Sunday 25 September 2016

LGBT burden lightened, but quest for equality continues

Brian Sheehan

Published 23/07/2015 | 02:30

Not only were the Irish the first in the world to be asked to vote on marriage equality, but when they were, an overwhelming majority of the people said yes
Not only were the Irish the first in the world to be asked to vote on marriage equality, but when they were, an overwhelming majority of the people said yes

Few in Ireland were unmoved by the extraordinary result of the marriage equality referendum.

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Last month's Dublin Pride parade, with 75,000 participants and hundreds of thousands watching, was another extraordinary moment when we celebrated the generosity of Irish people and their belief in fairness and equality, and the thousands of people - LGBT and not - who laboured for many months to achieve the nation-changing and world-changing result.

It was both a magical and unique moment in history. Not only were the Irish the first in the world to be asked to vote on marriage equality, but when they were, an overwhelming majority of the people said yes.

Yes that their LGBT family, friends and neighbours belonged. Yes that the republic we live in believed in equal citizenship. Yes that the unjust way we had treated gay people in the past must end.

The result mattered to huge numbers of people, old and young, and to couples who now feel they can safely hold each other's hand as they walk down the street.

The journey to equality for LGBT people has been remarkable.

Decriminalisation in 1993 was a pivotal moment: with the threat of prison removed, more and more people could be open about who they were.

Equality legislation followed and then civil partnership in 2010. And the almost 2,000 couples all across Ireland who had a civil partnership were hugely important in helping Irish people understand that the love and commitment of lesbian and gay couples was the same as that of other couples.

Each step in this truly transformative journey was generously supported by Irish people.

It has given LGBT people in Ireland permission to love ourselves and come out more comfortably and completely, some for the first time, and fulfil our true potential - in family, in love, in life.

Irish people understood and empathised with LGBT people, some for the first time, many others in a new and more profound way.

People realised that many of their LGBT family members, friends, work colleagues and neighbours have been excluded and stigmatised over many years.

We now have an opportunity to ensure that exclusion, stigma and discrimination end for good.

All of us must set ourselves the task of being the last generation to allow LGBT people to carry such a heavy burden. We know that young people still face a very difficult time in schools, where "gay" is a term of abuse and where they discover who they are in an often hostile environment.

We know that LGBT people face verbal and physical harassment, and worse, on the streets of our towns and cities. We know that the legacy of growing up in a society that didn't accept us has left very deep scars for many, and that we are one of the groups most vulnerable to self-harm and suicide.

We all know that there is much more to be done to ensure that the lived experience of being LGBT is positive, that each LGBT person can discover and live their sexual orientation or gender identity without fear, in an atmosphere of support and affirmation.

The journey to that point, thanks to the scale of the referendum result, can hopefully be easier and shorter. The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network will continue our work to deliver the change still needed to reach journey's end.

It will only be achieved by governments, policymakers, service providers and, most crucially, the Irish people, owning their part of the solution. Together we can create an Ireland where being LGBT is fully accepted and valued. For LGBT people, for all of us, it is a defining moment for what it means to be a citizen in our new and changed republic. The kind of republic that 1.2 million people voted for.

Brian Sheehan is director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) and the co-director of the Yes Equality campaign.

Irish Independent

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