Published: 00:01, 15 June 2018
For 25 years former councillor and magistrate Vince McMahan has held onto a secret that has eaten him up inside. Today, the father-of-three reveals to Joe Walker why he’s finally decided to reveal it to the world…
Staring at the white fluorescent light above his hospital bed, Vince McMahan had a life-changing moment of clarity.
Just hours before the father-of-three had suffered a heart attack, collapsing to the floor of Limes bar in Canterbury’s Rosemary Lane.
The former city councillor and magistrate had only survived because bar owner Tony Butcher had performed CPR, literally bringing him back from the dead.
It was an experience that made the 58-year-old realise it was time to finally start living the life he’d longed for – as an openly gay man.
We meet days later at the exact spot he slumped to the floor, at the city’s only gay bar, where Vince tells me he’s anxious about revealing a secret he’s kept for more than 25 years.
He’s yet to tell his three grown-up sons, although plans to before this story is published, and is nervous about their reaction to the news.
But his desire to finally release himself of his long-held secret outweighs his fears.
“What have I got to lose now?” he says, shrugging his heavy shoulders.
“I think it’s time to be honest about myself. I don’t want to have to hide it from anyone else anymore.
“You can only bottle it up for so long before it eats away at you – this secret that has made you feel dirty, this thing you’ve tried to suppress at the expense of your own health.
"I'm tired of living a lie...now I just want to finally be myself, to live the life I feel I’ve missed out on" - Vince McMahan
“I’m gay, and just talking about it now, and knowing it’s going to be out there finally, is a relief.”
Vince, a church-going Catholic, says his attraction to the same sex came later in life, only emerging after his wife left him to bring up their three boys alone when he was 32.
“I’d had some inklings and had thought men were attractive but had never thought about acting upon it, or that I might be gay,” he says.
But his world was turned upside down after an encounter with a man he shared a room with on a work conference in East Sussex 25 years ago.
“He came onto me and I just went with it,” he says.
“It was a surreal moment and I struggled with it afterwards.
“I just felt this isn’t right, it probably isn’t me, but the reality is it was me, it is me.”
Despite then accepting his sexuality, Vince chose to keep it a secret for more than a quarter of a century, too ashamed to open up to friends or family.
But the inner anguish took its toll and drove him to alcohol – an issue he has struggled with ever since.
“I was drinking trying to forget,” he says.
“Drink was my escapism, but it’s no answer.”
Vince continued to live his life and bring up his boys. He threw himself into work as a bus and taxi driver, and even dated women – with one relationship lasting 12 years.
In 2005 he was elected to Canterbury City Council, representing West Bay in Herne Bay, and was also a magistrate on the Kent circuit, sitting on cases that included hate crimes against the LGBT community.
But his demons caught up with him in 2011, when he narrowly avoided prison after crashing his car while drunk.
He was forced to resign from the court bench and the council chamber.
“It was a dark time,” he admits.
“I try not to dwell on it. It’s not something I’m proud of because I’d let people down.”
At rock bottom, Vince knew the only way to pull himself up was to finally embrace the side of him he had been hiding for years.
"Clinically I was dead for a number of minutes, and it's only thanks to Tony that I'm still here" - Vince McMahan
So 18 months ago he started visiting gay bars, including Limes, and soon had his second sexual encounter with a man.
“It just confirmed everything I already knew deep down, which was something of a relief, “ he says.
“Mixing with other gay men just felt natural. I felt at ease.”
But Vince – who is soon to become a grandfather for the sixth time – continued to live a secretive double life until his near-death experience at Limes two weeks ago.
"I don’t remember much about it, but the paramedics told me Tony saved my life,” he says.
“Clinically I was dead for a number of minutes, and it’s only thanks to Tony that I’m still here.
“A moment like that makes you re-evaluate your life.
“It made me think that if I’m not honest about myself now, I don’t think I ever will be.”
Vince says he has chosen such a public way of revealing his sexuality in the hope it helps others who find themselves facing such mental turmoil.
“You can only bottle things up for so long,” he said.
“They bubble away and they bubble away, and then there comes a point when you’ve got to open the valve and release the inner pressure.
“If that comes at a cost, then so be it.
“But I’m tired of living a lie. Now I just want to finally be myself, to live the life I feel I’ve missed out on.”