Saturday 17 March 2018

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

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
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

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.

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.

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