Young LGBT+ people unable to vote in the marriage referendum look back on the fifth anniversary

For many LGBT+ teenagers, it was a difficult time not being able to vote in a referendum that would decide their future.

Young people cheering wearing rainbow flag during the marriage equality referendum announcement

Five years ago today, 16 year-old Charlie Burton found herself sitting in front of the television in her Bray home watching the scenes at Dublin Castle, where thousands had turned out for the official announcement of the results of the Marriage Equality Referendum.

On that bright, unusually warm day in May, she sat next to her girlfriend and her family, as the result confirmed just before 7 pm that 1.2 million people had voted in favour of marriage equality in a landslide 62 per cent Yes vote. “I cried and cried and kissed my girlfriend and I was just so proud to be Irish and so grateful even though I didn’t get to vote,” she said.

After the result, Charlie felt more comfortable openly telling people she was bisexual and being affectionate with girlfriends in public. Having experienced homophobic bullying when she first came out a couple of years before the referendum, Charlie was hopeful that the “positivity” she was seeing about the referendum would mean young people in the future wouldn’t have to experience the same “shame and guilt” she went through if they grew up “knowing their country accepted them and they were going to be afforded the same rights as their straight friends”.

The marriage referendum was Charlie’s “first real introduction to getting involved in politics” and, like many other young people, it was a key moment in politicising a generation that has been labelled the most progressive and radical so far – rejecting traditional political parties and spearheading the movement for climate change.

In 2015, Charlie went door to door campaigning with Yes Equality and attended rallies held by Amnesty and ROSA. She has since campaigned for every subsequent referendum, including the 2018 Referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

“I realised from the marriage referendum how much every single vote counts. So I’m really into politics now and I think voting is so important. I always try to encourage everyone around me to have their say. I love being a part of such historical change in Ireland,” she said.

It was a similar story for Lauren Byrne, who was also 16 at the time of the referendum and out as a lesbian to those who knew her. Lauren spoke about the referendum as much as she could – “in secondary school, at home, with friends” and attended protests and marches.

The marriage referendum led to Lauren’s passion for human rights law and played a “huge role” in her decision to pursue law as a degree in university. “I’ve always been interested in politics, but the campaign definitely furthered that. It helped me to understand political processes and it opened my eyes to the flaws in our society… It definitely pushed me to be more involved with the abortion referendum too.”

For Lauren, elements of the campaign itself were “scary, intimidating and upsetting”.

“At 16 it was hard to witness such blatant homophobia. Fortunately, I hadn’t experienced homophobia before the marriage referendum, so it was a shock to the system to see it in action in a country I had previously felt relatively comfortable in as a young LGBT person,” she said.

“Weirdly enough, after the referendum, I actually felt some discomfort in public displays of affection with partners, just because I was a bit hyper-aware of the homophobia that existed. But overall, I became more comfortable with myself and more open about my sexuality with new people,” Lauren added.

At the time, Lauren “didn’t understand why the issue of marriage equality had to be put to a public vote” and felt “angry that we didn’t just automatically have that right because everyone else did.” It’s a frustration many members of the LGBT+ community shared at the time and in the years that have passed since. For some, there was a great fear (and, later, trauma) in placing the future of queer couples in the hands of straight people, even if many of those considered themselves to be allies. If this was a referendum about achieving greater equality, where was the feeling of autonomy for queer people?

For David Irving, who was 16 at the time of the referendum and still in the closet, that element of the campaign felt particularly unfair. As he phrases it: “Well, I don’t remember there ever being a national referendum for or against heterosexual marriage.”

It was not as easy for David to campaign either, living in the rural West. “A 16 year-old in the closet in the West of Ireland? No, I tried to avoid discussing the topic in case I got too passionate and people suspected anything!”

“My plan had always been to come out when I went to college, which is what I did. My dad and two of my best friends had known since I was 15, but the results of the election didn’t impact life in the West much, so I didn’t think coming out any sooner was a wise idea.” The campaign had at times been “vulgar” and it was distressing for David to overhear his classmates casually debate over what constituted a “real family” while on school trips and seeing no campaign posters and pundits declaring that a Yes vote would damage children’s “right” to both a male and female parent.

Thankfully, everyone David was close to and trusted voted Yes, though there was no mention of the milestone in school and “people didn’t really seem to care”.

Though some reports did find a surge in the number of young people coming out as gay in Ireland since the marriage referendum, research from BeLonG To Youth Services in 2018 showed that three years on from marriage equality, 90% of LGBT+ young people still struggled with their mental health. Nearly half felt reluctant to open up about those struggles due to the perceived expectations that they should feel happy in a post-marriage-referendum Ireland.

Many have also called for critical reflection on the ways in which people of colour and working-class LGBT+ people were left behind and silenced during the campaign. For a gay brown man growing up in a white family in a predominantly white area, that feeling of alienation was heightened during the campaign, as Darren shared. “My mam didn’t vote. I don’t know about my grandparents or other heterosexual family members, but my mother not voting really upset me. She has never been truly supportive of me being who I am – not just as a gay person but also as a person of colour and femme too.”

Not being able to vote for his own rights because he was 17 at the time made things more difficult. “But when the marriage referendum passed it was like a switch flipped for me. I never considered marriage as a possibility in my future – I made myself believe it was something I didn’t want. I always loved the idea of marriage but when I realised I was gay at 11, I was so sad I wouldn’t be able to have a happy marriage and children. All those memories resurfaced when the result was announced and it was so nice to let those negative feelings go,” he added.

Growing up as part of a religious family and attending a highly religious school, that period of Anne-Marie Keogh’s life was a “very isolating experience”.

Anne-Marie missed the opportunity to vote by just one month at age 17 and recalls sitting in mass several Sundays in a row, listening to the Priest telling people to vote No. “Knowing there were people in the congregation I went to school with would vote No, knowing their parents and the entire institution that my school was part of did not support people like me… It really hurt,” she said. The knowledge there was no support there meant Anne-Marie could not be involved in the campaign or she would “risk outing [herself]”. When she did eventually come out to her parents, given hope by the result that she could “live life comfortably without having to hide” they stopped speaking to her for six months.

Experiences like these are proof that there is still a long way to go to eradicate homophobia in Ireland. LGBT+ young people still experience discrimination, bullying and violence as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, that watershed moment in 2015 was a huge step towards a brighter future for Ireland’s LGBT+ community – offering hope, a sense of acceptance, and a greater ability to dream of and fight for better. For Dylan O’Neill, it was “exciting to be in a positive moment of history” when he took the early morning train to Dublin from Mayo for the day of the result, after voting for the first time with his Dad and witnessing family members driving elderly neighbours to the polls to vote Yes. The night was spent partying and “decked out in rainbow flags”.

Five years after marriage equality – remember to share your own #MarRefMemories on social media and tune in to GCN’s YouTube page this Saturday May 23 for Mar Ref – 5 Years On. You can support GCN by texting “GCN” to 50300 to donate €4 or by visiting our support page here. Text costs €4. GCN will receive a minimum of €3.25 per text. Service Provider: LIKECHARITY. Helpline: 076 6805278.

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