Friday 30 September 2016

We finally had a grown-up talk about homosexuality

The marriage equality debate was a row like we haven't had in years, and we loved it all really, says Brendan O'Connor

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Vote: Beckey Oakley and Aileen Griffin celebrate the Yes vote last May. Photo: David Conachy
Vote: Beckey Oakley and Aileen Griffin celebrate the Yes vote last May. Photo: David Conachy
Joy: Panti Bliss celebrates at Dublin Castle

There's nothing we love more in this country than a good row. And this was a good row. It was like an election campaign but on steroids. And it had a colour and a passion that you don't get in election campaigns anymore. It had humanity and stories. And they were stories about the big themes: family and love. And more than that, it mattered. There was a sense that everything about us was at stake here, a sense that it was a battle between the past and the future. This was about who we were and who we wanted to be. Indeed this was explicitly acknowledged by the Yes side, who started to explain at a certain point that this was not about whether you believed in gay marriage, it was about gay people feeling accepted in their own country, feeling they had the same rights as their friends and their brothers and sisters. And true enough, there doesn't seem to have been any great rush for gay couples to get married, but there is a sense that gay people walked a little taller in the country after Ireland said yes to marriage equality.

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Indeed, you could argue that the result was not what mattered here. The result was not the best thing we got out of it. What this did for the country was to bring in marriage equality, yes, but perhaps more importantly, it caused us to have an open and grown-up, compassionate and human conversation about homosexuality, about being different, about the fact that gay people are not other, they are you and me, they are our brothers and our sisters, our children and our parents. Of course most of us knew this already, but somehow it was never something that had been openly acknowledged in Ireland. It's tradition here, isn't it? We are a homogeneous country where anyone different - black, Protestant, gay - is regarded as other and not really true Gaels. It is a hangover from an obsession with pureness of identity that goes back at least a few hundred years.

Not that the whole campaign was pretty. There were aspects of it that didn't exactly cover us all in glory. It started in earnest of course with Pantigate. And there are those who will argue, whatever you feel about what happened there, that Breda O'Brien and a number of Iona Institute members not only lost a lot of moral authority with a lot of people when they threatened to sue RTE for comments made by Rory O'Neill, but that they possibly lost the referendum. Not only would that decision put many of the leading lights in the No campaign on the back foot from the beginning and dog them throughout the campaign, it also created an icon of equality.

Pantigate begat the Noble Call and suddenly a drag artist called Panti, who professed no desire to get married, became a lightning rod for marriage equality. The more sober lights in the Yes campaign, like Noel Whelan, would say afterwards that there had been a decision made to keep the more outre gay characters off the airwaves for fear of frightening the horses. But there was no doubt that Panti was very much a presence throughout the campaign. And certainly, on the day of the result, Panti was greeted like royalty at Dublin Castle. Politicians queued up to be associated with Panti, to sup at Pantibar, to desperately try to seem relevant to A generation who have little concern for the old politics. It excited the Government no end that they found themselves in the middle of something that seemed to chime with younger people. They hoped in vain that this connection would last beyond marriage equality, that they had in some way broken through the generation gap. Only time will tell if this is true, but it's doubtful.

In the main, though, it was not the Pantis of the world who swung it. Panti and co were all too often preaching to the converted. The concern was that the real job of the Yes campaign was to swing the mothers who could then possibly swing the fathers. And that was done by extraordinary interventions by ordinary people. Mary McAleese gave every mother in Ireland permission to vote Yes when she spoke about her own family. The fact that this was a woman who was regarded as being as close as you can get to being a female cardinal, who was going against her church on this, allowed others to do the same without fearing excommunication. Personal stories from the likes of Ursula Hannigan would make a difference too. There was a raw honesty in how they told their stories that swept away abstract ideology.

And then there was Pat Carey. Carey was incensed that Fianna Fail seemed to be adopting a wait-and-see approach to the issue so he decided to drop his own bomb into it. His testimony, of a largely loveless life, a life that seemed almost wasted, was intensely moving and in no way alien to people. Carey had always had an unthreatening decency. He was viewed as a rare gentleman within politics and within Fianna Fail. And he used that capital when he told his own story of growing up in rural Kerry not knowing what a gay person was, and of spending his life subjugating his sexuality. And he evoked every confirmed bachelor any of us had ever known, and he convinced people like him out there that they could have been like him, they could have ended up gay and miserable, sexless and loveless.

But if Panti was the poster girl for the campaign, Leo was the poster boy. If there was nothing unthreatening about Pat Carey, Leo was the face of 30-something acceptable vanilla. What Mammy wouldn't love to see her son arrive home with Leo? Leo slightly haltingly told Miriam O'Callaghan that he happened to be gay but that it didn't define him. If Pantigate was the start of the phoney war, Leo kicked off the campaign proper with his bombshell, and the country stood still. He was lauded and beloved for his nervous candour, and mostly we were thrilled at how modern it may us all feel. We didn't just have gay people in Ireland, we had a gay cabinet minister.

This was the star of an orgy of backslapping and feeling proud of ourselves for our tolerance and our liberalism. We took Leo's admission, and ultimately the result of the referendum, as a resounding affirmation that we were great people altogether. The only slight fly in the ointment was that there was at times a sense that the pro-equality side tended to be a bit intolerant of those for whom all this was a bit frightening. While some of those on the No side were undoubtedly just bigots, there were many out there in the middle who just needed their hands held a bit through what was a big change for them. Whelan and some of the older hands were cognisant of this, but many on the Yes side refused to try and understand or coax people who didn't agree with them. It even led to worries towards the final weeks that people might rebel in the privacy of the ballot box. The worry was that people were not allowed to express their concerns or fears without being branded as bad people so would express them in their vote, and also that they might not even be telling the truth to pollsters, because No was such an unacceptable position to have, and so there could be a huge shy no vote that was not showing in polls.

In the event, it didn't happen, and the referendum was carried far more resoundingly than anyone hoped. And the emigrants came home to vote, and the world and Miley Cyrus cheered us on. And the world didn't end. And it was taken as a victory for a new kind of Ireland, a leap into the future. And before the celebrations had even died down, people were contemplating how to use the marriage-equality playbook to change our abortion laws. We were high on change and high on liberalism and anything seemed possible.

Sunday Independent

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