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

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Thank you #MarRef

YES EQ

I am so, so proud today. Thank you to everyone who canvassed, leafleted, debated, argued, worried, cried, laughed, begged and loved.

We fought for the best cause of all: Love. Nothing was easy or ever seemed certain, but in hindsight, how could we lose?

We fought for equality, for generosity, for kindness. We fought for our sisters, our brothers, our children, our parents, our friends.

We fought for LGBT children, long dead, whose lives were made a misery by a brutal, unloving Ireland.

We fought for LGBT children now grown older who – until only 22 years ago – lived in a land where their very existence was a crime .

We fought for LGBT children just born, or yet to be born, who will now live in a kinder and better Ireland where the love in their heart will mean as much as the colour and the beauty in their eyes.

Senator David Norris​ said “Ireland’s Gay Community is, at most, 10% of the Irish population. We can’t do this without you.” Norris was right. This was 10% of Ireland standing up and the rest of us standing up for that 10%. This was “us” deciding we don’t want an Ireland where there is a “them”. This was us. Just us.

Thank you to everyone who voted YES.

We voted for equality. We voted for acceptance. We voted for love.

We made history.

Ireland is the very first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote. How cool is that?

Thank you.

Donal O’Keeffe

The Corkman Opinion Piece: The Marriage Equality referendum is about real people and real lives. A Yes is a vote for love. #MarRef

This Friday you have the opportunity to extend to LGBT couples the constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by civilly-married heterosexual couples. That’s all. Despite all the scaremongering, this referendum isn’t about fear. It’s about love.

This referendum is about real people, real lives. Look at the powerful testimonies of people like Pat Carey and Ursula Halligan and Justin McAleese. Think about all those lives ruined, all that love denied. You mightn’t know it, but this referendum may well be about your brother or sister, your son or daughter, your neighbour or friend.

This is a head-to-head debate. Alongside this is a piece advocating a No vote. It probably contains the usual red herrings about adoption and/or surrogacy, redefining marriage and/or family. It may say civil partnership – despite having no constitutional protection – is as good as marriage.

Rather than waste your time telling you this is not about adoption or surrogacy, I’ll trust your intelligence and ask you to go to www.refcom.ie, the independent Referendum Commission’s website. There you’ll see unbiased confirmation that the No campaign is arguing about everything except what’s in this referendum. This referendum is about kindness, generosity and love and the No campaign’s only weapon against that is fear.

“It won’t redefine what marriage is,” says Referendum Commission chairman, Mr Justice Kevin Cross. “It will redefine… who can marry.” This is, simply, about extending the embrace of constitutional recognition to the love of the 10% of Irish citizens who are gay.

To vote, you’ll need identification. A marriage certificate – accompanied by proof of address – will be accepted. The Department of the Environment confirms that a civil partnership certificate is not valid identification. So much for civil partnership being as good as marriage.

The No campaign claims all leading Irish children’s charities – and Ireland’s leading authority on adoption – are conspiring against children’s best interests. For all their concern about children, Ireland has long been a cold house for many of its children. Forced adoptions, Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries illustrate a cruel and deeply unequal country where discrimination and abuse reigned.

I believe equality should be the cornerstone of our Republic. I believe we should cherish all the children of our Nation equally. I believe that we, the citizens of Ireland, should extend to gay couples the same constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by civilly-married straight couples.

The No campaign talks about “protecting the traditional family”. One in three Irish families is non-traditional. Children have grown up in non-traditional families since Jesus was a small boy. Life is complicated. Love isn’t.

A Yes will send a powerful message of acceptance, respect and love to all our children – one in ten of whom is gay. A Yes will say to our children that regardless of the colour of your eyes, the shape of your face or the love in your heart – you are as Irish, as “normal” and as extraordinary as every child of this Republic.

A Yes is a vote for love.

Please vote Yes.

Originally published as one half of a head-to-head debate in The Corkman Thursday 21st May 2015

UPDATE: As it transpired, I was wrong to assume the NO column would stick to the touchy-feely lies about surrogacy and adoption and instead went Full Homophobe.

Nunan

#MarRef: How it feels to lose

I felt like crying.

I was angry and upset and mortified.

It was the cold, dull aftermath of a hugely divisive referendum and my side of the debate had lost. Not just lost, my side of the debate had been buried under a landslide.

It felt horrible. It felt personal. It felt crushingly unfair and – big as I am and ugly as I am – I felt close to tears at the sheer injustice of it.

Cliché though it is, I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed of my country.

I wasn’t alone, though I felt horribly alone. One of the most interesting journalists in the country at the time wrote in his Irish Times column that he was sickened to be Irish. In a heartfelt piece, he said he was disgusted that his country had chosen to be so cruel, so selfish and so utterly heartless. Witheringly, he said he had thought we were better than this.

What was worst, for me, was the realisation that this is how low, how petty, how despicable a people we are.

This isn’t some dire, apocalyptic warning of what Saturday will feel like if you don’t make damn full sure that you – and everyone else you know – get to the polling station on Friday and vote for marriage equality.

This was 2004 and we had voted in the Twenty-Seventh Amendment – by a stunning 80% of an unusually-high 60% turnout – that babies born in Ireland would no longer necessarily by Irish.

I’ve written about this before and suffice to say that, eleven years on, I’m still sick to my stomach by what we did that shameful day. Oh, and that journalist who (rightly) condemned us for our lack of generosity and kindness?

You’d never believe it now, now that he has become an Old Testament parody of himself, wild-eyed and permanently-enraged, seeing father-denying misandrists in every shadow and ranting about gay people parodying marriage, but there was a time when John Waters was on our side.

Yes, of course I wrote this because I’m absolutely terrified we’ll lose on Friday.

Take that 17% to 23% Don’t Know in current opinion polls and stitch it on to the NO vote. I’ve been canvassing for a YES a little while now and every Don’t Know I’ve met, I’ve asked them “Well, do you have any questions or worries?” Not one of them had an actual question. Which suggests to me that they are either shy NO votes or – worse – they genuinely don’t give a damn.

So it’s an awful lot closer than we think and every single YES will count. This will be decided on turnout and, as Colm O’Gorman has repeatedly said, if you don’t vote, you’re voting NO.

I have gay friends and I would be devastated if we told them we think them lesser citizens whose love is less than ours.

Imagine how they will feel.

Here. Have Three Little Words.

Please vote and please vote YES.

– Donal O’Keeffe