In about a month, Ireland is going to hold an important referendum. That it is important is likely the only thing both sides of the question can agree on. In some respects, there is a uniqueness to the situation in Ireland because, while an increasing number of countries have, or are in the process of, legalising same-sex marriage, Ireland may become the first in the world to enact it by popular vote. We, the voting population of Ireland, will be asked if we agree to amend our Constitution, so that it includes the declaration:
“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
As the campaigns for and against pick up steam, various interpretations of what this actually means are being advertised. One particular reading suggests that this means we are being asked to redefine the institution of marriage, that we are rewriting the fundamental unit upon which society is built. On the other hand, it is argued, the change has already occurred and we merely updating the law to catch up with the lived reality of many existing families. Some argue that we court social disaster, that children for generations to come will pay an unforeseen cost for our acceptance; other’s that we can restore some measure of fairness to those who have already lived through disenfranchised childhoods. Some sincerely believe that our acceptance will marginalise and discriminate against whole sections of society, will rob them of the right to their faith and beliefs, will demean the special sanctity of their particular kind of family structure. Some of us see that we have a historic opportunity to enshrine this small piece of equality, not only in Law, but in the document that governs the fundamental rights of every citizen of this country.
There is no choice for me at all. I can only vote Yes to this. And there are those who can only oppose it. I’m not writing this for either the Yes or the No sides of the debate, though you are welcome to keep reading. I cannot imagine I have any special words to change the minds of those firmly resolved in their sincerely held belief that we of the Yes are about to blindly usher in the end of society. In truth, though, the polls suggest that those of us entrenched on either side of the divide will not be the deciding voices.
There is a suggestion, mostly touted by the No campaign, that there are legions of citizens so afraid to be seen to oppose Marriage Equality that they won’t admit to it, or go so far as to lie, leading to successive artificially inflated polls. (This strategy has the added bonus of allowing them to portray their opposition as brave, noble, rather than simply the self-serving outrage of a suddenly impotent ideology) They argue, come polling day, that the undecided and the so-called “soft-yes” voters will actually turn out to oppose Marriage Equality, though their rather vigorous campaigning suggests they are rather less certain of this than they advertise. They’re not wrong though, in all likelihood this referendum will be settled by the doubtful, and the not-quite-sure, and the undecided.
It’s those undecided amongst you I’d like a word with; the hesitant, those quivering on the cusp of a decision, in either direction, those thinking Yes, but full of wary, cautious doubts, or leaning No but open still to possibilities. Let me pull up my metaphorical chair, if you wouldn’t mind, and steal a moment of your time, and let us talk honestly. To lay my cards firmly on the table, I’m a heterosexual, educated, middle-class, white male; there are few positions more privileged than mine. The outcome of the referendum will not substantively change my life, so while my opinions and concerns about the marriage equality referendum are presumably reasonably valid, it would absolutely be beneficial if you were to seek out gay, lesbian or otherwise queer voices to understand their needs and desires.
That said, the LGBTQ community has made their case, passionately and eloquently, and collectively they must be blue in the face from constantly having to express and defend their entitlement to live lives free from interference, ignorance, intolerance, and far too often, exclusion and hate. This is an opportunity to show that we have heard what they have to say. All they want is the safety, security and stability that we have the privilege to take for granted. For them, a significant part of that is equal, legal recognition for their relationships and access to the same structures upon which we build our families. The No Siders may roll out their quisling Paddy Mannings as often as possible to destabilise the image of LGBTQ people as a united community, but the reality is that not only are they united, they have substantively made their case for equality and are utterly justified.
The question, however, of marriage equality is unlikely to be settled by LGBTQ voters alone or by the hard-core religious who oppose them. Rather, it seems probable that the deciding vote will be cast by those of us who are heterosexual and cisgendered, despite that fact that the outcome arguably impacts us least. Given that this referendum, which isn’t even about us, likely rests in our hands, it seems beyond time that we sit down and consider what our decision will mean.
Some of us believe that equality for LGBTQ people is the most important civil rights issue of the decade. The No Side consider it a battle for their religious freedom at best, and at worst about protecting the very fabric of society from . . . well from something anyway. There is, however, a feeling among many that this issue boils down to a conflict between the LGBTQ community, their allies and an assortment of right-wing conservatives, traditionalists and religious voters, and actually has little to do with the majority of Ireland’s population. It is, in fact, my greatest concern that many of us may simply abdicate our responsibility. Although we might not necessarily buy into the fear-mongering David Quinn and his Iona ilk spout at every opportunity, we might not actively turn out to vote. I believe this option to be a waste in any referendum, but if I cannot convince you of the importance of voting, perhaps I can still show you that this one particular question matters.
What, after all, are we really being asked? At its smallest, at its most plain, the question is if we think a marriage, with all of its joy and affection and love, and its tribulations and pain and sorrow, is something that can be shared by any two adults, regardless of their gender. This is not the sum total of the issue though. Those on both sides are intimately aware that the result of this vote will be an implicit but profound statement about the nature of the society we want to inhabit, that we aspire to, for ourselves, our children, and the generations yet to come.
The No Campaign inarguably stems from the religious right. Its main campaigners include David Quinn, Breda O’Brien and the rest of the Iona cohort so I cannot imagine too many people would argue with me when I say that the version of marriage the No Campaign wishes to enshrine for our society lines up more or less completely with that of Christian or Catholic dogma; that marriage is a holy union of a man and a woman, under God. The religious argument regards this joining, and the children born of it, as the true expression of family, and the fundamental unit of society. They do that right up until you mention men and women who cannot biologically produce children and they dither a little and say something generally appeasing, while still sort of intimating that yes, the proper kind of family is a man and a woman and their biological offspring. God decreed it so. It has always been this way. They say that by allowing same-sex marriage (or rather marriage without regard to gender, which is actually a little more complicated than simply “same-sex”; gender not being a binary dichotomy) we are fundamentally altering this traditional family structure.
In the real world, family has always been a more messy designation. There are the legal, formal adoptions, which are the bane of the No Campaign’s arguments. We have families composed of half-siblings, or lone parents, or bereaved orphan’s raised by non-biological guardians or foster parents. We have those subtle, unceremonious annexations, by which that family friend becomes Aunty Jo, or her kids become de facto cousins. We are so very messy in our affections and we have the capacity to be so very generous when we are extending the notion of family. Why, then, does it become problematic when the question of family is applied to LGBTQ people?
The reality is that LGBTQ people already have families. They have partners and lovers and loved ones with whom they have already established unions. Children who already live as part of these relationships – be they adopted, or biological offspring, or born of surrogacy, or however they come to be there, these children already have parents, have families. All these many, many people, are looking for is recognition, is the legal and social right for their families to be considered just as valid, just as equal, as heterosexual ones. They’re looking for us to recognise their already existing legitimacy.
In truth, this is exactly what the No Side is fighting, this legitimacy. They want the right to patronise and exclude, to dismiss the agency and lives of the LGBTQ community, to relegate it to the shadows, or stuff them back in the closet, secret and hidden, away. They don’t want to sell them stationary, or pizza, or bake them cakes; they don’t want them to exist at all, but if they must exist they want them silent and shamed and above all, they want them different, less. And if we decide on May 22nd to pass the Marriage Equality amendment, the No Side rightly fear that the intolerance they wear as a badge of courage will be the first casualty.
I speak of intolerance but I have to speak carefully too, don’t I? Because that would be tip-toeing closer and closer to that word that we are not allowed to use. You know the word, the one they say is bullying. That word is insulting. It destroys discourse. It is full of hatred. After all, you aren’t homophobic just because you don’t want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, you’re just defending your own sincerely held beliefs; we know that to be true, don’t we? Or at least, we know we don’t have American money paying for lawyers to defend us from the inevitable lawsuits we will incur if we dare to suggest that anyone like Quinn, O’Brien, or Waters are anything like homophobic. Yet that word lurks in the shadows behind their statements, their actions, their motivations for trying to sell you a bag of lies and fears to keep you from agreeing that yes, people have the right to be treated equally. It’s easier to imagine this is just about a culture war between contrarian conservatives and utter right-wing-bigots on one side, and us loony, lefty, liberal, deviant SJWs on the other, but there are real people, real lives, caught up in it.
Ultimately, it is people that this is all about. We use the phrase LGBTQ (or LGBTQ+/LGBTQI) and while it is a serviceable shorthand for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer community, I fear it can also sometimes engender a sense of distance, of separation, creating or perpetuating an “us-and-them” binary. In reality, this community is composed, quite simply, of people. They are enmeshed in everyday life as deeply as we are. They share the bus, work in our offices, or shops, they stop to let us pass on the street or we stop for them. We went to school with them. They are uncles and aunts and cousins and they are our friends. Our sisters, brothers, parents and children; they are our family.
They are us, indistinguishable. That is who this about. Not some manufactured, ephemeral threat that somehow endangers our whole way of life. They’re just people, just wanting to be treated like all the other people living around them.
What will happen if we pass this referendum? People who want to get married will get married.
The Iona crowd have some rather facetious suggestions, about all the unforeseen changes, but honestly, how will it affect your marriage, or your parents’ marriage, or some friend’s? It won’t. Those marriages will trundle on, just as before, just the same. Will people marry their sisters, their brothers? No. That’s still illegal – why the hell do they keep bringing that up? Brothers and sisters can’t marry now; why would they think brothers and brothers would be able to marry just because men are? That’s a really weird and stupid argument. “Straight” marriages will stop being legal? No. What? Where do they even come up with this nonsense?
Of course someone can’t marry their cat.
Don’t let the petty arguments of fear-mongers and bigots distort the truth of what is happening here.
The question is simple. Should people, should consenting adults, regardless of sexuality or gender, be allowed to marry each other, be allowed to have that expression of love and union recognised? If we, if Ireland, can find it in ourselves to say Yes, we have the opportunity to be the first country in the world to embrace equality by democratic choice. We can show that we know lesbian, gay, transgender, queer people are every bit as worthwhile as anyone else, their loves every bit as meaningful, and it will take just one word to recognise that.
You have until May 5th to get on a Supplemental Registry if you are not already registered to vote.
You have until the evening of May 22nd to decide what you will say.