One year on, it’s clear Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum was about a lot more than marriage

Marref“There is no equivalency between marriage and sodomy and those who seek to make them equal are only codding themselves and others.”

So began a letter to The Avondhu in March 2015. The writer – a regular “family values” correspondent whose ultra-conservative Catholic views would make a board meeting of the Iona Institute  look like Sunday brunch at the Playboy Mansion – was scandalised at the then-imminent marriage equality referendum.

God was quickly brought in to back up her argument because, presumably, there’s little the Almighty can’t be rolled out to justify. “God is not mocked,” she wrote. “We need only to see the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to know that God will not tolerate homosexual behaviour.”

“Since it is a grave sin, we cannot support sodomy under any circumstance… In Ireland for the past twenty years, in particular, we have been drip fed the homosexual lifestyle.”

TV soaps, apparently, have been to the forefront, “softening up the nation with their carefully crafted  scripts so that our acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, that which is so opposed to God’s laws, has taken a ‘soft grip’ on the minds of the people”.

(At the time, I asked the human rights campaigner and leading member of Yes Equality Colm O’Gorman if “the homosexual lifestyle” mainly involves, as I’ve long suspected, liking Abba. “Pretty much,” he replied, drily. “That and really, really nice shoes”.)

The Avondhu’s correspondent, however, warned “any opposition to the ‘gay lifestyle’ will earn us the term(s) homophobic, intolerant, ignorant and old fashioned. While many may be bullied into silence, Christians are called to witness to Christ and to speak the truth, uncomfortable though it may be….

“We could never have envisioned that in 2015, Ireland would be asked to vote sodomy into the Irish Constitution and be deluded into calling it marriage.” The correspondent saw this as part of an agenda she called “The new ‘Human Rights’”.

It really is a fantastic screed and it breaks my heart not to re-produce it in full. (Sodomy is mentioned three times – and five times in a follow-up letter – leading me to conclude that some people really do seem to spend a lot of time thinking about sex.) It is indeed, as the author said, “homophobic, intolerant, ignorant and old fashioned”. It is also deeply offensive, not just to anyone who is gay, or to anyone who has gay family and gay friends, but also to anyone who just wants to live in a republic of equals and an Ireland of warmth and kindness.

It is also, in hindsight, a lot more honest than much of the dog-whistle stuff about children peddled by the No campaign. The letter spurred some —

Please read on in my column in The Avondhu

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Cork Evening Echo Opinion Column: My experience of canvassing for marriage equality

My feet were sore and my back was at me.

It was two days to the Marriage Equality referendum and I’d taken some time off work to help with Yes Equality Cork. I had never canvassed for anything in my life and my experience of going door-to-door in rural towns and villages had been almost universally positive. I was finding standing on the street in Cork a lot more daunting.

YES EQ

Outside the city library at lunchtime, I decided a friendly, indirect approach was best.  Holding my Yes Equality leaflets in my hand, I greeted people “Hello! Are you voting on Friday?” The most common answer I got was along the lines of “I am voting. And I’m voting Yes.” Some people said they hadn’t made their minds up yet. I asked if they had any worries or doubts and almost all said they didn’t, which led me to suspect they were either No voters or else they genuinely didn’t care.

As a rule, I tried to avoid confrontation. Getting into a public slanging match would be hugely counter-productive, I felt, especially as I was representing a cause I believed to be so very important. Anyway, the entire purpose of the campaign was to be gently persuasive and it would have been a waste of time and energy to argue for long with confirmed No voters.

A tweedy gentleman, coming across from the Grand Parade fountain, quoted Leviticus at me. I gave him the President Bartlet reply, pointing out that while Leviticus does indeed say homosexuality is an abomination, it says the same thing about wearing cloth of two different threads or touching the flesh of a dead pig. He was having none of it. I also told him that, for Christians, the New Testament supplants the Old, and of the 41,071 words attributed to Jesus, nary a one did he utter on the subject of homosexuality. Unimpressed, he bade me a good day but I suspected he didn’t mean it. He had precisely seven white hairs on his nose.

By Bishop Lucey Park, a woman not much older than me told me angrily “Your kind have this country ruined”. As a middle-aged, heterosexual man, I had to reluctantly agree with her.

Of course I met a hundred times more people who were lovely – Yes and No voters – but it’s human nature to be rattled by extreme reactions.

In the afternoon sunshine outside the Crawford Gallery, a young busker with an electric guitar was banging out some impressive Rory Gallagher licks. I was enjoying the tunes and the chats with friendly people who smiled at me and who said of course they were voting Yes. Then a man with distracted eyes got in my face and roared “SAINT PAUL SAID NEITHER AN EFFEMINATE MAN NOR A MASCULINE WOMAN MAY ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN!” I told him he could have the Kingdom of Heaven, that all we want is equality in the Republic of Ireland. He then repeated his Pauline bellow and, being a Christian, he also told me to do something anatomically unfeasible to myself.

I left him to his ranting and headed to Paul Street. I stood at the end of French Church Street, saying “Well, you’re very welcome to Ireland anyway” to the seemingly hundreds of Canadian tourists apologising that they couldn’t vote.

Then two young men, walking close together, came toward me from Rory Gallagher Plaza. “Hello,” I said. “Are you voting on Friday?” They gave me the most beautiful smiles and held up their joined hands.

I thought that was a really mean thing to do, to make a grown man cry in public like that.

I got involved with Yes Equality about a month before the referendum. Prior to that, I had written a few newspaper articles on the subject and had been something of a keyboard warrior. I just felt it was time to put my money where my mouth was. Also, I have gay friends and I felt I couldn’t look them in the eye if I didn’t speak up when Ireland was being asked whether we considered their love to be equal.

I did what I could, which really wasn’t that much – in truth, I felt ashamed at how seldom I was able to join the canvass, when some people turned out every single night.

Still, it was my honour to be involved in the Yes Equality campaign. I am ridiculously proud to have been a tiny part of a national movement which resulted in Ireland becoming the very first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote. I met so many extraordinary people. I met people canvassing for their friends, for their children, for their families, for their love. I made new friends, LGBT and straight, from every walk of life.

I met so many decent, kind and generous people on the doorsteps too. Young parents who were delighted to see us. At his Mam’s request, I gave my second-last Yes Equality Cork badge to a small boy in Shanballymore.

There was an elderly lady on a walking frame in Conna, who said she believed in “live and let live” and had gay friends herself.

There was a big gruff man who told me I was wasting my breath, as he was a member of the Defence Forces and had already voted. And then he gave a slow smile and said “And I voted Yes.”

Finally, there was a man in his eighties, standing in his doorway in Castletownroche, the evening before the vote, his eyes brimming with tears. He told us his wife would probably be too ill to vote but that we were assured at least of his Yes. He said he had never in his life missed a vote and this would “probably” be his last. He said he wanted it to count.

“I have to look after those coming along behind me. I want to leave Ireland better than I found it.”

Donal O’Keeffe

Originally published as an op-ed in The Cork Evening Echo on 28/5/2015

Homophobia, and why I want to see the Iona Institute on RTÉ. All. The. Time.

I have one thing in common with the Iona Institute. I too keep forgetting that those creepy, sex-obsessed reactionaries only speak for about 2% of Ireland’s Catholics.

Every practising Catholic I know considers them to be embarrassing extremists and I have heard some Catholics close to me rage that “those fanatics must, surely be to God, have something on RTÉ to say that they’re on the television and the radio night and day”.

By now, you will probably have heard about Rory O’Neill‘s appearance on “The Saturday Night Show” and the subsequent storm which led to John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute getting an apology and an undisclosed chunk of taxpayers’ money from RTÉ. O’Neill, the alter ego of Panti, the drag queen, told Brendan O’Connor that homophobia is not accepted in a modern Ireland where gay people are visible and (by the vast majority of us) valued members of Irish society.

“It’s very hard to hold prejudices against people when you actually know those people,” he said. He went on to say that the only place “it’s okay to be horrible and really mean to gays is on the internet – in the comments – and, you know, people who make a living writing opinion pieces for the newspapers.”

All of which was fine until Brendan O’Connor did something really, really stupid. “Who are they?” he asked.

Now, how many times do we hear superior interviewers like, say, Joe Duffy, on live air, warn interviewees not to name names? Not so Shrek. That Rory O’Neill named names and left RTÉ open to (I still think entirely spurious) claims of defamation reflects on the interviewer rather than the interviewee. Despite RTÉ removing the clip from the RTÉ Player and Youtube, you can watch the interview here.

Owent on to make this wonderful and, I think, entirely reasonable point about what constitutes homophobia: “What it boils down to is if you’re going to argue that gay people need to be treated in any way differently than everybody else or should be in anyway less, or their relationships should be in anyway less then I’m sorry, yes you are a homophobe and the good thing to do is to sit, step back, recognise that you have some homophobic tendencies and work on that.”

Sadly, that wasn’t enough to galvanise RTÉ or indeed its man Brendan O’Connor, the genius who had encouraged Rory to name names. One craven apology coming right up. (Philip O’Connor has written about that, far better than I ever could, here.)

It is, though, important to remember that there are a lot of very decent people working in RTÉ and some of them are sick to the stomach at this development. Here, for no reason other than my own need to be cheered up, is something really beautiful from RTÉ.

With a referendum on marriage equality very likely within the next two years, we can expect to hear a lot more from the Iona Institute and Company Limited. We can look forward to a lot of shrieking about “The Children”, what Alan Flanagan calls “The Helen Lovejoy Syndrome“.

But here’s the thing: I am no fan of John Waters or the Iona Institute. I have written about Breda O’Brien before and one of Iona’s most Smithers-like apologists had a go at me in the last few days for mocking Poor John Waters. An attack which made me, as Father Jessup might say, “sooooooooooooooo sad”.

But.

But I saw some friends from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community propose in the immediate aftermath of RTÉ’s miserable apology and settlement that, henceforth, no LGBT people should agree to appear on panel discussions with Iona Institute personnel.

Folks, have you lost your minds?

Personally, I hope Iona’s litigiousness doesn’t have the unintended consequence of lessening their media ubiquity. It would, of course, be a terrible mistake to allow the bigots to go unchallenged but it would also be very unfortunate if broadcasters decided they had no choice, without the balancing voices of LGBT commentators, but to exclude the Iona Institute from discussion.

The Iona Institute is an accidental force for, and please hear me out, compassion and inclusivity. Every time members of that wretched outfit go on the air looking like homophobes and bullies is surely a victory for those of us who start from a principle of equality. “Equality must take second place to the common good” says Breda O’Brien of the Iona Institute. John Waters calls marriage equality “a kind of satire on marriage which is being conducted by the gay lobby”. God love them.

To the Iona Institute and their fellow travellers, they represent the reasonable argument against equality. They only look like religious fundamentalist maniacs because there is no reasonable argument against equality and they lack the self-awareness to realise it.

I want Iona and their fellow travellers on the air all the time. (I don’t, really. I can’t afford to throw any more televisions or radios out the window, but bear with me.) I want them arguing against equality and looking wild-eyed and hysterical because those watching will see the opponents of the I-Onans as decent and rational people and the type of person you’d want for a family member or a neighbour or a friend.

I think the Iona Institute is pumping out a message of intolerance and, yes, hatred, one which has nothing Christian about it. But then, as my Granny used to say, them that’s closest to the altar is often furthest from God. Let them spew. The more people see and hear of them, the more people will know them for what they are.

By the way, if you’re angry about RTÉ’s spineless behaviour (and if you have an interest in freedom of speech you should be) please do something about it. Write to complaints@rte.ie (Before you write, I recommend you take a look at Brian Barrington’s powerful letter here.)

Before I go, here’s something else from RTÉ (and BBC). Mrs Brown on marriage equality. Brendan O’Carroll gets a free pass from me for this.

“Could you show me in any Bible, anywhere, where Jesus Christ refused to sanctify love?”

Donal O’Keeffe

Post Script: On Wednesday the 29th of January, Audrey Carville asked her guests on The Late Debate, Breda O’Brien and Colm O’Gorman, to comment on RTÉ’s apology and settlement to Ms O’Brien, John Waters and the Iona Institute. The resulting discussion made for riveting radio. Listen here.