THE ROSE of Tralee is gay. So what? Why is this big deal? The buzz on social media is quite conflicted it’s both congratulatory and also people seem to be dismayed ‘why is it such a big deal?’
As a little girl growing up in rural Ireland there were no gay role models, the word gay and lesbian wasn’t even in our vocabulary. ‘Queer’ was and to be ‘queer’ was a terrible thing.
Anyone deemed to be gay was labelled a ‘queer’ and ‘queer’ was associated with anything negative. Therefore the word ‘queer’, gay, and lesbian has unfortunately long been synonymous with inferiority, fear and negativity.
This historical association between homosexuality and inferiority can have a detrimental effect on individual’s mental health, leading to anxiety, depression even self-harm and suicide.
As a young girl in Ireland the Rose of Tralee was an institution, one we watched as a family together every year without fail. However, representations of Irishness were very rigid with participants being predominantly white, heterosexual, Catholic women who predominantly didn’t drink alcohol - promoting an idealised notion of what it is to be an Irish woman.
It may seem effortless for the current Rose of Tralee to downplay the attention on her sexuality, minimising it by stating ‘it was never really an issue’ - maybe not in her personal life as her family and friends are thankfully supportive of her.
However, during the competition it was assumed that she was heterosexual; she had a male escort because it was just assumed that she was heterosexual.
Let’s hope that next year the Rose of Tralee committee don’t take sexuality for granted and dare to ask the question ‘how do you define your sexuality?’ and ‘would you feel more comfortable with a female escort?’.
Ireland has changed and continues to change for the better.
Having a gay Rose of Tralee reflects a modern Irish society as progressive and inclusive; one that is accepting of diversity, willing to recognise and accept all aspects of individuals who identify as Irish.
Acknowledging that while we are all Irish, we are all also different, we are not all the same and that’s alright, it’s something we should celebrate and build on.
While having a gay Rose of Tralee reflects well on Ireland there is still much work to be done in terms of obtaining equality for gay and lesbian Irish people living in Ireland.
While it is wonderful that the current Rose of Tralee has been so warmly congratulated on her coming out, there seems to be a wide disparity between the warmth of feeling from the Irish public towards gay and lesbian people and the Irish Government’s attitude towards this community.
This disparity was starkly visible during the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny’s visit to New York for the St Patrick’s Day parade, despite the Mayor of New York boycotting the parade over its ban on pro-gay rights.
The Taoiseach’s presence sent a very confusing and hurtful message to members of the Irish gay and lesbian community both at home and abroad with many members of the community left feeling alienated.
While it is indeed wonderful that the current Rose of Tralee is so comfortable and confident in her sexuality, she can afford to be.
Maria has more freedom than most homosexual couples in Ireland she currently lives in the US where in some states it’s possible for gay people to marry.
She also has the option of stopping off in London during her transatlantic travels should she wish to get married there.
Unfortunately if she wants to marry in Ireland that won’t be possible because currently in the eyes of the State she won’t be treated the same as heterosexual couples, her right to marry will be denied.
Let’s hope that the warmth of support and good feelings demonstrated by the Irish people towards the Rose of Tralee will be reflected in the referendum on Marriage Equality next year.
Olivia Cunningham is a London-based psychotherapist. Born in Galway she has lived in Britain since 2007. She now works at The Maya Centre in Islington providing psychotherapy specifically to Irish women. She is a member of the Irish Forum for Counsellors and Psychotherapists and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.