The ‘yes’ for marriage equality campaign, and the movement of the Irish people, will inform and inspire the struggle for LGBT equality across the world, says Brian Finnegan
I am an equal citizen of Ireland. I’m stating this, because I still find it hard to believe. For most of my adult life, I have been out and proud. I have insisted upon my equality without fear and defended my dignity, but with the passing of this referendum I understand on the deepest level the stark inequality and the lack of respect I, and all Irish lesbian and gay people, endured until this moment in our history.
The last two weeks of the debate were an emotional rollercoaster. I found myself bursting into tears, triggered by expressions of support from family and friends, or seeing all those people returning home to vote, or watching the daughter of my lesbian friends put her mother’s ballot in the box on polling day. I know that many more of us shed tears during those grueling weeks, having to face posters that said they we were lesser than, that we couldn’t measure up as parents; having to deal with the dread that this fear-mongering campaign might win out and that Ireland might vote No.
In the face of that dread, so many people went out to canvass having never done it before, or donated money to the Yes Equality campaign, or found their own ways to fight for a Yes vote. Not only was it an historic, strategic campaign that will inform the struggle for LGBT equality across the world, it was a true movement of the people.
The resulting, resounding Yes vote is ultimately empowering for Ireland as a whole, on so many levels. The Irish people now know that we can effect positive change through actually going out to get it, rather than passively sitting at home. We are now perceived as a country on the leading edge of social reform, rather than a country brought low by recession and greed.
Of course, there should not have been a referendum in the first place. It is wrong that a majority got to vote on the human rights of a minority, based on an interpretation of the Constitution by fallible politicians, but that is something to reflect on at another time. The other side of the coin is that by putting homosexuality to the popular vote – be in no doubt that homosexuality, plain and simple, was what we were voting on – Ireland had a conversation about LGBT people that has never happened in this way before, anywhere in the world. Despite the lies and misdirection of the No campaign, it has largely been one in which our dignity was affirmed and our stories have been empathised with.
I use the word ‘empathise’ carefully. Like BeLonG To’s Michael Barron, who writes in this special commemorative issue, a key moment during the campaign for me was when TV news journalist Ursula Halligan came out. It is not easy at any stage to tell the world you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, but at 54 it must have taken all of Ursula’s courage. What really stood out, though, was the expectation of empathy contained in every line of the piece she wrote for the Irish Times.
Before now, she might have been far less certain of that empathy. The popularity of the Yes campaign, the badges worn as expressions of solidarity and honour, the huge outpouring of positivity from politicians and celebrities, the support from almost every civic-minded public body in this country, the mobilisation of the largest grassroots civil rights movement Ireland has ever seen – all these things sprang from and fed into an understanding that we could be empathised with at last. The people of Ireland were trying to put themselves in our shoes to see how that felt.
No Longer ‘Other’
We were no longer ‘other’, no longer sympathised with, ‘tolerated’ or declared ‘different’. Suddenly, we became one with the right-thinking people of Ireland, who supported us in their millions, and in a million different ways. If the heterosexual majority was swayed by the No campaign, it was towards even more empathy, for in it they saw a desperate attempt by the Catholic Church and its apologists to hold on to the illusion of control over their lives as well as ours. They saw the hypocrisy of bishops and other religious representatives, willing to stoop to any mean-spirited mendacity in order to keep this illusion alive.
The Yes campaign’s strategy to ‘start the conversation’ had another far-reaching effect. It not only allowed us to share our stories, which had been largely silenced before, but we got to have a conversation about the kind of country Ireland is. So this referendum also became about the way we see ourselves, and the future we want the children of Ireland to have. Gay and lesbian children born in Ireland from this moment on will take their equality for granted, and that is something we can all, as out and proud lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, be immensely proud of. It took generations of people who had the courage to openly be themselves to achieve this for those children.
On Saturday, May 23, 2015, my country became a global leader in the movement towards equality, and a beacon to countries where LGBT people are denied, oppressed, tortured, imprisoned and murdered. We have become a beacon of light and hope for LGBT people in countries on every continent, where they are not equally respected, recognised and protected.
Until this moment, in many parts of the world, Ireland was still perceived as a conservative Catholic country. That is no more. We have grown up and moved beyond the darkness of our past, into the light. There is no going back, and the amazing thing is that so many other countries in the world can learn from our unprecedented Yes campaign, and move beyond the darkness too. Our example says: here is to the recognition of the dignity and equality of every LGBT person on the planet.
© 2015 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.
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