Neil McMahon is a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. Three years ago, McMahon met horse trainer Adam Sutton at Arq nightclub, and the pair have been close friends ever since.
McMahon’s story in the Herald revealing Sutton as the friend of Heath Ledger who was a real-life inspiration for Ledger’s performance in the movie Brokeback Mountain has put both of them in the public spotlight ever since.
I am originally from Melbourne and began my career on the old Melbourne Sun when I was 17.
In 2001, I joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a sub, before moving into editing. In 2003, I went back into reporting, which is what I have been doing ever since.
I met Adam at Arq one night. It was the first time he had come to Sydney to go to a gay club and, when we met, we just hit it off and became mates.
People always ask if we were ever involved, and we never have been. We are just great mates and have a very close friendship.
As Adam told me more about his life, I never thought of telling his story. When Brokeback Mountain was released in America I was reading about how the New York Times had reporters running around Wyoming looking for real-life gay cowboys.
All I could think was I have the real one here. But I knew Adam would never agree to it.
My initial idea was to get Adam and Heath together when Heath was in Sydney for the opening of the movie as I thought Adam was the great untold story of Brokeback Mountain.
Heath and Adam were mates and when Heath first read Brokeback Mountain, he said to Adam I have just read this script and it is all about you.
I went with Adam to see the movie and, afterwards, he poured his heart out about how the story felt so close to his own life. I asked him then if he wanted to tell his story and, to my surprise, he said yes.
The original plan was I was going to set it up and let someone else write it. But after discussing it, I realised he wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else, so it would be better if I did it.
The personal stuff Adam told me about his life amazed even me. It turned out to be the hardest thing I have ever done.
When it ran on the morning of this year’s Mardi Gras on the front page of the Herald, all I could think was what have I done?
But the reaction was phenomenal and universally positive. The phone rang all weekend and I realised then we had done a good thing.
The Monday after, the people from Australian Story rang to say they wanted to tell his story, and we had interest from book publishers as well. We said initially we would do this once and once only, but then everything else happened.
On Australian Story, I essentially came out on TV as well, and it didn’t really faze me as I figured if Adam had the balls to do what he had done in a far more intensely personal way, then the rest of us couldn’t sit on the sidelines.
The Australian Story people were so great and we had no doubt it would be beautifully handled.
I sat with the Suttons watching the TV that night, and 30 seconds after it screened, the phone rang and it didn’t stop all night.
Some callers were complete strangers just ringing in to say thank you for such a beautiful, honest story. Then the Australian Story website went nuts with messages. It just had such an impact on people.
I am now about to start work with Adam on the book and it has to be delivered in September and while I have never written a book before, it is such a lovely topic, I now can’t wait to start.
I never got to the point that I thought we had to stop all this, as it has all been positive. Even people coming up on the street have wanted to talk about it. And Adam has handled it all with so much dignity.
One night, I went to a gay club on the Central Coast and met a gay couple who offered to bring me to Sydney to go to Arq with them. I wasn’t out to my family or friends and I had no idea of all this in Sydney -“ it just never went through my head.
When I met Neil at Arq, I picked him up and threw him off the dancefloor. Then we got chatting. I remember sitting upstairs on a couch that night, telling Neil what I was trying to cope with. I just knew I had feelings that were getting harder to ignore.
I slowly started to tell him things I had done. He is not like anyone else I have ever met. He is the kind of person who listens and hears what you are saying.
He has been genuinely there for me and helped me. And as he helped me, I unfolded a bit more and became a little more relaxed about everything.
Watching Brokeback Mountain was like watching a replay of my life, and I was also watching someone I know playing the part. Afterwards, I felt better and I knew I was not alone.
At the time we threw around, do we or don’t we tell my story? Then I decided to do it. Brokeback had brought tonnes to the surface and, while it is a movie, I knew I could tell something along those same lines.
I knew Neil is the only person who could tell this story as he is the only one I have told things from my childhood right through.
When I am talking to Neil, I am not talking to a journalist, I am talking to a mate. I would not have done it without him and I would not have been comfortable telling it with anyone else.
The day the story came out, I read the paper quickly and then I spent all day working with the horses. I read it again at the end of the day. I won’t say it didn’t matter to me, but it took a long time for the depth of it all to sink in.
I remember when my dad read it, he was in tears and said I just learnt things about you I never knew. But I learnt things about myself too.
When Australian Story arrived at home, I had to take note of not just what I thought of it, but the lives of my mum, dad and sisters too. It was a big thing for them as well.
It was only when I read all the letters on the Australian Story website that I realised the depth of what we had done.
Now we are about to work on the book and it is no problem for me. As it is things I have done and bridges I have walked over, I can tell it with confidence and pride.
I trust Neil and I know he has an opinion about what I tell him, but not with judgment. I think it should be out on an even playing field that everyone can understand.
When the Lord shuts the door somewhere, he opens a window, and you really have to start following that chain. And that is what we are doing.
Interviews by John Burfitt