We did it! Winning with skin in the game
Referendum was a collective catharsis and a triumph of humanity over rhetoric, writes Donal Lynch
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
If you just hang on long enough you will move from the outskirts of acceptability to the heart of society. That seemed to be the lesson of the marriage referendum. Some of us waited a lifetime. Some have waited just a few years. And some of us - I'd include myself in this - had given up waiting long ago.
I could never let on this was the case: I didn't want to disappoint people. In the month leading up to the vote complete strangers had been telling me, very pointedly, that they were voting yes. More than once at recent family events different women have approached me and my boyfriend and said: "We've all discussed it in the office and we're fine with…" They finish the sentence by placing their hands on our shoulders.
It might seem churlish in such a situation to tell the person that your self-worth doesn't hang on their approval, that you personally are not the embodiment of a cause, and that, frankly, you'd be fine with never getting married, so you simply nod and look grateful. I made it this far in life by telling myself that Middle Ireland's feelings on the rights and wrongs of my sexuality were neither here nor there. This was self-preservation.
When I was growing up in the 1990s - the last Irish generation that experienced the full blast of old-school homophobia - the shame we felt was all to do with other people's perception. When I came out, I was warned first and foremost about what people - employers, strangers, relatives - would think. For the sake of my survival I, early on, gave up caring what people would think of my sexuality and latterly, when the gay marriage bandwagon began gathering steam and politicians one-by-one clamoured to climb aboard, I didn't see it as having much to do with me.
I thought that the lucky few gay people in settled, long-term relationships who wanted to get married were possibly the gay people least in need of legislative protection. I secretly found it surprising that many of the people who came out during the last few months seemed to consider this official approval as the missing piece in the jigsaw of their lives. Had they really put their lives on hold until the Government decided it was OK?
But, as the referendum campaigns heated up, I began to see that my years on the outskirts had actually dulled my ambition, for myself and others. I hadn't understood fully that the overarching symbolism of marriage equality was far bigger than a personal desire to get married. It was instead about this generation of gay people making sure that the next generation never has to go through what we went through. It was about recasting homosexuality as being about love rather than sex. It was about our parents atoning for the world they brought us up in. And it was about finally prising the cold, dead hand of the Church off our country's moral pulse.
The referendum was like witnessing a body sweating out a poison. It was a collective catharsis that went far beyond gay rights and saw a country turn its back on an ethos that sees us as breeding animals stuck in rigid gender roles. It saw the youth of the country shrug at the Rivers Of Blood type rhetoric of the No side. Just as the "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads" were the baby boomer's version of an apocryphal idealised Ireland so this generation had "The Iona Family", posed by a couple who were horrified at their image being used. The day of the vote saw a young, idealistic diaspora return like the cavalry. They were a reminder that for much of our history Irish gay people have only been able to lead open lives in exile.
Crucially, perhaps, the campaigns saw the media come out largely in favour of the Yes side. A study published just before we went to the polls showed that the majority of articles in the national press (which, unlike broadcasters, had no legal requirement for balance) had been in favour of marriage equality. This was hardly surprising given that most newspapers have a populist slant and the polled majority were known to be in favour of marriage equality. But it also may have been partly a reaction, after the fact, against the widespread chilling effect that was felt in the immediate aftermath of the payouts which RTE made following Panti's fateful appearance on The Saturday Night Show. For journalists covering the campaigns the very first issue of the referendum was not marriage, but freedom of speech.
The Yes result was a triumph of human stories over rhetoric. We heard from mothers who had lost their gay sons to suicide. We heard from prominent gay people such as Ursula Halligan and Pat Carey, who told of the loneliness of a life in the closet. We heard from parents whose relationship with their own children was not recognised in the eyes of the law (compare all of this with the abortion debate where we rarely hear actual personal testimony and where there is an endless circularity).
The No side couldn't win against this because they had no opposing stories, no compelling personal narratives, only finger-wagging hypotheses and litanies of victimisation. There was not a single prominent commentator on the No side who could point to a concrete consequence that a Yes vote would have in their own lives. They played the game but, fatally, they had no skin in it.
Now that they have lost is all changed, changed utterly? After the euphoria of the win it feels like we may be due a comedown, much as America felt after Obama was elected. It seems like we have torn down the walls of the old Ireland and we can now begin afresh. We have brought homosexuality into the public square and garlanded it with flowers. But we are still a long way from the moment when a mother can be told her son is gay without her flinching. 'Gay' is still the slur-word of choice in the playground. And as Panti, Ursula Halligan and others pointed out, we all who are adult now, gay and straight, carry with us the stubborn residue of homophobia.
One thing seems certain however: the path toward those things changing forever has been smoothed by the fact that marriage was decided not by politicians but by referendum. It may have been tedious to listen to the endless Punch and Judy show of the Yes and No Sides, there may have been ridiculous levels of bandwagon jumping and astonishing overuse of the word 'brave.' (When will it no longer be 'brave' for an influential adult, who has been earning their own money for decades, to come out?)
But it all means that we can believe in marriage equality as progress much more than if it had been foisted on us by a judge or a politician. And on a weekend that has long been a gay high holiday - Eurovision finals - the republic finally made citizens of its gay sons and daughters. Now where's a gullible surrogate when I need one?