Monday 26 September 2016

Family is the bedrock of society and I want to be a part of it

Colm Tóibín

Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30

Echoing the current debate in Ireland, this photograph show demonstrations outside the US Supreme Court in Washington this week, where arguments were heard as to whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed in the United States. A final decision on the matter is expected in June. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images
Echoing the current debate in Ireland, this photograph show demonstrations outside the US Supreme Court in Washington this week, where arguments were heard as to whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed in the United States. A final decision on the matter is expected in June. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, when I was working for a Dublin newspaper, we decided to do a telephone poll about national support for gay marriage. The questions we drafted were the normal ones you would expect. The last one, however, was unusual, and the response to it told us more about changing Ireland and growing tolerance and support for other people's rights here than all the other questions.

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The last question was: "If a member of your family was getting married to their gay partner and they were having a party to celebrate, would you go to the party?"

The vast majority said that they would attend the party. There was not much difference between the response from older people and younger people, or rural people or people from the cities.

This response taught me something about Ireland: that there is real solidarity within families in Ireland, that families support each other here, that the family is the bedrock of Irish society.

All of us who are gay in Ireland know that the first response from any member of our families to the news about our sexuality is not condemnation, but rather worry.

Our parents, siblings and wider family worry whether we are going to be OK or not, or if we might be lonely, or left out of things, or discriminated against.

The important meetings that led to homosexuality being decriminalised in Ireland in 1993 were between the mother of a gay man and the Minister for Justice Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who was herself a mother. The mother who met the minister was determined that her son would live a happy life in Ireland.

She made her arguments passionately because they were not about some abstract set of rights, but about her own flesh and blood. She was worried about her son.

Parents want their children to be happy, to be able to live normal lives, to have all the same advantages and freedoms offered to others of their generation.

Every parent knows the mixture of pride and wonder when their son or daughter takes a partner home to meet the family for the first time. Or when they hear the news that their son or daughter is engaged to be married, and even more when the plans begin for a wedding, a public expression of what is most cherished and treasured in our world - the love between two people.

Some of us who support the referendum know what it's like to be at a wedding realising that this is something you can never have, that this wholehearted and happy recognition of one person's love for another can never be given to you, simply because you are gay.

All around you at the wedding people know that this public day of joy and recognition is something you cannot share. What's strange is that no one can give you a good reason why this should be so.

The right to meet someone and be happy with them and have this publicly recognised by all your family and friends seems so fundamental that not giving it to someone - someone who belongs to our society and our community or indeed our family in every other way - seems almost cruel.

For parents who are concerned about the happiness of their gay children, it would be an extraordinary relief if this situation could be rectified.

For gay people ourselves, it would be such a relief too to be able to come home with our partner and set a date to let everyone celebrate with us. We want the right to register in public, in the same way as everyone else does, our love for each other, our need for each other.

As a citizen, I pay my taxes in Ireland. As a writer, I have published almost 20 books and done readings and public events all over Ireland. I am involved in the cultural life of my country in every way possible. It seems odd to me, and deeply hurtful, that I do not have the same rights as everyone else in the country. On what basis was it decided that I should not benefit from the same rights as everyone else?

This referendum may be important for reasons to do with human rights and equality. For me and for many others, however, it is more pressing and personal than that.

I think for many families in Ireland the passing of this referendum will lift a burden; it will mean that mothers and fathers will be able to reassure their gay son or daughter that there is a future for them in Ireland, that they are equal to everyone else and they can hold their head high and live a full life in Ireland.

For us who are gay in Ireland, the passing of this referendum will mean something enormous. It will mean that our love, something that we feel as deeply as anyone else, will be recognised publicly by our fellow citizens; it will mean that our lives will be enhanced and improved by the actions of Irish voters.

Ireland, as we know, has a great tradition of supporting liberty, of believing in freedom.

In voting for this referendum, Irish people will be supporting an important moment in the creation of equality in Ireland and in lifting a burden from individuals and families, allowing us to live our lives with decency and honour in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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