With a play following the highs and lows of four very different Yes campaigners in the marriage referendum about to open in the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, writer Colette Cullen reflects on what the marriage referendum meant for her.
The synopsis for my new play, YES, which I’m currently rehearsing starts with the tag line: Remember this time last year? Well, this time last year I was also rehearsing another play, Blind Date, for the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, so I wasn’t that caught up in the campaign for the marriage equality referendum. Or so I thought.
We were rehearsing in Outhouse. Now and then we’d see swarms of people coming in and out for meetings. These were the army of Yes campaigners. Around the same time my daughter was having dental work done. Having a child with two mothers outs you as a lesbian family pretty quickly, which is great but you can get too much of a good thing. Like every time I went with her to our local dentist he’d spend the entire visit going on about how many gay friends he had, how many gay people were in his family, how many civil partnerships he’d attended and how he was definitely voting Yes in the referendum.
Don’t get me wrong this was all good stuff, but why had I never heard any of this from him before? And why did it make me feel so uncomfortable? I knew it wasn’t about him identifying me as a lesbian. That was one of the great things about the campaign – the visibility we achieved – and I’ve been an out lesbian all my adult life. Then it hit me what I was reacting to was being patronised.
I felt I was supposed to be grateful that he was so gay friendly and was voting Yes for me and my kind. It felt like overnight I’d suddenly turned into a worthy cause. I wasn’t an individual anymore but a member of a now fashionable novelty group – the gays. And you know the one certainty about fashion – it changes.
Like Laura, the lesbian character in YES, I was a bit lukewarm about the referendum at the start. As Laura says: “Argued that marriage was a patriarchal institution, so seemed hypocritical to be asking for it to be extended to us”. Like Laura I’d never really thought about marriage much for myself because as she says: “I’d maximised the positives about being a lesbian and minimised the negatives like discrimination. Made me forget I wasn’t being treated equally.”
It took me a while to realise that irrespective of whether I wanted to get married myself or not I should have the choice. As another of the characters in YES, veteran gay activist Peter states: “it’s not really about marriage at all” but about being seen as equal. My Facebook post on the morning of May 23 said: “So proud to be Irish today! Woke up to this great feeling that when I stand up and look around two thirds of my fellow citizens are standing with me too. A big thank you to everyone in the YES campaign. YES WE DID IT!” Which is a longwinded way of saying that I hadn’t realised how much the referendum meant to me until it had been won. I had been too afraid to hope.
However, along with experiencing the magic of that moment, something had been niggling me about the referendum and the result, especially since those visits to the dentist. Don’t get me wrong, it felt fantastic. But unlike a lot of commentators, I didn’t think it was going to solve all our problems overnight. In particular one comment stuck in my mind. Someone said that from this moment on no one born gay was ever going to feel bad about coming out. I just didn’t believe that.
So I did what all writers do. I decided to tease out my feelings in a play. It follows the highs and lows of four very different Yes campaigners – Gina, a straight woman campaigning for her gay son; Peter, a veteran gay activist; Laura a lesbian in a committed relationship; and, Josh, a young gay student from the country not out to his family. They meet on the campaign trail and strike up what might seem from the outside like an unlikely friendship.
Each of them is changed over the course of the campaign as they learn something valuable about themselves. YES is funny and sad, but most of all it’s entertaining. It was only when I finished writing it that I realised what had been niggling me all along about the referendum and its result, and those visits with my daughter to the dentist – homophobia. That just because we’ve achieved constitutional equality doesn’t mean homophobia is going to disappear overnight.
In an indirect way YES explores how homophobia has affected the lives of all four characters in different and sometimes very similar ways. I want to celebrate the great victory we achieved on May 22 last year. That victory was won by everyone who voted Yes, by everyone who campaigned for a Yes vote, but most of all by all those Irish people who had the courage to come out to anyone at any time for it is on their shoulders that we all stand.
My play celebrates all those Yes campaigners who worked so tirelessly for that great victory. If you campaigned, then come along and relive those glory days, preferably with some of your fellow campaigners. If you didn’t, then get a taste of what you missed with Gina, Peter, Laura and Josh on their campaign trail. Either way gay or straight, young or old, man or woman you’ll recognise something of yourself in these characters.
YES premieres in The Pearse Centre Theatre, 27 Pearse Street, Dublin 2, as part of the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival from May 9 to 14 at 7.30pm, with a matinee on May 14 at 2.30pm. Book your tickets here.
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