On May 22nd we will be asked to extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by heterosexual couples. That’s all. Regardless of the No campaign’s hysteria, this isn’t about fear. It’s about love.
I had a pint last week with an old classmate of mine, a man with whom I’d never really got along. Had we grown up in America, where he’s lived now for nearly thirty years, he would have been a Biff Tannen type jock.
Someone in our company, a retired teacher with conservative opinions, said to me “I see you were in the wars!” (A woman with extremist Catholic views had written a letter to a local paper, denouncing LGBT people as “sodomites”. I and others had replied strongly to her homophobic ranting.) Our conversation then naturally turned to the Marriage Equality Referendum.
“Look,” I said, expecting an argument, “everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And their religion. But no-one is entitled to demean anyone for being exactly as God or nature made them. That’s why I wrote that letter. That’s why I’m voting Yes. I don’t want to see gay kids – and that’s about 10% of Ireland’s population – growing up in a country that doesn’t respect them as equals.”
“So,” drawled my now-Irish-American buddy, after a long swig from his Guinness, “What are we talking here? This vote? Is this about gays getting to sanctify their love in civil law? Is this about you guys saying okay, look, gays are the same as any other citizen?
“‘Cause I gotta tell you, I’m all on board with that. I mean, love is pretty cool, right? Why deny anyone the right to love?”
The retired teacher took a sup of his pint and confided “The way I look at it, it’s not going to change my marriage one iota. If two adults are in love and want to get married, who am I to judge them?”
To be honest, I was pretty surprised and heartened by this conversation. Despite the Yes campaign’s seemingly-overwhelming lead in the polls, I worry that this lead is very soft indeed.
I agree with some on the No side that many politicians are only paying lip service to the all-party support for the upcoming referendum. One local councillor all-but wept to me recently for his love of equality and his intention to vote Yes. Shortly after, in the pub at the heart of his vote, he declared loudly that enough is enough and it’s time for rural Ireland to stand up for “traditional family values”. I doubt very much he’s the only sleeveen in the village.
There’s a cheap, dog-whistle nastiness to the phrase “traditional family values”. It ties to the stated strategy of some in the No campaign to sow what they refer to as “doubt” about the effect of a Yes vote on “the children”. The Simpsons parodied such stunt-acting with the Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, who regularly screeches “Oh won’t someone PLEASE think of the children?” Hence the No campaign’s attempted introduction of unrelated issues such as adoption and surrogacy.
Last week I attended the first meeting of the Avondhu branch of Yes Equality Cork in Fermoy’s Grand Hotel. There, Dave Roche of Yes Equality stressed that he believes civil marriage equality is not simply an LGBT rights issue but rather a matter of vital importance to all of civil society.
“Those saying ‘Isn’t civil partnership enough for them’ miss the point. Civil partnership is the result of legislation and could be removed at the stroke of a pen by a change of government, whereas civil marriage equality will extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees straight couples now enjoy.
“This isn’t about IVF, surrogacy, adoption or any of the other red herrings being thrown around. It’s very simply about giving Constitutional protection to civil unions. That’s all. It’s about equality, yes, but really it’s about fairness.”
Roche points out that – for all the alarmism about “redefining marriage” – redefining marriage is something we have done many times in Ireland, with the Protection of Spouses and Children Act, with divorce, and with the introduction of radical ideas like wives being able to refuse to have sex with their husbands or, indeed, women no longer being property to be handed from fathers to husbands.
Roche makes a convincing case. Marriage rights for all adults can surely only strengthen society. Your marriage – if you’re lucky enough to be married – is no more lessened by homosexual people getting married than it is by other heterosexual people getting married.
I believe that equality should be the cornerstone of our Republic. I believe that we should cherish all our children equally. Yes, this is us, the citizens of Ireland, simply extending to gay couples the same civil guarantees and rights enjoyed by straight couples, but it’s so much more than that too.
A Yes vote on May 22nd will send a powerful message of tolerance, respect and love. “Oh won’t someone please think of the children?” A Yes vote will say to our children – of whom roughly one in ten is gay – you are Irish and regardless of the colour of your eyes, the shape of your face or the love in your heart – you are as “normal” and as extraordinary as every child of this Republic.
A Yes vote is a vote for love.
Originally published in the Cork Evening Echo on Thursday 30th April 2015.