Bi-ing Ms Gay

Kate Stewart won the Ms Gay Limerick contest at the end of 2012: Jen asked her about her experience of the contest as a bi woman with a male partner.

Congratulations on winning Ms Gay Limerick and commiserations that you didn’t take the crown in Ms Gay Ireland!  Why did you enter and what were your hopes;
I originally entered Ms Gay Limerick to help out with contestant numbers but once I had signed up I realised I really wanted to win. I had been out in college just under a year and out to my parents mere months. This was my way of cementing myself in the community I loved so much, and also trying to get a stage on which I could talk about the issues I felt so strongly about – particularly the attitude towards bisexuality in society – both gay and straight communities. Plus there was a sparkly crown up for grabs

I’d imagine Ms Gay Wherever is a little bit different from Miss World… what did you have to do in the competitions?  Was it different from Limerick to the Ireland final?
Ms Gay Limerick was held on the night of its male counterpart, and whilst we got away with not having to do a swimwear round, we still had to talk about ourselves, why we wanted to win, and answer a topical question on LGBTQ issues. All done in casual wear and formal wear. A friend told me afterwards that it was my answer to a question about the older LGBTQ people that cinched it for me. I have a theory that it was the kitschy fascinator I was wearing.

Ms Gay Ireland was amazing. I met women there who were so inspiring and intelligent and just good craic that it was worth competing just for the excellent company. MGI was different because the questions were contestant submitted, the rounds were more specific, we had to fight the cause for our chosen charities, and tackle walking down the stairs in heels! I think I came across better in Ms Gay Limerick because the national completion got to my nerves and nervous Kate acts like a bit of a weirdo ha. Nonetheless, I would encourage everyone to go for competitions like this because it’s not a beauty contest; it’s an opportunity to voice real concerns about society, politics, the community, and a chance to make a real contribution to your charity.

It’s called “Ms Gay” but it is open to lesbians and bi women, as a bi woman in a mixed-sex relationship, what was the response like?
When I first entered, I asked the organisers if bisexual women were allowed. They pointed to the rule book which clearly stated that there were only two stipulations to compete: 1. Contestants must identify as a woman and 2. Contestants must identify as gay or bisexual. But given the title, I understand that there was confusion.

For the most part, the response was positive. I was already active in Pride and Out in UL so it wasn’t like I just decided to be gay for a day or something. Coverage after winning meant that I was now out to everyone in the greater Limerick area (including my grandmother) but my family were a beacon of support. There were some comments passed, some acquaintances ended, and a Facebook page aiming to have the bisexual Ms Gay Limerick stripped of her ground, but you can never please everyone and it gave me even more reason to explore the preconceptions and assumptions about the bisexual identity that were becoming more and more evident to me. I was getting sick of explaining that I wasn’t in a transition phase or that I didn’t need to pick a side; I wonder if bisexual men ever get asked if they are fully gay yet. To make it worse, the fact that I had a boyfriend was a point that was brought up continuously – I was quick to remind everyone that bisexual people are attracted to both men AND women. That relationship ended before MGI – partly due to the fact that he found it difficult to cope with having a bisexual girlfriend – so being a bisexual with a boyfriend can be difficult from both ends. I still get asked questions every now and then – I am once again in a mixed-sex relationship – but I’m still bisexual and always will be.

Was there any difference online and in-person in the reception?
People are less likely to say things to your face (although some people just don’t talk to me anymore.) Online was where the backlash was. Saying that, winning the competition gave me the courage to sign up as a writer for Gaelick and going through my experiences on the site led to a lot of positive feedback and empathetic stories of people who had gone through similar experiences.

BCN 119 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 119, Summer 2013

And you were raising the profile of a particular charity – who and why?
I was highlighting the work of the Red Ribbon Project. They are Limerick’s HIV/AIDS support service, providing education and training about safer sex and sexual health, doing outreach with sex workers, offering counselling to those suffering from STDs such as hepatitis and HIV, and also have the country’s only Queer Support Worker for the LGBTQ community. On a larger scale, the Red Ribbon Project are not hugely funded and rely a lot on volunteers – in my opinion, their work is not an option for this town, they are a necessity. From a personal point of view, Red Ribbon is where I started my coming out journey. I did work experience there when I was 16 and for the first time, I saw out and proud queer people and I learned that maybe I wasn’t the outcast that I thought I was.

You didn’t win in the national final, but you still have the profile of Ms Gay Limerick to help catch reporters’ attention. Are you planning to use the title in the course of the year? 
Winning Ms Gay Limerick has opened up so many doors for me: already I have led the Limerick Pride Parade with Mr Gay Limerick and the Grand Marshall, I have been able to talk about bi visibility at a national competition, I have been able to talk about women’s health, bisexual issues and other topics on Gaelick, and I have been on two radio shows to talk about the various facets of identifying as something other than gay or straight. And this all in six months! I have half a year left in my reign and I am using most of my energy right now working on Out in UL, trying to provide even more resources for our members and the queer students of tomorrow. I hope to stay involved in the Limerick scene and keep bi visibility high at a local level, and another one of the Ms Gays currently has a secret project in the works that we have all promised to help out with. Other than that, I’m not quite sure what the future holds yet – even this interview came out of the blue, so maybe this is just the beginning of something.

And how have you found being bi in the wider LGBT scene in Limerick / Ireland as a whole? 
I think that in the scene as a whole, there is little specificity for bisexual people – the supports are the ones that are provided to the whole community by the various groups that are in place, such as college societies, local support groups (such as Red Ribbon and Rainbow Support Services in Limerick), and national groups such as TENI and BeLonGTo. I find that telling people that you are bi generally leads to questions, which is fine most of the time, but can get exhausting after you have explained yet again that you are not up for a threesome. But generally, I feel that the issues of coming out, being on the scene, and developing relationships isn’t all that different for bisexuals than it is for gay men and lesbians. The biggest problem I faced in the opening days was being mistaken for being my (male) best friend’s straight fag hag and being repeatedly told that bisexuality wasn’t a thing. Somehow I think that kind of thing isn’t restricted to Ireland…

With the Dublin bi group closed down there seems to be a dearth of bi organising in the country just now, any thoughts as to why that is?
I feel terrible that I didn’t know that such a group existed! I think that maybe it’s just easier to have an event for, let’s say, gay men, because your target audience is gay men, so you have one focus. If you were doing a club night aimed at bisexual women, you are also aiming it at bisexual men, straight men, and gay women – basically any gay bar on a night out. It’s difficult. Maybe it’s something to do with the mistrust (we are stereotypically incapable of fidelity, after all) or misunderstanding of the bisexual community by certain members of the gay community. Really, I’m not sure. It could be any number of reasons. But I do think that the concept of biphobia, bi identity and other bisexual issues is slowly but surely coming more into the public consciousness (even if it’s mainly in the queer community) so hopefully things will pick up again. I’m only twenty after all… I have life in me yet!