how stephen gately changed coming out for young queer irish people

On the 10th anniversary of his passing, we reflect back on how the Boyzone popstar's legacy still resonates with Gen Z's LGBTQ community in Ireland.

by Sean O’Neill
10 October 2019, 9:18am

Photo via Instagram

As a young queer person growing up in any sort of hostile social environment, you look outwards –often to pop culture – to find a mirror of yourself. Nowadays, there are a number of idols Generation Z’s LGBTQ+ community can find solace in. But what if we rewind back just a few years to a time when gay people hadn’t quite found their place in the cultural mainstream? As recently as the 90s and 00s, there were far fewer figures in the pop world whose presence would remind us that things would be alright.

Born into a working-class family in north Dublin, Boyzone’s Stephen Gately was one of the few. Stephen rode the 1990s boyband boom to international prominence -- Boyzone were One Direction when One Direction were just a glint in Simon Cowell's eye -- before becoming one of the scene’s first out gay popstars. Hailed as Ireland’s “second ever gay man” (a famous politician proceeded him), he came out just six years after the country’s decriminalisation of homosexuality, and changed the way boybands were perceived forever. Sadly, Stephen died at the age of 33, ten years ago this week.

Boyzone were Ireland’s first behemoth pop act, but they didn’t burst on to the scene as bonafide stars right from the beginning. In 1993, an early iteration of Boyzone appeared on Ireland’s Late Late Show. They had no songs yet, so danced barechested to an Italo-house track. It was a pop masterpiece that solidified the homoerotic undertones of an all male musical line-up; an Irish classic to rival Ulysses. When they did make it big not long after, they were less of the ‘Irish Take That’ manager Louis Walsh wanted them to be, and more of a pasty alternative to Boyz II Men.

But Boyzone were still massively popular. To date, the band have sold as many UK singles as Blondie and the Black Eyed Peas. 1998’s No Matter What is still the UK’s biggest-selling song by any Irish act. In 1999, they were riding the height of that fame, before Stephen Gately broke the boyband code, telling The Sun: “I’m gay and in love”.

Séamas was just one of the next generation of queer Irish people influenced in some way by the fallout to that story. He was still a young child when that news of Stephen’s sexuality broke. “I was on holiday with my family in some resort,” he reminisces. “My parents said things like, ‘Did you know Stephen Gately is gay?’, checking to see that I knew what that meant, relieved when they found out I did. No further explanation needed -- just like every aspect of sexual identity in Irish families.”

Stephen became Ireland’s lynchpin for quiet but meaningful conversations about the G-word during that time; a gay person that everyone knew. Boyzone was the first concert another young Irish queer man, Mark, went to as a kid: “My mum was a huge, huge fan, and always used to go out of her way to say Stephen was her favourite,” he tells me. “Considering she later said the same about Mark from Westlife, I now think that was her way of telling me she was fine with how I might turn out.” His impact wasn’t just reserved to queer kids, either. Mark adds he “[doesn’t] think I’ve realised until recently how much Stephen's visibility will have helped my own mum come to terms with me being gay.”

Before the popstar came out, pop had been aggressively homoerotic, but it had rarely been gay. Nowadays, it's become a partly jovial pop stan past-time to speculate on who’s ‘the gay one’, as if no boyband could go without. But that wasn't always the case. Previously the perspective was that boybands were there to stoke female desire, and homosexuality would shatter the fantasy. Such logic was not just homophobic -- through its utter lack of imagination about how young girls connected to the bands they loved, it was sexist too.

Much like how young women rally around queer artists in 2019, the fans back then soon shattered that. “From love letters, to my first gig, I was wild for Stephen,” Eireann tells me now. “When he came out I got onto realising that I loved him because he was a little queer like me.” In fact, he wound up being a pin-up for young queer boys too. “I was in love with Stephen, except I didn’t have the vocabulary or maturity to know what that meant,” die-hard fan Nigel tells me. “When I think of him I still feel a sadness for the preteen me, lost in Mayo.”

On the surface it seemed like Stephen had a firm grasp on his own coming out story, but it was not all positive. It later transpired that a former crew member had threatened to sell his story to the tabloid press. That intrusion on queer lives is one that continues in the British tabloids now, whether in the shameful reporting on young trans people, or the recent revelations that rugby icon Gareth Thomas’ parents were doorstepped by journalists asking about his HIV status before he’d decided to tell them about living with the condition. No one really comes out on the front pages anymore, because young queers have taken things into their own hands: Tom Daley and Troye Sivan opted for vlogs. Perhaps the most telling change to how Gen Z popstars handle revealing their sexuality compared to millennials: Lil Nas X simply went for a cryptic tweet.

Stephen Gately would later settle into the stages of post-boyband stardom, with all its modest trappings: a moderately successful solo album and a stint on the West End before the obligatory reunion. Then, he died suddenly in his sleep in Majorca in 2009 of an undetected heart defect. It brought about a second act in the same media racket that forced him out: a Daily Mail columnist infamously suggested that the circumstances of his death were ‘more than a little sleazy’, and heralded the death as ‘another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships’. Uniquely vitriolic, it nonetheless spoke to how people had chosen to react to the death of gay men.

Younger Irish queers might have missed the nineties wave of boyband mania, but we were all-too-present for the discussion surrounding Stephen's death. “My dad was homophobic,” 22-year-old 22-year-old Pauric recalls. “He’s not now, since I’ve come out, but he used to be. Stephen died when I was 12, and that gave one of my first insights into his homophobia. My dad had little sympathy, just assumed the death was drugs, that it couldn’t be anything else.”

And though some traded in fear and contempt, the reaction outside of the tabloids was warmer. A reverent crowd gathered in Gately’s home streets of working-class north Dublin, welcoming him home with the sort of forever-love you always carry for a popstar who was once a face on your bedroom wall.

At Irish wakes, custom still has it that a few sit up with the departed all night: so too did Boyzone’s remaining members, who famously stayed with Stephen in the chapel on the night before his funeral. It was like welcoming one of Ireland’s first gay sons into the old customs we’ve kept, even as we detach from the religious institutions to which they were tied. Séamas concurs: “There was something about seeing all those straight lads by the side of their gay brother in that church that moved me.”

In 2015, we reckoned with our old customs and sacraments again when we opened up marriage to all in an historic referendum. It was the single biggest marker of Ireland’s remarkable progress on gay rights. A common claim voters would make during that referendum was, “My cousin’s gay - why should he be treated differently?” - or a colleague, a sibling, a friend. The day was won because suddenly everyone stopped and realised they knew someone. For much of Ireland, Stephen Gately was the first gay man they could ever claim to know.

On the tenth anniversary of Stephen Gately’s death, it feels impossible not to reflect on that huge change, and to wish he’d been here to see it. By taking control over his own narrative, he forced a rethink in how pop worked, and gave Ireland the vocabulary to start undoing its homophobia. We couldn’t have done it without him.

the noughties