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Maria Walsh: 'It might be a questioning glance or a curt refusal to shake my hand'

On International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, we must stand in solidarity, writes Maria Walsh.

Maria Walsh Former Rose of Tralee and LGBTQ+ advocate

MY INTERNATIONAL ROSE of Tralee journey was unexpected. Much to the surprise of some, we don’t set out to be the ‘lovely ladies’ or the girls ‘with nice bottoms’. The experience of each rose is different, precisely because of her own unique differences.

So how was I different? Well, I represented Philadelphia. I was born American but raised Irish. I was a Pioneer. I was an advocate for young people. I was fiercely independent and considered fashion ‘savvy’. And, oh, yes, I was gay.

When speaking with the journalists after I was crowned, I was insistent on just one thing: you must share my whole story. And so they did. Being gay was just part of that story, but because it challenged people’s expectations it was the story people latched onto.

Other people’s expectations

I am fortunate to have felt comfortable in my own skin for some time. However there are certain incidents I look back on in my life that remind me of the feelings drummed up by other people’s expectations of who I am.

It might manifest as a questioning glance, an oddly put sentiment or even a curt refusal to shake a hand. Small, often apparently meaningless incidents that can nevertheless have an effect on one’s sense of self over time.

I have had the privilege to have travelled at length. On all of these journeys I often reflect on the place I was visiting and its expectations of me. Some cultures and communities celebrate who I am, including my sexual orientation, and how others, many others, can never know that part of me.

LGBTQ+ rights

In 2015, I visited Tanzania. I was on a ten-hour bus journey cross country with a mix of Tanzanians and Irish. Mid way through the journey, a debate was sparked on the bus on LGBTIQ+ rights.

Being the only known LGBTIQ+ individual on the journey, I was dragged into the discussion. One of my colleagues with whom I had a good rapport, Julian from Tanzania, was shocked and interacted differently with me after I told him I was gay. He did not expect this from me. I was the first lesbian (to his knowledge) that he had ever met.

He told me he didn’t think lesbians really existed. He said he thought I was a nice person but couldn’t understand why I was ‘different’. How could I disrespect the teachings of God, my parents, and my community? Over the course of the hour we shared and debated a lot.

Before leaving, Julian and I developed a better understanding of each other’s perspective and of the culture and beliefs that shaped each of us.

Marginalised and excluded

Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of the UN General Assembly states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, yet LGBTIQ+ youth are among the most marginalised and excluded members of society.

We have significant work to do in support of our global LGBTIQ+ Community. 72 States or countries still criminalise same-sex sexual relations. In eight States or countries, such relations are punishable by the death penalty.

Legal challenges, combined with gender inequality, harmful social norms and practices towards adolescents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex or those who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity (LGBTIQ+) fuels stigma, discrimination and violence, often to an extreme level.

This can have lasting consequences on their social and psychological health and have substantial adverse effects on society as a whole.

In Thailand, research conducted by Plan International in 2014 found that 56% of school students surveyed, who identify as LGBTIQ+ had been bullied in the past month. Among them, 31% experienced physical abuse, 29% verbal abuse and 24% sexual abuse.

Plan International believes that working with adolescents to challenge discrimination works. The organisation works with young people, parents, local organisations, schools and the government to prevent bullying and violence, provide counselling and make primary and secondary schools safer for LGBTIQ+ youth.

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

Everyone – regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics – deserves equal access to opportunities and services and their safety should be protected.

Today, especially on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, which was launched 14 years ago to raise awareness of the violence and discrimination faced by the LGBTIQ+ community, we must stand in solidarity and do all we can to protect and prevent further abuse of our global LGBTIQ+ community.

We all have the right to love and be who we want, and we must encourage this narrative as often as we can.

Maria Walsh is a broadcaster, 2014 International Rose of Tralee and Plan International Ireland Ambassador. Maria is known for her deep commitment to youth and gender equality and her passion for youth empowerment and education. Co-writer Aidan Leavy leads Plan International’s inclusion work by providing technical support for programming and influencing initiatives, developing guidance and tailoring capacity building for staff at multiple levels. To find out more about Plan International’s work with LGBTIQ+, see Plan.ie.

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About the author:

Maria Walsh  / Former Rose of Tralee and LGBTQ+ advocate

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