'The day I came out': Celebrities reveal their very personal moments of truth

From the mum who thought it worse than a heroin addiction to the stern grandparent who wasn't bothered, coming out as gay can be easy or traumatic. Simon Callow, Stella Duffy, Ben Bradshaw and others tell Holly Williams about the ultimate moment of truth

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Simon Callow

The British actor, aged 62, will be performing his one-man version of 'A Christmas Carol' at London's Riverside Studios this Christmas, while his latest film, 'Acts of Godfrey', is released in the new year

I grew up entirely among women and was always aware of rare eruptions of maleness in the house – the women got excited about it and so did I. I was very conscious that I was attracted to other boys but I had no name to put to that until I reached the age of 11 or 12. Then I started reading voraciously about gay experience in the classics, and then Oscar Wilde. It was principally a literary experience in the beginning.

At school I made it clear to my schoolmates that I was that way inclined and it didn't create a sensation – I was flirtatious with boys and they didn't bully me, though they may have tried to take advantage of my infatuations. It was a Roman Catholic day school; I was head boy and would be taken out for rather excessive cream teas by the priests; not a word was passed or a finger laid, but there was a certain... atmosphere.

With my mother and grandmother, I came out a lot later. It was my grandmother I was most close to when I was growing up. I was becoming aware [that] I was definitely gay and was going to live a gay life. I was falling in love with everybody – at school there were three or four boys I was in love with, though nothing happened, and then I went to university and I was always falling in love with the wrong people. And around that time it was somehow all bound up with the relationship with my grandmother – I'd never kept anything secret from her and here I was on the brink of committing to a gay life and she didn't know.

I cut myself off from her completely for four years, and by then I was at drama school and had had numerous affairs. I decided to make my peace and I went to see her and it was an emotional reunion. She said, "Do you have a girlfriend?" and I said, "No." And she said, "You're not a homo?" and I said, "I am," and she said, "Far be it from me to question anyone who is looking for love...". That was an amazing thing for anyone to say then, and particularly my grandmother. My aunt, by this time, had dropped a bottle of whisky! But then she said, "Well, you're an artist, they're all queer".

My mother was a tougher nut to crack. I didn't tell her until I was doing a show with Gay Sweatshop, and I thought, it's going to be in the newspapers. So I said, "I'm coming to see you on Sunday, I've got something to say to you," and she said, "Are you getting married?". I said, "Er, not exactly...". When I told her, she said, "If you're anything like your father you'll be a sexual beast, and since there have been no women, it must have been men." Then she told me that she didn't want to talk about it.

There was no problem at all in the business. Not until I was at the National Theatre and doing the sonnets [in 1980], and the director, Michael Kustow, had written in the programme notes that in rehearsals we had explored our sexuality, his straight, mine gay, and the press officer said, "You can't print that, it will ruin your career".

By now I was doing lots of interviews – and I kept on coming out to the press and they never printed it! It wasn't until I wrote my book, Being an Actor [in 1984], that I publicly came out. I never had any doubts, but people kept saying, "You may never act again...". I thought, I really can't live my life with that threat over me, I'm just going to have to find out.

I don't think anyone gives a stuff in British theatre [if you're gay], you can still be a romantic lead. But then I'm an ancient, and not 20 and being anguished about it. Agents may well be saying you have to take a very cool view about this, and there is not one romantic leading man in Hollywood who is gay. Either God spared California or it's a lie.

I had a couple of sexual advances made to me when I was young – very oily, nasty men who kind of made it all seem rather disgusting – and that added to the confusion, when I was about 14, of thinking that the gay world was shady and shabby and furtive. There was a depressing Penguin book by DJ West on homosexuality. It described the awfulness of being homosexual, the constant shame and weird narrow life you'd lead – I was scared by that, I thought I don't want my life to be like that.

When I got to the National Theatre and met many other gay actors, I started noting the diversity. It was still a very covert world but, as many people of my generation and the generation before will tell you, it was such fun. Naughty and subversive and full of codes: "Do you drink Campari?" – "I do" – "I thought you did...". All of that. I suppose it's got swept away now. It's amazing how inventive people are if they want to have a good time.

Zoe Lyons

A stand-up comic, Lyons, aged 40, won the funniest joke of the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, and has appeared on 'Mock the Week' and 'Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow'

W hen I was about 12 years old, I started to suspect I was gay. It's a cliché, but I was always a bit of a tomboy. I grew up in rural Ireland, my only friend was Robert next door and he didn't want to play with dolls, so we hit each other with sticks and ran around.

When I hit puberty I started to register that something was going on; by 16 I was like, "Yeeeeah...". I used to read the problem pages in magazines and the advice [to people who thought they were gay] was always, "It's probably just a phase" – so I thought it might just go away. You get different advice today, thankfully.

At the age of 12 you desperately don't want to be different. I wasn't shy at school but I probably wasn't the most confident either and I thought, "Well, this isn't going to help!". I didn't tell anyone until I was about 16 years old. I had a lovely small group of friends, I was living in Glasgow, and it was one of those nights you have when you're a teenager and a few ciders have been drunk; I said, "I think I might be bisexual," and my friends were like, "That's totally cool".

But once you've said it, it is out there. It was quite a big deal, I was really scared, actually. This was 20 years ago; there really wasn't much on the telly or in the press for me to hang on to, so I felt quite isolated.

I was only 17 years old when I went to university, and there were gay and lesbian societies there but I wasn't really that confident or involved with it. It wasn't until I was aged 21 that I came out to my parents; by then I was like, "This really isn't a phase...". My parents are f divorced, but my step-mum had gay friends so that helped. My dad bought a self-help book on how to cope with having a gay child. My mum worried that my life would be really difficult. She had a sliding scale: I said to her, "Mum, I've got something to tell you", and she went "You're pregnant". Then she said, "You're on heroin", and then it was like, "Oh my God, you're gay" – and I was like, "Yeah!". Being gay: one below being on heroin. It has got easier – my girlfriend and my mum get on really well now. When I brought my first girlfriend home, it really threw my mum, though. I thought she was going to faint.

Being a comedian, everyone tries to label you. Initially you're a female comedian, then a gay female comedian. My material is not directed by my sexuality, though it does have a slightly different perspective because of it.

It's easier for young people now, but we could still definitely do with more gay women on telly, and in comedy. There's a tradition of camp comedy, drag acts and borderline effeminate men – that's part of our slightly panto-y history of comedy. But there's not such a tradition for gay women.

Heather Peace

An actress and singer-songwriter, 35-year-old Peace gained a big gay following after starring in 'Lip Service', and has recently joined the cast of 'Waterloo Road'. Her album, 'This is Me', is out now

There were a couple of girls at college who were a bit dubious about me; they were out and pinpointed me as possibly gay. But it was in my second or third year at drama school that I really realised I was gay. There was a girl, and we started hanging out a lot; I was just aware of her and where she was at any time.

I had a boyfriend, and I had a fantasy of kissing him in warm summer rain, but when we tried it was awful. Then in the July, I was on Canal Street with the girl, it was boiling hot and when we kissed the heavens just opened – it was like something from a film. We got soaked and went back in our wet clothes on the bus, and I stayed at hers.

The next day we went into college and I had to borrow her clothes – that's another advantage of being gay – and I thought "Everyone is going to know", but of course nobody noticed. Then the rumours went around, but it wasn't the reaction I expected. Everyone was fine about it, though I did overhear my last boyfriend saying, "Well, she has had the best man available, so there was nowhere else for her to go...". This was when I was aged 19. I wasn't sure if I was gay, or if it was this one girl.

I didn't tell [my parents] until my relationship with this girl broke down, when I was 20 or 21 – she left me for someone and broke my heart after 18 months. We were both still doing the course and were rehearsing together every day for a play. I started to have panic attacks and a friend took me back to Bradford and said "You need to tell them, you need some support."

I was brought up a Catholic, and I expected my parents to be furious, but I always underestimate my mum and dad. When I told them, they just put their arms around me. My mum said "Don't ever not tell me something important about you ever again." I think they did find it difficult but they were perfect parents in a way – they went away and read everything they could about it.

It used to be awkward. Either people assume you're straight and then 10 months down the line you tell them and it seems like you've lied, or you tell them straight away and it seems like you are making a big deal out of it. It is lovely today, though: people say "your partner" whereas 10 years ago they'd say "your boyfriend".

Within the industry everyone knew I was gay and it wasn't a problem – it's just when it comes to casting, when directors can underestimate the public, assuming they might not be able to deal with you opposite a man [if they know you are a lesbian]. It was difficult at the start of my career, playing all the young romantic leads – and playing the only girl in a boys' world. I knew why I was there – I was kind of totty. I was told by a producer, "We know you're a lesbian, and we don't care, but we'd rather you didn't tell people as you are there to be the eye candy."

Stephen K Amos

Amos is a comedy circuit regular and had his own TV programme, 'The Stephen K Amos Show'. In 2007 he made 'Batty Man', a documentary about homophobia in the black community

I was about seven or eight when I first realised. I felt a bit different from the other boys; playing with the girls and going towards gentle things rather than rough and tumble. Later on, though deep down I knew, I did try to hide it. I didn't know anyone who was gay, I didn't know anyone who was positive about it, I didn't have any role models to identify with. So I did all the things you do, going out with girls, trying to be a big strong guy – my only advantage was that I was a strapping young man, not what people thought "gay" would be.

I first met an openly gay person at my first job, on a newspaper, who became a very, very good friend. He became not a mentor exactly, but someone I followed around the club circuit and into this new world. This was when I was aged about 20 or 22.

At first I led a double life. I had this whole new circle of friends, and a totally different life with college friends and family, and I did my utmost to make sure they didn't meet – there was still a sense of shame and embarrassment and of not living up to expectations. f I mainly didn't tell people because I didn't understand myself, how I could tell other people?        

There was a time when I had to tell my brothers and sisters. If you're a close family, which we are, they guess; when you haven't brought home a girlfriend for 10 years and your best friends change periodically and they're always guys, they guess.

We all went out for a drink one day, I sat them down and said, "I've got something to tell you guys". My twin sister went, "Is it you're gay?". And I burst into tears, I was a babbling fool, and I said, "I thought you'd hate me", but they were like don't be silly, we're your family. It was totally cathartic.

That was 15 years ago, but I never told my parents. I never had that conversation with anybody else, I never sat down and said, "I'm gay". As you go through life, your circle of friends change and new friends just know. I have four old friends, but again I never had to tell them, it's just been very apparent.

My peers on the comedy circuit knew, but my comedy didn't revolve about race or sexuality. That was until I was at home pottering around and the news came on, and there was a body found on Clapham Common – a victim of a homophobic attack – and I glanced at the TV and saw it was someone I knew. It knocked me for six, that there were still people on this planet that were willing to assault someone, to death, for their sexuality.

So I addressed it in my next show [All of Me, in 2006]. I didn't really think of it as a "coming out", but there was a punchline that was "And then I discovered I fancied men!". I think I must have been naïve – I didn't anticipate the audience gasping at that point. In one of the shows I actually heard a woman go, "Oh no!". People locked on to the idea that Amos was coming out publicly – whereas I just wanted to honour my friend. Maybe before that I had just wanted to hide behind a shell of comedy – whereas I realised I had to be true to myself.

Since then I've been described by certain sections of the press as a "gay black comic" – but first and foremost I try to tell jokes that make people laugh and make people think. But there's also a point that comes when you can use your comedy to influence, educate, and, dare I say, encourage people.

I did a programme, Batty Man [about homophobia in the black community], which has since been used in prisons and schools. I get letters from people in prison: I had one from a 50-year-old man saying "Thank you – I thought I was the only one." I had no idea the impact that programme would have. It made me feel quite humble. And yet I spoke to so many people who I know to be gay or lesbian and a lot of them refused to take part. People are still wary and a bit afraid. I think there is a strong movement in the right direction, looking at how many pride marches, how much equality legislation, how many visible gay politicians, footballers and entertainers there are now. There is hope.

Ben Bradshaw

The 51-year-old Labour MP for Exeter, Bradshaw was the first cabinet minister in a civil partnership when he became Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in 2009

I had inklings in my teens but, I think like a lot of people, I tried to suppress them and had girlfriends. It was really in my first year at University of Sussex that I had my first gay experience, and I realised it was more than just something I was imagining. Fortunately, Sussex was a conducive place to coming out; the gay society was the biggest on campus, it had the best disco of the week – coinciding, of course, with the great late Seventies disco revival – and I had a very affirming, supportive group of friends. It was made easy for me in many ways.

Friends knew pretty much immediately – campus life can be a bit of a hothouse so the news spread that I'd had this experience pretty quickly. My mother was ill with Alzheimer's at the time – she was at a stage really where she wasn't in a position to take any information in. But my dad I told the next time I saw him. He was a clergyman, so it couldn't have been easy for him and I'm sure it wasn't, but he was fantastic about it. It helped that he knew my first boyfriend – he had been a friend for a while and my father was very fond of him. My brother and sisters have always been fine about it. Considering the time, I was very lucky.

Professionally, I often say to people that I never had a coming-out-of-the-closet moment as I was never in the closet in the first place. Starting off as a journalist in local papers and then the BBC, I wasn't someone to flaunt my sexuality but, at the same time, I didn't hide it. As far as I'm aware, it has never been an issue. When I was sent to Berlin, I don't know if the BBC had ever sent someone as a foreign correspondent with a same-sex partner before, but they didn't bat an eyelid about it.

The only time when it has been an issue is when I first stood for Parliament in Exeter in 1997. My Tory opponent happened to be one of Britain's leading homophobes at the time, a man called Adrian Rogers who ran something called the Conservative Family Campaign and had made a name for himself as a sort of homophobic rent-a-quote.

I knew him from my time as a local journalist there, so I knew what he was like and I judged that we'd have a lot of fun around this. He'd been trying to sound sane and reasonable up until then, but – I predicted – the selection of an openly gay candidate by the Labour party would provoke him into saying all sorts of outlandish things, which he then very helpfully did. He came out with some extremely fruity attacks on me, which helped me enormously in the election. He thought, and this view was quite widespread at the time among Conservative politicians and the media, that it was an issue they could exploit to their advantage. It backfired very badly and I got the biggest swing to Labour in the whole of the south-west.

I had thought for a very long time that the political and the media class were a long way behind where the British people were at the time, and the 1997 election proved that. There was a real cultural shift forced on the political class, and the media, by the people. It was a wonderful democratic moment and it was thrilling to have been part of that. But we must always be on guard against the assumption that progress is irreversible. Although I think we're still moving in the right direction we must be wary of a revival of old prejudices and bigotry, and there is a tendency throughout human history to target and scapegoat minorities.

I have, since my election, been contacted by a lot of young people, both to say how pleased they were that things were being made easier for them but also people who were very fearful and worried.

We know from the problem of homophobic bullying and gay suicide that this issue is still very much with us. There's a new generation of young people, for most of whom it's not an issue, but there are still some whose lives are being made a misery, being rejected by their families, their friends, or by their religions – so we've still got a long way to go.

Stella Duffy

An author of 12 novels, as well as a playwright and theatre director, 38-year-old Duffy's latest book is 'Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore'. She recently directed 'TaniwhaThames' at the Oval House theatre in London

You tell people all the time. Even booking a hotel for myself and my wife now, I still have to come out. Generally, the world assumes that you're straight. It's a process of coming out, annoyingly, exhaustingly, daily.

I started to think I might be gay in my teens – not that I knew then what it was to be gay. This was the Seventies; there were no role models. If there were any, they were gay men – there's always been more visibly gay men than women. So I just didn't know what it was when I was fancying women.

I was about 17 years old when I first said to someone, "I think I like women". It's weird thinking now how little we knew, growing up in a small town in New Zealand. I felt left out and different and I didn't know why. I didn't have a problem with being a lesbian, I just didn't know what I was; I had no words for it.

By the time I was aged 19, I was telling most people. It was 1981 and it was a brilliant time to be coming out. I had gone to university and it was an immensely political time in New Zealand. And, as any New Zealand lesbian will tell you, there were the Topp Twins – lesbian, singing, yodelling twins – they're amazing. I saw them on my very first night at university, it was freshers' night, and I was like: "That is me!".

I told my mother when I was about 20 – she was very nice about it. She said, "I think you'll get a lot more companionship from a woman than a man". She had a friend, Myrtle, who had a husband named Bert, and when my father died, she said to my mother, "If anything ever happens to Bert, we could live happily together like Stella and Shelley". My mother didn't have the heart to tell her that it wasn't just living together.

I was more nervous about telling my father. He was political and a socialist, but he was also quite an old-fashioned Catholic. He could be brilliant but also quite aggressive. But his immediate response was: "That doesn't change my relationship with you, does it?". It was the first time he had ever used that word "relationship" – we did not have that kind of conversation. And when I asked him if he wanted to know more, he just said, "I don't want to know about what your sister and her boyfriend do, and I don't want to know what you and your girlfriend do, either. I'll go and do the dishes."

My parents had awful times in the war, and I think they knew there were a damn sight worse things in life than having a gay child. My friends were maybe more difficult – they felt they were losing me, or that I was different, whereas actually I was finding myself. But they got over it. I still see my old school friends, we all get together when I go back to New Zealand – out of 12 of us, three of us are gay women and the others are straight.

I've been out with men and women but my heart sings with women. I've been with the same woman for 21 years now, so my heart is Shelley's. When I'm with that person, it's about them, not about sexuality.

I wish more people would be out. When you come out you have these amazing conversations – gay people have to talk about who they love and how they love with their parents. I wish all straight people could have those conversations, too. And I really wish all the straight people who'd had just one experience with someone of the same sex would tell their parents about that – that would change the world overnight.

My wife's family took longer than mine to come around to it – it was nine-and-a-half years before I met her father, but now I get on brilliantly with the in-laws.

I wish I'd thanked my dad for being good about it. I was young and political and I expected him to be good – but looking back, it's amazing that he was able to be so open in the early Eighties. I said thank you to my mum, because she died more recently.

I think we have to acknowledge when people do things outside their realm. No one should be racist or sexist or homophobic – but they are, and we should recognise when they do make the leap into not being, and be appreciative of that.