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