Coronation Street’s Emrhys Cooper: I hit self-destruct after fighting my gay identity but my story has a happy ending

As a young boy, it was impossible to imagine the life I have now.

Happily married, with a wonderful home and a career I love, I feel like a whole new person. But my journey to get here – as a gay man completely open and at peace with myself – was long, arduous but, in many ways, strengthening.

From age six, I realised I was ‘other’, though I didn’t know what that other was in terms of LGBTQ+. I just knew I was different from the other kids at school.

I remember the first time I thought being other was bad was when a boy came over to play, and started whacking me with a stick and telling me I was like a girl. It was horrible and I didn’t know why he did that.

 

 

I can actually laugh about it now as there is something I have to begrudgingly admit was a little witty about being called ‘Femrhys’ because of my feminine qualities – but back then, the situation felt unbearable and I became introverted, creating a persona to shield myself from the cruelty.

I didn’t know my own identity then and yet, others were already trying to both decide it for me and target me for it.

At 13 years old, my teacher talked to the class about me when I wasn’t at school, and she said that she thought I was gay, and I had feminine qualities. They had a whole class discussion about it.

When I came back to school the next day, one of my friends asked me if I was gay, because of what the teacher had said. At that point, I had an idea, but I hadn’t fully realised yet that I was gay. The bullying that followed made me very good at lying about my sexuality, both to others and myself.

From then, as is certainly familiar to others in the LGBTQ+ community growing up without much understanding or positive queer influences, that façade became my ultimate protection.

Emrhys Cooper posing in a black shirt
A self defensive façade became my ultimate protection growing up (Picture: Dan Collins)
I came to realise much later how damaging it was to push who I really was deep down, replacing it with a person that wasn’t me.

I knew from a young age what I wanted to do and, despite having to keep my love of dance and ballet under wraps for fear of bullying, it was equally the most invigorating escape.

At 16, I moved to London to pursue my love of the arts, and my determination to enter into the industry. Even if it felt like a bit of a pipe dream, dancing and then musical theatre gave me a morale boost – I was good at it and it allowed me not to think about my sexuality, it became a side issue easier to ignore, for better or worse.

And it was here that I found my first relationship, with a girlfriend who I genuinely fell in love with.

I was so desperate to be normal and fit in, that I did actually have feelings for this girl. It was a real relationship. We had a really good thing, and I thought that maybe I was bisexual, but I hadn’t explored my sexuality at that point.

The plan was to move to LA together but, when she stayed for her own exciting opportunities, the long distance thing didn’t pan out.

LA was another world – a land of dreams – and would eventually help me discover myself; it was certainly where I started exploring my sexuality, although for many years, this was never in a healthy way.

I still had gay shame, and felt the guilt. I couldn’t do anything sexually without being really drunk, and that went on until I was about 27 through mostly anonymous encounters.Emrhys Cooper in front of Metro's Pride background

I got to the point where I was miserable. I was driving down Sunset Boulevard one time just crying. Things were going well in my career, but I was so tired of living this lie. There were cracks starting to appear.

My coming out journey began at 27. I met an amazing man, Peter, who is still a very good friend. He was my first boyfriend and he was very comfortable and stable in his sexuality.

Emrhys Cooper in white t-shirt, looking into the camera with his hand on his chin
Life has changed a lot – what I have now is something I didn’t think would be possible (Picture: Dan Collins)
The first time we hooked up, I couldn’t have sober sex, so there were beer cans everywhere and I was drinking vodka and being an absolute nightmare. Luckily, he saw past my behaviour, he was very gentle and patient with me, and we had a really beautiful relationship and I managed to let that shame go.

In the year that followed after we split, I really started to embrace my sexuality. I was like Samantha from Sex And The City – lots of dates and fun escapades.

I am now married to a wonderful man, Donal, and we have been together for seven years, having been wed by ‘Elvis!’ I feel so lucky and privileged, because there are so many people who haven’t had that – I have met my best friend.

The person I am now is worlds away for who I was even just a few years ago. Today, I feel fresh and positive, looking after my body and my mind. If I don’t have meditation and yoga in the day, I really feel it.

I am absolutely tee-total and have been for 14 months, after years of partying and waking up hungover constantly, filled with self-loathing.

What gave me the wake up call to get me to this sober stage was the hardest time I have ever been through.

I had an amazing friendship with a man named Bill, who wasn’t a lover but was my best friend. We lived together in New York before I met my husband, and he was the closest person I’d ever had. He knew me better than anyone.

He passed away at the end of 2019 and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I started partying harder and drinking a lot more because I was in so much pain. The next three months were horrific.

I had another friend there who really believed in me, who took his own life. After that, my mother suffered a stroke that left her paralysed on one side and in a nursing home.

Emrhys Cooper with his husband Donal
I have been with Donal for seven years – he is my best friend (Picture: James Houston)
Emrhys Cooper and husband Donal pose on their wedding day wearing suits in LA
Our wedding day was full of joy (Picture: Emrhys Cooper)
It was an insane amount of grief and I went off the rails hard. Had I not had the support of Donal and my close friend Peter, I don’t know where I would have ended up. But I had an epiphany that I truly needed, I took a break from everything to just heal, and, strange as it is to say, what I went through has been my strength in getting me here.

I feel quite emotional reflecting on this, and it’s the most I have ever been open about my sexuality and my personal journey. It feels extraordinarily therapeutic and life has never been better.Emrhys Cooper posing in a black shirt

It’s not perfect, but Donal and I have a really incredible relationship and we’ve built beautiful friendships, family and people that love and support us. Growing up, I never thought that was possible.

We try to run away from conflict and pain, but sometimes you have to lean into it and embrace it to grow.

I look at life as a series of lessons, and how can I grow from that, rather than playing the victim. I don’t think I’ve ever had a victim mentality. The self-destruction was because I didn’t like myself. But now, I have found myself in a place where I love who I am.

Rowan speaks to Toyah in the Bistro in Corrie

(A trailer to Trophy Boy – a short film written and directed by Emrhys)

Moving to Manchester and working on Corrie has been such tonic. I love this city and it’s amazing being back in the UK. It feels full circle.

Donal has been keeping the home fires burning in California with our beloved dogs Viviane & Monty and Bonnie the cat. Finally, after living apart for six months, Donal is moving over with the animals and we will be settling in the Cotswalds for the summer.

We both love how vibrant and exciting Manchester is at the moment and look forward to making it our home for a while.

15 years on I have come back home and, as the saying goes, ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ Happy and Proud.

And looking back at my childhood self? I’d say, trust the journey and stick with it.You’re going to find amazing friends, lots of loving people and support for who you are. You’re going to go through a lot of challenges, but they’re going to be the tools you need to thrive.

And, for anyone who is on that journey right now, and who does feel trapped and like life won’t deliver what you deserve, I hope you believe me when I say this.

Don’t worry, because everything will turn out OK.

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