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Dublin: 6 °C Tuesday 20 February, 2018
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'I felt like the biggest liar ever. You don't want people to think differently of you'

Kildare captain Erica Burke shares her story.

“I’VE NEVER FELT like I had to come out as such. I always felt comfortable within myself.

“Hearing from other ladies footballers who were open about it helped so much, and I think talking about it is just so important.

“It’s so important to be comfortable with who you are. It makes such a difference. It impacts you more than you probably know when you’re not open about it.

Erica Burke Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“At the end of the day, you just want to be treated the same as any other person is. If they’re walking around with their boyfriend, it should be the same if you’re walking around with your girlfriend.

“It’s only after you tell your family or you tell your friends that things become a lot easier.”

Erica Burke remembers the day she felt a huge weight lifted off her shoulders and, as she put it herself, things became a lot easier.

As she had done several times, she told her parents that she was heading off to training, but instead took a different turn, and went to visit the girl she was seeing at the time.

At the age of 19, it was almost a ritual. She would say she was going to training to avoid questions from her parents, and on the way home, change into her football gear before coming in the door, and braving a smile to her unsuspecting family.

On the way home that day two years ago though, she decided it was time. She turned the radio off, and ran through the conversation she was about to have over and over and over.

“Something got into me that day and I said ‘I’m not sitting at my gate, changing into my football gear.’”

She passed through the gate, still in her jeans and top, and parked the car. No going back now. She walked up to the back door, and knocked. Her mam answered. Confused — as to why she had knocked on the door, and why she wasn’t in her jersey and shorts.

She cleared her voice.

This was it.

“Mum, I wasn’t training,” she said. “I was with the girl I’m seeing.”

“Come on inside, Eri. It’s very cold,” was the response.

And from that simple sentence she knew everything was going to be ok.

***

Now the Kildare captain, Burke was always sports mad.

She loved soccer, played tennis, basketball, camogie, did a bit of boxing. Her parents spent their evenings running the roads from A to B, bringing her and her siblings to training, matches and whatever else in between.

But her heart was always set on Gaelic football.

Last year, she was pivotal for the Lilywhites as they edged to their first-ever All-Ireland intermediate crown in Croke Park.

Two minutes into that game, Burke did serious damage to her foot.

She puts it down to the fact that she was wearing new socks in her boots. They were slipping. She had the ball and was about to solo it, no one near her. Her ankle just went one way.

“I knew straight away,” she tells The42. ”The pain was awful. There was literally no way that I could have came off though. I was looking forward to that game for so long.”

Of course, she played on. True character and fight.

“It was very sore, but I got through it. I ran it off.

“I actually ended up not going to get it looked at until the Tuesday I think it was. Still in the same tracksuit, having been to Coppers two nights in a row,” she laughs.

erica Source: Kildare LGFA Facebook.

“I had an avulsion fracture, which wasn’t great news.”

She’d been through a lot in the past, and knew that this was just another obstacle along the long road that is life. She could clear the hurdle.

Coming to terms with her sexuality was another of such.

“I’ve always known. I have known since maybe Junior Cert, Transition Year time.

“When I started to actually get out and meet people, and be with girls, I knew that was what I wanted, 100%. I hid it for a while at the start.”

She knew that she was different to the majority of her friends, and she accepted that. They would talk about the boys they were seeing, while she kept tight-lipped.

What if they, and her family, didn’t accept who she really was?

Any type of problem she had, she always kept her thoughts to herself. And this was no different.

“If they said to me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I would have just said ‘Oh, work’ or ‘I’m tired’ — a stupid excuse. The first thing that my sister said to me when I actually told her was, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I would have helped you.’

“I couldn’t explain it. It’s the hardest to tell people that are close to you. You don’t want them to turn around and disown you, or think differently about you.

As time went on, things got worse.

“I think the main thing that got to me was that I felt like such a liar. I was really angry.

“All of my friends and the girls that I worked with at the time used to be like, ‘What is wrong with you? You’re not yourself at all.’

“I’d fall out with people over stupid things. I just wasn’t happy, I wanted to be able to talk to my friends as normal, as if I was going out with a lad.

“I was very worried as well about what my family were going to think and what I was going to tell them. That got to me for a long time.

“At the end of the day, it turned out absolutely fine. You worry so much about something that turns out to not be an issue — it wasn’t for me anyway, thank God.”

Then came Friday 22 May 2015. Ireland voted yes to same-sex marriage. (It’s two years to the week, and quite fitting that Burke shares her story.)

It wasn’t long after that fateful day that she told her family, and she smiles that the referendum and the hype surrounding it was a huge push factor for her to open up fully to those close to her.

“It definitely made me feel like there’s more people that would support you.

“I didn’t actually know my family’s views on it. I was always afraid to bring the subject up in case they’d be like, ‘Oh God no, definitely not. I’m voting no.’ I still don’t know to this day if they voted yes or no.”

Before she took the plunge, she decided to confide in a friend on the Kildare team. They had played football together since they were 10 or 11.

“I felt comfortable telling her and I asked for her advice. At that point I wasn’t happy with the person that I actually was. I was so angry, I felt like the biggest liar ever. That wasn’t me at all.

“I was always so truthful with my family in everything that I did. I just felt like a liar. You feel that you’re going to be judged and you feel like your family might think differently of you, and your friends might think differently of you, and your teammates might think differently of you.

“Obviously, it’s a worry. But I spoke to one of the girls on the team and she gave me good advice. She said everyone was still going to love me no matter what and that she’d be behind me 100%, so that really helped.”

Louise Henchy and Erica Burke Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That day she told her mam, they went inside and chatted, along with her younger sister.

From the word go, it was all positive. She told her mam to pre-warn her dad, not that it needed to be done.

“Dad came home from work that day, and he just said, ‘So, I hear you’ve some news for us Eri…’ He’s hilarious, he’s brilliant. He has never said anything negative to me, he supports me 100% in everything I do.

“My family are so amazing, they’re the best. The best feeling for me is knowing my sister is really proud of me. She’s always saying to me, ‘you’re comfortable with who you are, I know that I can be whatever I want to be.’

“I’d love to think that maybe speaking about it would help some other girls feel more comfortable with themselves and be more open with themselves.”

After family, came telling friends. She never wanted to sit people down and tell them. Of course, there were one or two conversations that had to be had, but from there, it was just a natural progression.

“If one of the girls said to me, ‘Are you seeing anyone at the moment?’ I felt comfortable at this stage to say, ‘Yeah, I’m actually seeing this girl.’

“I never felt like I wanted to actually sit anyone down and say, ‘I’m gay’. The girls, my teammates have all been brilliant.”

That simple first conversation with her family completely changed her life for the better.

Her personal experience has been nothing but positive, both on and off the pitch.

“I honestly can’t say that anyone has treated me differently, I don’t think anyone even thinks about it.

“I’ve never experienced anything like [sledging], not on the football pitch. But you see in society in general, what’s happened — especially what happened the George the other night. Obviously, it’s still going on.”

Burke knows more than anyone that the key to having a positive mental health outlook is being happy in your own skin.

She’s battled her own demons through the years, and stresses how important talking is.

Of late, the stigma surrounding mental health issues has been broken down more and more, but there’s still a long way to go.

Her voice breaks slightly as she thinks of a college friend who took their own life a few weeks ago.

“People just don’t talk enough about what’s going on in their lives, no matter what it is. It could be something small but to them it seems so big.

“My friend was the happiest person, and the most outgoing. It just doesn’t make sense.

“You wish that you could make a difference somehow and encourage people to talk more. It’s just so important. The littlest things can help. Even just getting out for a run for half an hour, that’s why sport is so important.

“You go out onto the pitch and you forget about everything for half an hour. You could arrive to training with a million things in your head and you just run it all off. I think physical activity is so important in helping mental health.

kildare Source: Kfm Sport Twitter.

She’s truly flourished from that ‘liar’ she saw herself as two years ago.

As she opened up about her sexual identity to her family and friends, the 22-year-old turned a new leaf. Back then, if she had any slight problem, she’d keep it to herself.

Now, things are much different though.

“I’m really happy with how honest I can be now. I don’t think about what someone might think if I say it to them. I just say whatever and it helps.

“It helps to talk. People are there for you and if there’s something wrong, they want to help you. It really helps to talk openly about stuff.

“It’s so important. People just ignore these issues and they say ‘This one’s gay’ or ‘That one’s gay,’ but nobody will talk about the importance of [talking] for younger people.

“You just feel like you want to make it easier for someone else that was in your position. It might just help getting people talking about it, and acknowledge the difference.”

The puzzle is coming together nicely.

Burke graduated from DCU with a business degree in November, and she’s currently interning in Teneo PSG, combining her two passions in life — sport and business.

From speaking to her, it’s clearly evident that family means the world to her. She speaks glowingly of her younger sister and older brother — and of course her parents — and shares stories of how close they are.

And on the Kildare front, the final touches are being applied as she prepares to lead her side into championship.

Her foot has since mended following that glorious day in Croke Park, and she’s back patrolling midfield and calling the shots as captain.

Following the loss of a core group of players, Kildare struggled in the league, but things are going well as they gear up to face Laois in the first round of Leinster.

“Confidence is really high. We’ve had a few challenge matches which we performed really well in, got a couple of wins.

“It’s really good to have that winning feeling back, even though it hasn’t been a championship match or a league match. But winning is great, especially after getting so used to that feeling last year — you want it back.”

So life’s good. In a really good place? “Delighted with life,” she grins.

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Emma Duffy

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