Damian McKevitt is 49 and from Newry. After a turbulent coming to terms with his sexuality, Damian is today the Secretary of the Newry Rainbow Community, and was a key figure in the establishment of the NRC’s dedicated LGB&T Drop-in Centre on Hill Street in Newry City Centre.
“Ye know, I remember I must have been about 11 years old, standing in Drumalane and overhearing a group of girls talking about a fella, about how good looking he was and thinking to myself ‘yeah, he is’. It wasn’t necessarily a sexual thought but I knew he was good looking. I remember almost immediately thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking like that. I remember too always sneaking a look at the men’s underwear pages in the club-books or catalogues that every house had then - not the women’s like most lads I knew said they were looking at - the men’s. So quite obviously I knew I was different.”
But, in a time when gay men were ‘queers’ and there was no such thing as the internet or mobile phones, Damian struggled to identify what his feelings meant.
“Every message I got, everything I knew, about sexuality was received through school and was most definitely heterosexual. There were no good images or role models associated with homosexuality back then. It was
all very camp images on TV, Larry Grayson and John Inman – caricatures and parodies. In Newry gay men – queers - were very much the object of ridicule, parody and derision. When it dawned on me that I was actually one I couldn’t even bring myself to say, or accept, the word in my head. I pushed it to the back of my mind all the time.”
In fact Damian was so good at hiding his true feelings from himself that he even participated in the ridiculing of one person in particular.
“There was a man who wore flamboyant clothes down town and called himself Geraldine. Looking back he was so very brave to be open and honest about himself in such a closed and misinformed community. He was taunted and tortured by many people in Newry. I’m ashamed to say I did it myself. But at the time he was horrific to me. I thought he was how I would turn out. I remember praying to God to change me, make me ‘normal’. I even considered doing myself in, I actually believed I’d be doing my family a favour by sparing them from the truth and the ridicule it would bring.”
With no-one to talk to, Damian became subconsciously obsessed with keeping his sexuality secret.
“I carried with me everywhere this insidious fear of being found out,”’ he says. “I was constantly second guessing myself, my behaviour. In everything I did and said there was always a filter engaged, I was always analysing myself, making sure my words and actions were safe.
“I even used the Troubles, which really began taking a hold locally in the Seventies and early Eighties, as a cover. People were preoccupied and that brought me relief. I used the fighting and rioting as means of blending in, attacking ‘the Brits’ with the rest of the boys made me feel safe. I even dated girls and had a series of encounters over many years. I felt that, as long as I was seen to be trying to have a relationship that was all that mattered and would keep the questions at bay. I was actively living a lie.” Damian was 25 before he acted on his true feelings for the first time, seeking out the scene in secret.
“When I was younger I honestly believed I was the only one like me,” he says. “So for many years I was totally unaware that there was a scene at all. There certainly wasn’t any in Newry – at least one that I was privy to. For a very short time in my mid-20s I tried the scene elsewhere. But it was too dangerous. I was terrified of being caught by someone who knew me. So I gave up and for years didn’t do anything about my sexuality. Around the late Eighties I started having regular meetings with a man around the same age as me. But it never went anywhere, just sort of teetered on without ever gaining substance.”
Then, in the early Nineties, Damian’s mother fell gravely ill and, shortly before her death, he found the courage to come out to her.
“I didn’t plan it or consciously feel a need to tell her, it just evolved in the course of a conversation,” he recalls. “She accepted it straight away.
All the years of worrying were wasted time. Her death launched me into complete meltdown. For the next few years I suppose I just binged, constantly going out and partying. It was a reaction to her death and my frustration but it went on into my mid-30s. Then, one summer, something just clicked. I had started having a relationship with someone in secret and I just decided I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I decided to tell my friends and family. I told my best friend first. I was drunk and dramatic but it was the first time I’d ever said the words “I am gay” out loud like that. His reaction was nonchalance, that it was no big deal. Once I’d told him I knew there was no point in trying to continue covering it up and, very quickly over the next few weeks I told all my close friends. It was emotionally exhausting, I felt drained each time I said the words, like they were choking me. But ultimately everyone’s reaction was the same. As time went on the relief of those people knowing was enough to make me feel comfortable and anyway the cat was out of the bag and gradually the penny just dropped for other people over time.”
Such was the extent of the acceptance Damian found that he decided to attend a meeting of the local group the Newry Rainbow Community.
“I felt immediately welcomed and began forming strong friendships in the group straight away,” he says. “The more friends I made the more and more I got involved and the more and more I saw the potential of this organisation, which was then a very small group with a wish-list, such as having their own centre. When the group’s Secretary stood down I decided to put myself forward for the role and got it. I knew then I was in a position to really influence things.”
Damian gradually introduced more structure into the group, making it more effective and focused without compromising its informal friendly feel. He got it accredited as a charity and began making funding applications. After eighteen months of continual effort, the NRC had enough to set up a centre, where it is now based and from which the Voices project has been run. Damian is indeed living proof of the progress that is being made by the gay community in Newry and Mourne and is determined that the people in NRC continue to promote the message, particular to young people, that it is OK to be yourself in Newry, to be open and honest about your gender identity or sexual orientation and to still be part of families and communities, and be accepted and valued.