The recent arrival of baby Blake has made Brian and Arthur’s love story even more endearing, but they have kept some struggles hidden. They open up about seeking asylum, infertility and the ongoing assault of trolls
I’d forgotten what it’s like trying to have a conversation – or do anything really – with a 14-month-old baby. Especially a lively one like Blake Dowling-Gourounlian. Curious and determined, she is constantly on the go. Luckily her dads – Brian Dowling and Arthur Gourounlian – are well able to distract and amuse her. They take it in turns, one diverts their daughter, the other talks to me.
“There were moments where I was crying, writing it. Where I couldn’t breathe,” says Arthur. Dancer, TV personality and judge on Dancing with the Stars, he must be one of the sunniest people I’ve met – smiley and energetic, with a kind of boundless positivity that seems to crackle from the ends of his shiny black curls. But when I ask what it was like for him to write Modern Family, with Brian, he admits to feeling “like, a traumatised momentum”.
The book is full of joy, heartache, grief and love – subtitled Births, Marriages, Deaths and Everything in Between – and there is plenty, for both men, of all of these.
But Arthur’s story, of coming to Belgium aged 13 as a refugee from Armenia, having survived brushes with death – in the earthquake of 1988, during the explosion of a garage used to stock guns and bombs during the 1992 war with Azerbaijan (which killed his grandmother) – as well as deprivation, food shortages and rationed electricity once Armenia separated from the USSR, is a difficult one.
Over four months, the family – Arthur, his sister, their parents – travelled from Armenia, first to Moscow, then Cologne, and finally Belgium, where Arthur’s uncle lived. There they claimed asylum, living first in a crowded refugee centre with mattresses on the floor, before being brought by the Salvation Army to a centre for families. They were moved, then moved again, to a town near the border with Germany.
All the while, the asylum process was ongoing, and Arthur’s parents would travel two hours each way every week by bus into Brussels, to see their social worker. Before their status was granted, his father had a brain haemorrhage and died, aged 45.
Somehow, from that despair, Arthur took the lesson that he was going to throw himself fully into his life – that he would do whatever it took to be what he wanted, getting first into hairdressing, and then dancing, always determined to let nothing hold him back. As a dancer, he toured with Girls Aloud, Pussycat Dolls and Kylie Minogue.
All this – and far more – Arthur pours out in his opening chapters.
“I never really spoke about my story before,” he says now. “Everything I’ve done in my life – in showbiz, I’ve literally travelled the world – I never wanted people to feel sorry for me. People knew I’m from Armenia, they knew I had a difficult childhood, but nobody knew more, because I didn’t want to have that ‘Oh, poor you…’”
How does he feel now, that his story is about to land?
“It was very difficult, I’m not going to lie – I’m nervous because lots of people know me in my industry. They’re going to read this and think – ‘I knew you for 20 years and I never knew about this’… But I wanted to put everything out there. We live our lives in the social media world – we’re very transparent, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to hide anything. I’m going all in. I’m 43 years old, and it’s the first and last time I’m going to be talking about this, so let’s just go for it.’ I put my heart into it.
“Everything I’ve done in my life,” he continues, “there was no one to support me. I didn’t have much family – just my mother and my sister – or, at first, close friends. Once, on tour, I remember going to Newcastle, and everyone in the cast was saying ‘Oh my God, my family’s coming to support me… my friends are coming…’ I’ve done every big tour you can imagine and there was no one to support me, no one to know me, no one to say ‘Oh my God, well done Arthur…’”
Here, Brian interrupts to ask, sarcastically: “Can I get you a tissue from the back here?”
“Yes, give me three,” is Arthur’s response.
It seems to be very much their dynamic – teasing, mocking, devoted.
“I don’t want to sound like I feel sorry for myself,” Arthur continues, “because I was grateful. I’m a very driven person, that’s why the book is hopefully going to help other people get inspired – it’s a positive energy book – I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I want people to take the message – anything you want in life, get out there and do it.
“Trust me, I experienced first-hand – I’ve seen horror in my life. And I’ve said to Brian a couple of times, I really want to help, but, believe me, I can’t. The Salvation Army was a big part of my life, but I’ve tried to explain – it’s like a wall in front of me, made up of bad memories.”
It’s trauma, I suggest?
“That’s the word I was looking for. But I didn’t know I had that trauma until writing the book.”
Brian interjects: “Oh, I did.”
Really, I ask?
“Yes. I know what Arthur’s like – this constant hunger, this demand for more. I’m always like, ‘We have to live in the moment now and enjoy what we have,’ but he’s like, no, and I understand – it’s that fear of it being taken away. That feeling that’s he’s got to constantly keep going, keep pushing – not just Plan A, but Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, Plan E… Whereas I’m very live in the moment, let’s enjoy this,” Brian says.
“I’m living in the moment, but I know things can stop tomorrow,” Arthur explains. “Nothing is ever enough, even though we’re so happy and I’m blessed with a beautiful husband, a beautiful family – I’m a workaholic, I’m so ambitious, I’m a hustler. It comes from the panic in me. Brian and I come from two different backgrounds – to me, when I was growing up, he was the posh one.”
Sorry, I was on the bog in Rathangan,” Brian interjects, “that’s not posh.”
“In my eyes, he was,” Arthur insists. “He had a roof over his head.”
The eldest of seven and the only boy, Brian’s childhood in Co Kildare was perhaps not “posh” – his father worked in construction and the family were “very working-class” – but it was filled with love and fun. And, despite that, the confusion that dogged any young person who began to understand they were gay in rural Ireland was present.
He left, moving to Stansted, where he became an air steward, before – of course – winning Big Brother in 2001, and going on to forge a dynamic career in media.
“Doing the book has made me feel so proud of when I won Big Brother at the age of 23, as an openly gay man. I didn’t understand the importance of that,” he says.
“Or of being the first openly gay kids TV presenter. I didn’t think that was such a big thing. Or doing the first same-sex dance on Irish television, when it hadn’t been done before. I didn’t realise how important all that was, until sitting down and putting pen to paper and going, hang on, that was pretty amazing. I just didn’t realise what it meant at the time.”
Not that it was plain-sailing. Even as an openly gay man, Brian encountered weird kinds of homophobia. “The clothes that I wore were picked out by heterosexual men, and there was one incident regarding my lips – they were apparently ‘too red’; one of the producers came up to me and he grabbed my arm and had a wet wipe and rubbed my face and my lips and was like ‘Take off the lipstick.’ I wasn’t wearing lipstick, that was the colour of my lips. It’s stuff like that, people think, ‘Oh that’s so stupid, but it’s not’. The assumption was that I, a gay man, was wearing lipstick…”
How did he react?
“I thought this was normal, because it was my first job in the industry,” Brian says.
“Not that I’m a victim, but you’re made to feel that they’re doing it for the right reasons – I was made to feel, ‘They want me to do well, they want me to be better’. You’re made to feel that this is what’s right. In the industry now, people are still afraid to speak up. Now at 45, a dad and a husband, I can stand up and go, ‘I’m really uncomfortable doing that…’ but back then…”
Arthur agrees: “Even when I was a dancer and young, I did things that now I look and go: ‘How did I do that?’”
Over the years, often through no desire of their own, they have been forced to find the words to speak out, for themselves and for others, on their sexuality, their marriage, and, most recently, the fact that they are parents to Blake, born through surrogacy with Brian’s sister, Aoife, as the birth mother but not the genetic mother.
At one point, I ask Brian how he copes with the small section of the population who take exception to his and Arthur’s relationship.
“As two gay men, we’ve always had to deal with that. From the time I was born, and was growing up in Rathangan, I needed other people’s permission to live my life. I needed other people’s thumbs-up. I left Rathangan in 1998, I had to leave to get acceptance and become confident. We needed permission from people to get married.
“All our lives, we’ve had to almost court controversy, to get acceptance. As a gay guy, I’m always looking for that validation. So I’ve been dealing with that bullshit – homophobia, micro-homophobia – all of my adult life. At school I dealt with it, at the majority of jobs I’ve dealt with it. I’ve dealt with so much of it that it’s second nature. Now it did escalate when we had Blake, because we were being called paedophiles, because we were two gay men who wanted to have a child…”
This part of the story is sad, but true. Both have been subject to vile abuse. “The word ‘nonce’,” Arthur says.
“I never heard that word in my entire life. Being naive, I thought it was something nice… Brian explained it to me, and it made me feel sick… Yesterday, I had ‘you retarded fag, you’re disgusting, having this child…’ on my Facebook.”
“Surrogacy is a controversial thing,” Brian says. “When I said we were pregnant, we were criticised for that: ‘Oh, you’re taking rights away from women’, using those words in that space… Before people realised it was Aoife, the response was horrendous.
“Then, when we announced that it was Aoife, that quietened down. That softened it a bit. But surrogacy is very controversial for various reasons. I think the surrogacy took it to a different level of vileness.
“And I think it gave homophobic people the chance to attack us in the guise of concern – concern regarding my sister, concern regarding my child. When Blake was on The Late Late Show with us, a woman attacked us – ‘Oh my God, keeping Blake up so late…’”
“People always come for us,” Arthur says. “We’re in the limelight, we promote things – because everybody has to work – Blake sometimes will do sponsored things for baby food brands, and we get – ‘Oh you had a baby just to exploit her…’ That money goes to her account. It makes me angry, but I have to just brush it off. Brian gets more angry than me.”
“I just think anything that involves someone’s family, there should be a line – children are off guard,” Brian says.
It really put Aoife in the firing line as well. And we’re just so lucky that Aoife is in Blake’s life; they have a great relationship. But when we shot the documentary, I said to Arthur: ‘Are we absolute fools, to be opening the door to our house?’ But I’m so happy that we did, because families in Ireland now are not like families when I went to school in Ireland in the 1980s. Families now could be same-sex parents, they could be biracial, single parents, different cultures, different races,” he adds.
“And at the same time, although those comments are there, 99pc are so nice, so supportive, so many beautiful messages,” Arthur says.
But the fight continues. “Our family is not accepted here in Ireland,” Brian says.
“We’re still fighting. A normal legal right for any child born in Ireland is that their one legal document that they have for the rest of their life is the birth cert, and we’re still fighting to try and get one of our names on that birth cert. How is that right?” he asks.
That fight is far from an abstract one. Brian, during one of his sections in the book, reveals that – while they used an egg donor, they only provided one sample of sperm. This is because it turned out that he is infertile. There are degrees of this, and his is so complete that his own GP asked how much chemotherapy he’d had as a child.
“At first, I said I wasn’t going to talk about that,” Brian says now. “This is the one thing that I still struggle with. It’s so personal, because I never want this to cast doubt on any aspect of me being Blake’s father. And when it’s out there, it’s almost like I’m doubting my relationship with my daughter, and that’s totally not the case.
“I wrote two or three versions – it was out and it was in, then it was out again – and then I decided to leave it in, because it’s the truth. We’ve been so honest about everything in our lives – I felt like me not putting this in, it’s not right.
I’m told every day since Blake has been born that she looks like Arthur, or Arthur’s mum – which is fine, because people don’t mean it maliciously. If people see kids, they always do that… but it’s to give people an understanding of what I was going through during that time in our lives.
“I had always assumed that I could have my own biological children – and I do have my child, so I’m very, very lucky that I get to be a dad – but I was going through so much in the back of my mind, regarding my relationship with Blake.
“I was thinking: ‘What if there is this thing, when your child is born, and it’s a biological response that kicks in?’ It became a bit of a thing in my mind and I felt I couldn’t talk about it. The only people who knew were my sisters, and Arthur. But I wanted to be honest, I wanted to be vulnerable. I’m not the only man who has been through that.
“Also,” he continues, “at first, I was told this could be cystic fibrosis. I was told there was some potentially severe genetic disorder, so that was the first thing we were really worried about.
“So the infertility wasn’t the thing that I thought – oh my God. I went for head-to-toe genetic testing and everything is fine. It’s still something I’m coming to terms with.
“I didn’t have to share that but I thought, I’m going to be honest. I might regret it. Am I handing the trolls something else? I’m sure people will joke and mock, I’m mindful of that, but, for me, it was the right thing to do,” he says.
“And so,” he continues, “we only ever gave one sample. Now, either way, it was always going to be Arthur or me; one of us was always going to miss out in that way.
But the thing is, when it comes to legal rights – I’m so vulnerable here in Ireland. If our relationship was to break down, Arthur could take my daughter away from me, and that’s scary. Aoife is considered Blake’s legal mother. Not her biological mother, because we used an egg donor, but she would potentially have more rights than me… It’s the oddest thing. And Aoife doesn’t want to have her name on Blake’s birth cert as her legal anything.
“If something was to happen to us – if there was a drama, or Arthur wanted to be a dick, or our marriage broke down, then…”
It is indeed a strange kind of legal limbo. One they believe is changing.
“It’s getting there,” Arthur says. “Fingers crossed it’s nearly there. Surrogacy,” he points out, “isn’t a gay issue. It’s anyone who wants to have a family and can’t.”
And when the time comes to tell Blake the story of how she came to be, they will tell her everything. Or, better still, hand her Modern Family to read.
“Blake’s going to be totally fine with it all,” Brian says with a laugh, “until she finds out I was on Big Brother – the infertility, the surrogacy, the two dads, she’ll be good with all that, until she finds out – were you on Big Brother?”
Finally, I ask – what of the dynamic between them? It’s tempting to think one or other must be the “star” given how involved in showbiz both are, but talking to them, it seems there’s far more give and take than that.
“It all changed,” Brian says, “It was always ‘Brian Dowling and Arthur’, then we went on The Late Late Show in February, and we were waiting behind the scenes. I stood in the place to go first, and the floor manager went, ‘Oh, if you don’t mind, we’re introducing Arthur first’. It was ‘Arthur, and his husband Brian Dowling. ‘I’d never been the ‘and’ before and I thought, Oh, OK, I’m the ‘and’.”
They both laugh.
“At the end of the day,” Brian continues, “we’re both so lucky that we get to do all of this in Ireland and have all of the opportunities. But remember, I will always be more famous than Arthur.”
To which Arthur responds tranquilly: “Famous or not, as long as we’re happy and working – he can be the shining star, let him have it. I’m happy to be the background dancer. I didn’t want to be in the limelight.”
“You’re in the background with me, baby,” Brian says, just as Blake shoves a pudgy fist in his face. I think we all know who’s going to end up running this show.
‘Modern Family’ by Brian Dowling and Arthur Gourounlian is published by Gill Books and out now
Source: Emily Hourican, Irish Independent