We have the right, but are we ready for the responsibility?
The referendum gave gay people their place at the lunch counter, writes Donal Lynch, but they still have to pay the bill
Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30
When the street parties were over, the Facebook thanks had been given and the hangovers had been compassionately treated, it seemed like there was only one question left: Now that gay people have the right to marry, will many of us actually be doing it? If recent history in other jurisdictions is anything to go by, the answer is no.
Places - such as New York, Holland and Britain - where gay marriage has been legalised have seen a trickle, rather than a flood, of same-sex nuptials. Many of our own leading campaigners for same-sex marriage would seem to be quite far removed from wedding bells of their own. This generation of gay people successfully clamoured for the symbolism of equality but the humdrum reality of marriage is a lifestyle choice that we, seemingly, can take or leave.
A part of this is just a function of the current crop of gay people living most of their lives on the sidelines. Having felt disapproval for our unions, less of us are in the type of secure long-term relationships that would naturally lead to marriage.
But a part of it is also intimately tied up with gender. In the push to get the Yes vote over the line, we were constantly told by pro-marriage campaigners that love is not dependent on the sex of the couple. This is, of course, true but, political correctness aside, a willingness to submit to the bourgeois conventions of matrimony is usually more likely if at least one of the participants is female.
There is a trade-off that happens between men and women, an adherence to hardened-yet-rewarding social paradigms, that becomes more difficult when there's no woman in the equation. With the exception of Billy Idol most men, regardless of sexuality, don't grow up dreaming of a white wedding.
Women, regardless of sexuality, often do. Men see marriage as being connected to loss of financial freedom, while women associate it with desirable stability. This is of course connected to children and female reproductivity, which casting the rhetoric of the referendum aside, won't really come into the equation for most gay male couples.
One of the most ridiculous red herrings offered by the No side was that gay marriage will lead to a flood of surrogacy arrangements. Men might make equally good parents as women but we don't get broody in advance of having children in quite the same way as women and, quite frankly, even if we did, most of us are not made of the kind of money that a surrogate runs to these days. Economics and apathy, rather than plain old bigotry, will be what limits the numbers of gay parents. And gender, rather than sexuality, is what will, overwhelmingly, decide family-planning choices.
Perhaps, too, this 'have-it-all' generation may grapple with the 'grim yet ultimately rewarding' sacrifices of marriage.
In the post-referendum euphoria, there was a lot of commentary on what gay people had gained with the Yes vote. And there's no doubt that we're all on board with the pageants of power and status that are part and parcel of most modern weddings. But nobody mentioned that marriage is also, generally, about losing something: the joys and freedoms of single life.
The cliche of the promiscuous gay man was rehashed during the referendum debate and was countered with the fact that there are, of course, many gay people in monogamous relationships. But most literature that has been produced on the subject would seem to indicate that monogamy in gay relationships is still the exception rather than the rule.
Of course straight people have been messing up traditional marriage for generations now and there was no debate on their equality. Roughly half of all marriages now end in divorce. But if gay people are happy to settle for this half-assed, commitment-lite version of marriage, we fall into the trap that the post-war Zionists fell into - aping the worst excesses of the oppressor. Getting the right to be seen as a full member of society is only step one - that's straight voters' job done. Step two is gay people actually stepping up to the plate and showing that they can use these rights as they were intended, to improve their own lives.
Not because they need to show that they're as good as anyone else, but because they are as deserving of stability in their personal life, good sexual health and love in old age as anyone else.
In his 1970 song We People Who are Darker than Blue civil rights icon Curtis Mayfield issued his impassioned plea to the black population of America to grow into the rights they were slowly winning:
'Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We're just good for nothing, they all figure
A boyish grown-up, shiftless jigger
Now we can hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it's at?'
Getting gay marriage was such an important milestone because we needed to give the next generation of gay people a finish line to aim for, in terms of their family lives. And of course the right to marry is bigger than the right itself - it's also a proxy for a whole range of issues relating to how gay people are seen and valued in society.
But perhaps the next stage of the gay revolution will not be a right we win but a responsibility we embrace. This will be the next big test for Ireland's gay community - can we make the bourgeois conventions of marriage work for us by playing by their rules and in doing so become the modern families which we promised were just as good as the mythical Iona version? The alternative is showing the world that the No campaigners were right all along, that we were only ever able for a watered-down version of the real thing.
And we can hardly stand for that.