“If you’re down the country, you don’t want to tell anyone, it’s fear-based. You just want to move away and eventually you’ll come out.” Michael Keyes is a UX designer based in Dublin but originally from Clara, County Offaly. He is also really into Ju-Jitsu. Here, he talks moving to Dublin, masculinity and mental health.
Although accurately describing the trajectory for many members of the LGBT+ and queer community in Ireland, who migrate from their locale to a larger urban centre [at home or abroad] in search of opportunity and affirmation, Michael’s experience overall seems positive: “I came out when I was 17. Still in school in the country, and funnily enough, two guys who I went to primary school and secondary school with all the way up came out as well. The three of us were best friends. One of them was my cousin, one was just my best friend who I had known for years. It was cool, growing up with those guys. The three of us came out and it was an ‘us against the world’ kind of thing.”
Despite his comfort in his own sexuality at that time, swapping Clara for Dublin came as something of a start: “Even finding out there is a gay community was so eye-opening, y’know? I thought there was only The George when I came up, that scary pub that everybody talks about.” Young, Michael arrived with a certain narrow sense of what it meant to ‘be a man' regardless of sexuality: “At that stage, you’re like, ‘oh my god, feminine is not a good word’. You need to be a man. Then you eventually learn, ‘I have that [femininity] inside of me as well’ and you can express it – and it’s okay to express it. That was the biggest thing about moving to Dublin, finding that feminine side [to being a man]”
Why is it something that has to be found? “It’s our culture. Growing up, where you have to be a man, you can’t show emotion all the time, you can’t swing your arms too much, you can’t be flamboyant or anything like that. It’s a fear of being different in any way, a ‘what will the neighbours say' kind of thing.”
A feeling of ‘fuck that’ soon followed: “I remember going to gay bars early on, I could have been twenty, and getting so annoyed by drag queens. They were so feminine, so seemingly against all this masculine energy. ‘They are men, why are they doing this?’. Then, I just realised that these are the people that make it better for everybody else. These are the people who fought for gay people to have rights, to walk down the street.
“I had to realign what a man is. A man isn’t just a dude with a dick. What is a dude, like? Is it a feeling? Is it a physical thing? Is it an emotion? Is it how you think? It’s not just how you present to the world. That doesn’t matter. You definitely need to experiment with both sides. If you want to go down a femme route, if you want to play with masculine energy. Find out who you are.” Today, Michael mourns the loss of his favourite drag, Angelina Lovelace, from the Dublin scene [“RIP”].
Although he still visits The George, Michael tends to dip his toe in spots like the Furry Glen, which caters to a burlier and more hirsute contingent within the community, although all are welcome: “They’re good craic. A lot our friends identify as bears.” Does he? “It comes back to labelling myself. A cub, maybe a bear, just a big dude I guess! It’s just nice to be around big dudes – I get to feel small and dainty.” An infectious giggle accompanies a knowing glint of the eye.
That said, in a relationship for a nine years and knowing who he likes, the nature of his attraction and desire has shifted over time: “When I was younger I was very attracted to older dudes, bigger dudes. I’m just attracted to people and energy now. It’s that connection I look for now. Looking for a connection is much more important than that surface level attraction, than drooling over each other – which can be great sometimes, don’t get me wrong.”
On the side, Michael practices Jiu Jitsu. A grappling sport with the submission of one’s opponent being the goal, it has become more than a physical pursuit. Suffering badly with anxiety before taking it up, it is also an outlet through which mental health can be kept in check. He explains: “The first thing my coach said to me was to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was freaking out about being choked, about being put in these claustrophobic conditions. But if you breathe and you take your time, you realise that you can get out of this through simple movements. And it works, you can get out of anything.”
It’s clear how much his experience on the mat supports his life when of off it: “I’ve started applying that to so many situations now. If I’m in a negative situation I can sit back look at what’s going on and pinpoint what’s not working for me. I knew then, that Jiu Jitsu was something I needed to pursue. Up until then it was just something I was just doing for a laugh but its really helped me mentally. And, because I’m always physically so broken up, I have no time to be in my head.”