Monday 15 July 2019

Grace McManus becomes Wicklow's first openly gay councillor

Cllr Grace McManus
Cllr Grace McManus

Mary Fogarty

When Cllr Grace McManus discovered that she is the first openly gay councillor on Wicklow County Council, she said she was a bit taken aback by the news. 'Then the fear kicked in,' she said.

'I came out at 16 years old, around six years before marriage equality,' said Cllr McManus. 'It was a different time then. I did get abuse, I did get inappropriate comments directed at me, and it was very difficult.

'It is not easy to let those experiences go. In fact, I don't think I ever will,' she said. 'Those experiences also taught me empathy; and the absolute need for solidarity and action when a group is being oppressed.'

While she felt somewhat fearful, that fear didn't last long for the 29-year-old Sinn Féin councillor.

'In the four years since that fabulous referendum, I think most forms of homophobia have become largely unacceptable. Sixty-eight per cent of our amazing County Wicklow had my back that day.  If anything, I think my being gay is an afterthought - if any thought at all - for most people!'

What has struck Cllr McManus is how many of those who came before her lived their entire lives.

'I'm only in the position of being so blasé about being out and on the council because of all of those who walked the track first - public representatives or not. I'm only in this position because of all the family, friends and my party who stood proud with me when it wasn't so easy to.

'Just because they couldn't be out professionally doesn't mean there wasn't LGBT+ people on our council - it means they had to hide to do their work. So really, this "bit of local history" does not belong to me. It is my privilege to represent our movement, but it belongs to all those who did not have it so easy.'

There are still stories to be told about being a young gay woman from Bray.

'I know the stomach dropping panic that you feel when you first realise you are different. I know the hyper awareness that kicks in when you walk down the main street holding hands with a girl for the first time. I know what it's like to pretend to be friends in nightclubs - just in case. I know too what it's like to be called "sir" by accident in the supermarket, or asked "are you a boy or a girl" by little ones (which is actually very cute).'

When Cllr McManus was featured in a national newspaper prior to the election, some of the comments posted online were abusive.

'The abuse underneath the piece included a lot about my appearance, and my gender. It was difficult, especially to watch those who love me read the comments, like my poor mam. It wasn't the first time either; during Repeal I was photographed covering graphic images, and the onslaught of online abuse about me was derived only from my perceived sexuality, and gender. I guess they were trying to hit me where they thought it would hurt.'

While Cllr McManus acknowledges and cherishes being the first 'out' councillor in Wicklow, she is also driven to share her experiences of growing up gay in Wicklow.

'I'm driven to show that diversity in politics matters in terms of sharing stories, in terms of showing that women can and do look like me, and that our voices matter. I do this while remembering those who came before who weren't so lucky; and those others right now in Bray and Wicklow who are unheard and unrepresented.

'There are people, men and women, who are experiencing homelessness, living in direct provision, Travellers, new citizens, and many others who I would say are also under-represented  in political life right now.

'Privilege is best when it teaches us something, and that is what this "piece of history" has really given me. Honour those who have gone first, and let's not leave anyone behind.'

Wicklow People