"It's lovely that as an adult I go to talks and visit schools who have anti-bullying events and initiatives and I see teachers are aware of all the issues that can arise. The kids look out for other kids - I didn't have that, I was a solo act, so I find that support amazing."

In the end, Marcus was in the car with his mum Pamela one day and came out to her in a very low-key fashion.

"I kind of wanted to make it official whenever I moved out to go to college at 18," he says.

"I was doing drag at the same time and both mum and dad were completely fine about it.

"I was going nuts in the car one day. Mum was driving me from Bangor to my house and my sister had borrowed my Dale's Disco Divas CD. My mum had asked me a few times was I gay and I kept saying 'no'. Then when I was going crazy over this disco CD, she asked me again and this time I said yes - but quickly followed it up by going back to the fact that my sister Catherine had lost one of my CDs. So, I kind of brushed it off. Mum asked me why I hadn't told her before and I said that I didn't feel like I needed to sit them down and tell them this is who I am. I just felt that I have always been myself.

"I am 37 now and I have been on the gay scene since I was about 16. I have been working on the gay scene since I was 17 and doing drag full-time from 18.

"So I have seen the best and the worst of family reactions that other people can experience. Back 20 years ago I can remember a mum coming to the Parliament (bar) and she nearly kicked the doors in after hours because she found out her son was gay and he was there. Now, I see young ones coming in, who are around 18 and 19 with their mummies, daddies and even their grannies, coming to my drag shows and having a great time. Twenty years ago my mum and dad came to my shows, but I didn't know any other parents that did that."

Marcus, who hosts the High Jinx and karaoke events in the Maverick in Belfast every weekend, says he has high hopes for his future career.

Plans for a drag queen TV talk show are in the pipeline and this weekend he will be on Radio Ulster in its Stories in Sound Series, with a programme called Frocks, Locks and H-Blocks.

In it, he and his father talk about their lives and he hopes that it will give others inspiration and courage.

"I am a real advocate for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland" he says. "I work for their rights. My dad, although he was a prison officer, always tried to make it the very best environment for the prisoners.

"Of course the lives we lead are very different but in some respects we take the same approach. Dad ran the gym in what at the time was the most dangerous prison in Europe but he tried to do the best for them and his work was recognised with an award given to him at Buckingham Palace.

"He was put forward for that by the prisoners as recognition of all that he had done for them.

"And I am doing my best to try and change mindsets and policies in Northern Ireland for people who are gay.

"The message that I want to get across in the programme is one of hope, especially for any person who thinks they are in a family where the men are all very masculine types and they will be rejected if they come out.

"After all, you couldn't have thought of a more masculine job than my dad's. And there is his flamboyantly fabulous son and he didn't care. All he ever wanted was for his children to be happy.

"I'm hoping that anyone who listens to my show and who might feel that it is funny to make fun of gays or look down on them, can look at someone like my dad and think, there's someone who is very comfortable with it, it is not that big of a deal."

Stories in Sound - Frocks, Locks and H-Blocks, tomorrow, Radio Ulster, 12.25pm

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