- 19 Jun 19
Every year, Dublin Pride is celebrated in increasingly vibrant, rambunctious and joyous fashion. In this, the final year of the second decade of the 21st Century, the capital of Ireland ranks among the most LGBT+ friendly cities in the world. But what is the queer experience like for people across the rest of Ireland? In a special four-part hotpress.com series, Pride Beyond the Pale intends to find that out. We begin in the legendary Kingdom of Kerry, where we meet some wonderful, pioneering locals, and hear what they have about the queer experience here.
Pat Carey was the last person to lead the Tralee Pride Parade. That was back in 2015. Originally from the small Co. Kerry town of Castlemaine, Pat is a former Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht affairs, holding office from 2010 to 2011, in the Fianna Fáil-led coalition government with the Green Party. Pat came out as gay late in life, but as a former Grand Marshal of Tralee Pride, a call to him seemed like a good place to begin research on Pride in the Kingdom. His response was hugely disheartening. “I left Kerry in 1965, I am afraid,” he said, “and I haven’t been back much since then.”
My worst fears – that Kerry is still small, parochial, closed-minded, no place for queer people – seemed to be confirmed before I even started. Any prejudice I had was enhanced with his closing remark: “The battle is far from won I’m afraid.” He had put me on notice.
My next call opened up a very different vista.
The idea that Tralee is some backward, culchie town, peopled by bigots and their best friends, is laughable to Ben Slimm, a one-time Kerry County Council candidate for the Labour Party.
“We get this kind of 'sympathy' from people inside the pale,” he says, “like: ‘Oh Jesus, the land of Healy-Raes and farms!’ Whereas I would actually make the argument that the first flatwhite made in Ireland was probably made in Killarney, for an American tourist. We’re a lot more metropolitan than people give us credit for.”
Slimm maintains that Tralee, with its population of over 20,000, is possibly one of the most diverse towns in the country.
“I definitely think that rural areas make for better melting pots,” he argues. “I think you can get that ghettoisation in large urban centres. In London, for example, you have your gay villages which are great. People are safe to hang out in them, and feel they are with their community. But we don’t have anything like that in Kerry or Tralee because we are too small and that forces communities together.
“But nobody notices, you know? No one sees it. My partner Joe and I are the only gay couple living on our street, but we go to all the same community functions. We’d still be recognised as a legitimate couple living in the community and it’s never been an issue. I’ve always felt in Tralee, especially in the last 15 years, that I am just accepted for who I am and that nobody judges me for it – or not to my face anyway (laughs)!”
Slimm brings up an interesting argument. It is one that turns on its head the old idea that the anonymity of a big city is preferable for people who feel different. Or who don’t conform to traditional values.
“I wonder does our diversity – being so close and everyone being forced into a situation where they can’t have that ghettoisation, where you can’t only identify with your own community – I wonder does that actually make for a better, more accepting society.”
The Tralee native also has a novel idea for the gay and wider community in Kerry.
“I had a million dollar idea a few years ago that I still haven’t executed,” he says. “Tralee has an amazing cafe culture. Actually most of Kerry does. We have so many great places for lunch and brunches. So I was thinking that drag brunches would be fantastic down here. I think you’d have queues out the door to fill them.”
WOULD YOU THINK DRAG BRUNCHES ARE A GOOD IDEA FOR KERRY?
I’m in the white-washed courtyard of Madden’s – an LGBT+ friendly cafe, shop and all-round creative space in Tralee. I’m talking to David Knuwroski, a 20 year old IT student, who is an openly gay young man from Castleisland, a town less than 20 kilometres inland from Tralee, with a population of less than 3,000 people. I’m running Ben’s idea of Drag Brunches in Tralee by him.
A young woman smoking a rollie leans in. “Can I butt-in and say ‘Yes oh my God!’,” she says. “They’d be great.”
David isn’t necessarily so gung-ho, but he seems to like the idea nonetheless.
“Rebecca (the owner of Madden’s) was thinking of doing that,” David says. “It definitely would take off. It would be something new, so a lot of people would be interested in it.”
That said, David observes that the queer scene in Kerry is small.
“Because a lot of people aren’t out yet,” he says, “but also because Kerry is just smaller in general. And because Kerry people are bit more shy.”
Is that to do with the innate reservation that many Kerry people seem to possess, or is it about secrecy and shame? David ponders this.
“There would be an element of that,” he nods. “But it wasn’t like that for me. I had a great experience growing up. It probably would have been a bit more wild, I suppose, if I had grown up in Cork or Dublin, where there’s a lot more gay people.”
David came out at the age of 15.
“I did have a boyfriend in secondary school, even though he was like 15 minutes away. In Cork, it’s more normalised. In Kerry if you’re seeing someone, it’s at a distance because they’re further away from you because it’s a smaller scene. Whereas in Cork, if you were out you could easily see someone in the same school.”
Would straight people have had the same experience, growing up in Castleisland? “There were a lot more people in straight relationships close by. Because there are more straight people. It is how it is.”
Coming out was a positive experience for David.
“Lots of people were interested,” he recalls. “Lots of people asked questions – but I didn’t mind that at all. It’s good to educate people.They haven’t seen gay people. I hadn’t seen gay people myself, when I came out.”
Coming out younger helped David.
“You get to start your life earlier,” he says. “Before I came out, I was totally different person.”
I WANNA HOLD YOUR HA-A-A-A-AND
A table down from us, I could see a young man wearing a sweater with a pride flag on it. He looked interested in what we were discussing. Pierse, 19, born and raised in Tralee, lives in Cork now studying music. He wanted to talk about growing up gay in the Kingdom.
“It wasn’t the best experience but it wasn’t the worst,” he says. “Because Kerry is so isolated. It’s quite different from the rest of Ireland, I’ve noticed. It’s not exactly a metropolitan hub, but at the same time it’s not one of these one-horse villages.
“It wasn’t easy going to a catholic secondary school,” he adds. “But I never got people shouting at me in the corridor or throwing things at me or homophobic things written on my locker. I had a nice group of friends.”
The bar for having a positive gay experience in secondary school seems pretty low, if not having homophobic things written on your locker is the measure.
“Pretty much the majority of my year were outwardly supportive of me,” he says.
I ask Pierce if he would have had a more positive experience, if he had lived in an urban area. He pauses for thought.
“There would be a more gay people,” he reasons, “and support of gay people. But there’s also the possibility there would be more homophobic people and more violently homophobic people.”
Is there a difference in rural vs urban homophobia? Perhaps there is. Pierse says that he’s more comfortable going out in Cork.
“When I go out in Cork I get to wear more sort of… gay outfits really. I’d be more comfortable going out in Cork, because I know there is a larger scene.
“I guess I sort of know everyone that goes out in Tralee. I know who’s gay and who’s not. And there are only about five people I’d see on a night out that I’d know are gay. I know people in Cork are more accepting. I’ve worn jumpsuits and gender non-conforming things in Cork on a night out – but I wouldn’t wear those in Kerry. I’d stick to the plain black pants and a shirt thing.”
Public displays of affection still seem to be out of reach for young queer people on the streets of Tralee.
“When I was sixteen, I dated a guy and we would hold hands and I’d see someone in Penney’s who I’d be a bit wary of, and I’d say: ‘Ok let’s stop holding hands just for a second while we pass them’.”
I was hit by a wave of sadness hearing this but it got sadder still.
“What I’ve found is a good thing to do is not hold hands, but to link pinky fingers because then you can stand and from a distance it won’t look like you’re holding hands.”
How does it feel that you have to consider something like that, but your hetrosexual friends don’t?
“It’s kind of shit yeah.”
Telling it like it is, Pierse.
EVERYBODY NEEDS TO GO AND TRY NEW THINGS
I asked both Pierse and David if ultimately they could see themselves living in Kerry in the long term. Both of them said an unequivocal ‘yes’. Clearly, feelings of difference or not, they are citizens of the Kingdom, through and through.
Both want to travel and live in other places, but LGBT+ culture isn’t the main motivational factor in this. It’s about a natural curiosity about the outside world. As Ben Slimm said, “The grass is greener on the urban side.”
I spoke to Rebecca, the owner of Madden’s, former Kerry Rose and all round badass.
“I had to come out to myself first,” she recounts. “It happened bit-by-bit. I really had to say to myself: what’s going on here? You’re married to a man but you’ve fallen in love with a woman? This doesn’t make any sense.”
Rebecca realised she was gay when she was 29. She has two sons, Alan and Ruben. Here’s what her late grandmother said when Rebecca said she would be bringing a woman home, from now on, rather than a man.
“Darling,” she told Rebecca, “I don’t care if it’s a plant or a dog. Whatever it is that you’ve fallen in love with, as long as you’re ok in life, and you’re not harming anybody and nobody is harming you, it’s fine.”
It is strange for her now, looking back over the period of her life before she came out.
“I feel it belonged to somebody else,” she explains. “It was somebody’s else’s life. To a certain extent, I felt like I existed but I wasn’t living. It’s a big difference. I would have always felt quite panicky and I couldn’t understand why I was panicked. It’s a gut instinct. Unfortunately, I suppressed that for years.”
Madden’s, as a space, or as a place to come and eat, is not just LGBT-centric.
“You will probably naturally gravitate towards a shop or business run by gay people if you are a gay person,” she says. “We welcome everybody here. Madden’s isn’t just a place you buy a cup of coffee or a sweater or a piece of artwork. It’s a community of people that actually get to stand still – and you are seen, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation. That’s what Madden’s really is.”
A dog appears.
“How are you Maggie Thatcher?” Rebecca asks.
It’s a Yorkshire Terrier who’s recently gotten a pretty stylish trim. Rebecca picks her up.
I ask her if she has any advice for young queer people in Tralee. She offers words of wisdom that we all need to hear.
“Enjoy your life,” she says. “Don’t be consumed by others. You need to go, travel the world, for yourself, as a human being. Travel. Live in at least three, four, five different countries. Learn to speak a language other than the tongue you were born with. Realise you will have your heart broken, and you will break somebody’s.”
She segues smoothly onto body adornments!
“Pierce whatever you want, because all those things close up. Wait until you’re in your thirties maybe to get tattoos. Children are, as they would say in Eat, Pray, Love, like having a tattoo on your forehead. Be fully committed to the idea of having a child if you’re going to do that. So what I would say is this: that everybody needs to go and try new things. Try new foods, new music, new cultures. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You didn’t like it? Take up the battle. Enjoy, embrace, desire life.”
- For Pride month, Hot Pres will be running a series of articles focusing on the LGBT+ community from throughout of Ireland. Keep an eye on www.hotpress.com/pridebeyondthepale for all related content.
• Madden’s in Tralee will be hosting a drag bingo event on the 20th of July. For more information check out traleemylove.ie