Sunday 25 September 2016

It diminishes us all when we allow some to be treated as less equal than others

Published 14/05/2015 | 02:30

James Brennan, from Tralee, and his dog Daisy Duke, promoting a ‘Yes’ vote in the marriage-equality referendum yesterday
James Brennan, from Tralee, and his dog Daisy Duke, promoting a ‘Yes’ vote in the marriage-equality referendum yesterday

I'm puzzled. I was under the impression that I'm legally married. We have the rings, paperwork and photographs. But according to a restrictive definition of marriage advanced by Catholic leaders, our union doesn't fulfil the criteria.

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That's because when we exchanged vows three years ago, we did so in the knowledge there would be no children. I'm infertile. My husband knew it when he proposed, and I knew it when I accepted. Does that invalidate our marriage? Put it this way, it doesn't pass the 'Archbishop Test'.

Let me tell you about our wedding day, which the Irish State recognises even if it falls short of Archbishop Eamon Martin's standard. It was a joyful celebration held outdoors, the spray from Niagara Falls threatening to drench us when the wind changed direction.

My eight-year-old niece had to pitch her voice against the thunder of the falls when she read aloud from the WB Yeats poem, 'The Cloths of Heaven'. Afterwards, she took charge of distributing fortune cookies, and passing joggers and tourists were offered them, along with the wedding party.

At no point during those laughter-lightened hours, or in the three succeeding years, have David or myself considered ours to be a sham marriage. So it was odd to find ourselves excluded from the marriage classification put forward by the Primate of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

His interpretation, used to promote a 'No' vote, is that marriage has to include "the possibility of children". With respect, Archbishop, you need to extend your boundaries. A little empathy goes a long way.

Indeed, all of us need to extend our parameters. We should reflect that a 'No' vote will cause a great deal of damage and hurt - it will make gay people feel rejected by those they live alongside. But a 'Yes' vote will show they are recognised as full citizens, an acceptance of pluralism that's long overdue.

Perhaps you think you don't have skin in the game with this marriage equality referendum. "I'm not gay and I don't have any gay relatives or friends," you might be telling yourself. Next week's vote is an academic exercise.

Except that's not true. We all have skin in the game. The referendum is about more than equal rights for our neighbours and colleagues who happened to be born gay. It hinges on the calibre of society we want to construct in Ireland. Inclusive or divisive? Loving or judgmental? Respectful of difference or suspicious of it?

For centuries, gay people were stigmatised and criminalised - at best, they were tolerated. Finally, an opportunity is offered to do something constructive to ensure they have full membership of this Republic which all of us are supposed to share. Although it must be humiliating for gay people to need the majority's permission to be treated with fairness.

I've listened to the 'No' side's arguments and tried to understand their reservations, in the interests of discussion.

Let gays be different but equal, they say.

Different but equal doesn't describe civil partnership, however. It's a downgrade compared with marriage, which confers constitutional protection on the family unit and family home.

Yes, if the referendum is passed it will redefine marriage, but marriage has been recalibrated before. Don't fear it - this is one more adjustment to take account of changing times.

The 'No' camp is preoccupied by children, but a 'Yes' tick defends children's rights better than voting down the referendum: it gives constitutional protection to the children of gay couples. Currently, a gay couple with children are not considered to be a family under the Constitution.

These children are not notional. They exist, irrespective of how the vote goes, and will continue to exist. Their rights should be safeguarded within the family unit.

The one mother/ one father paradigm may be the mainstream but it's not the only version.

Legislation has been enacted, and gay couples are now legally entitled to adopt provided the qualifying conditions are met. Whether or not the referendum passes, gay couples will continue to be able to adopt. (Surrogacy is an undefined area, omitted from the new Children and Family Relationships Act 2015.)

Regrettably, the debate has been hijacked by arguments about the parenting capacity of same-sex couples, with the subtext that heterosexuals are inherently more suited to it.

Dysfunctional families aren't caused by same-sex parenting but by inadequate parenting - authoritarian, neglectful, irresponsible or alcoholic parents. Regardless of gender.

It's natural for gay people to want to form family units. I regard my husband and me as a family, even without children. When I'm sick, he takes my prescription to the chemist's. If he's tired, I put on the kettle and break open the biscuits. That's what families do, they support one another.

Communities support one another, too, and the gay community needs our backing on May 22. Let's stop discriminating against them. Not for their sake, but for our own. Because it diminishes all of us when we allow some of us to be treated as less equal than others.

Remember how Ireland's most famous book ends? With Molly Bloom's voice in 'Ulysses'? My hope is for her voice to be echoed by the Irish people's: "…Yes I said yes I will Yes."

Irish Independent

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