Saturday 23 May 2015 was definitely one of the best days of my life.
In the few days before, I had been becoming more optimistic about the result. But even still, the night before the poll, I barely slept, which wasn’t ideal, as I had the last of my summer exams on the afternoon of polling day! I voted as polls opened at 7, as I so often do. But it was great to go down there with my sister Ursula, then catch the 7.04 train from Bray. I tuned into what was happening on Facebook and Twitter, and was bowled over with the emotion by the enthusiasm for the occasion, how many were flying and sailing #hometovote. But I had to maintain focus on that exam!
At 5, as the class moved down to the King’s Inn, and the conversation stayed on the exam, I had only the referendum and its place in wider social change in Ireland on my mind, so went with a few of them down to the Bernard Shaw, which was in a more political mood.
Meeting the Dublin Bay South canvassers in Slattery’s that night, as polls were closing, I ventured to hope to one that we could have reached 58%. Yet the following morning, about an hour before boxes were to open, I noted that anything over 53.7% would put us above Washington, which approved of marriage equality by popular vote in 2012. But from early in the day as we tallied the votes, it was clear it’d be more comfortable than that. The first box I tallied was from Curtlestown, just outside Bray, with 212 Yes to 75 No. A few minute or two later, I saw a tweet from Tiernan Brady that Bundoran had a result of 60%, and it was clear this was an extensive win. I was pleased to find out later in the morning that my own box in Bray got a high Yes vote of 301 to 105.
Every vote was important. Though many of us went through periods during the campaign where we imagined that it was going badly, that we might lose, and that a win no matter how small was a win nonetheless, it was important that we got a clear result, across the whole country. This wasn’t an urban Yes and a rural No, as we’ve seen in previous referendums. I haven’t seen the tallies from Ballinasloe or Ballincollig, but they’re likely to have seen a Yes vote, like most other towns across the country, despite the predictions a few months ago of Sen. Rónán Mullen.
It was wonderful to be in Dublin Castle for the result, to see how much joy there was among the crowds who had gathered there and on the streets outside. Then to meet other canvassers in Jury’s hotel in Ballsbridge. It was especially nice to be there with two friends I had been with the Hist committee ten years earlier. Ten years ago I had been sidelining what feelings I had of being gay because I didn’t think it practical to pay heed them. Perhaps it was fear of attention, that I thought it would be easier to get by if I acted as if I were straight. Talking to one of those two friends that night, I wondered, “If only I had known then that we would be here today”. After thinking on what I said, her response was perfect: “If we’d known then, then today wouldn’t feel so amazing”.
That explains so much of the joy that we saw throughout the country that day. It wasn’t just that we were pleased with the result in itself, and relief that the work of the campaign had gone the right way, but how far we’ve come.
This great success wouldn’t have happened without those who worked at each stage of the way. Some campaigners who worked in the foundation of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform in 1975, such as Sen. David Norris and former president Mary McAleese, who played a key role in this campaign. Norris’s cases, represented by former president Mary Robinson, with the High Court and Supreme Court finding against him, before his victory in the European Court of Human Rights. The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), were prominent in the work leading up to decriminalisation in 1993 and civil partnership in 2010, as they were in this campaign. There was Marriage Equality, with its single-issue focus on this campaign, and the very important work from Michael Barron and others in Belong To, with their focus on the needs and concerns of young lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in Ireland. Each year at Pride, we see the wide range of organisations working to achieve and promote equality, and all of these deserve credit for the change in the culture that contributed to the high result.
One of the great things of these recent years for me was to get to know these people well, to work with them. I’ve made many great friends over these years. My own avenue to the campaign was through politics. Contrary to what Una Mullally wrote during the week, I do see a strong role for parties as a source of political change. Not everyone can find a party that suits them, and for others, the focus of a particular campaign or organisation serves their aim better. But the energy we saw in the campaign should hopefully find its way into the political process, especially as we look ahead towards the coming general election. For the campaign to be successful in the way it was, it needed both the approval of the political process, in the establishment of the constitutional convention which proposed it, and in the passage of the amendment bill through the Oireachtas, and also the experience in canvassing. Our campaign in Wicklow was led by Ian McGahon, who had been a local election candidate for Labour, and as well as myself from Fine Gael, we also had James Doyle, who stood last year for Fianna Fáil. This combined experience mattered, even as the vast majority of those who canvassed with us had never done so before. We also benefited in different ways from the support of our local TDs Andrew Doyle, Simon Harris and Anne Ferris.
I was quite pleased with the role Fine Gael played in this campaign and the political process leading up to this. When I joined the party in 2009, I had recently begun to come out as gay, so it was very much on my mind. But at that stage, while I saw a dynamism in the party in many areas, there were a few conservative voices on this issue, most notably Lucinda Creighton, who caused us a lot of trouble before the 2011 election – though she too came out in favour in the end!
It was Charlie Flanagan’s speech as Justice Spokesperson in response to the civil partnership bill in November of that year that confirmed for me that there was a place for me in the party, that I could imagine the party speaking out strongly in favour of equality. Even after a motion I put to the 2010 YFG Summer School was narrowly defeated, I stayed on, because of that speech, in which he hoped it would be a step towards full equality. I was elected to the YFG National Exec, appointed as Director of Policy, and then proposed the motion again at Summer School in 2011, when there was barely any opposition to speak of. It was great to see the change in the organisation, with so many there wearing white ribbons on their lapels, which Maeve Howe, who was seconding the motion with me, had made to promote the motion.
At the 2012 Fine Gael Ard Fheis, another friend of mine from Trinity, Mark O’Meara had proposed a motion in favour of marriage equality. Yet the party watered it down to the focus to one on the constitutional convention. It was through the leadership of Jerry Buttimer that we saw change take hold within the parliamentary party. He was the first Fine Gael TD to come out as gay, and I was proud to join him from the start in the work of the newly established Fine Gael LGBT. We were small at first, as seen in pictures of our delegation to Dublin Pride that year, but we grew in prominence, and played an important role in bringing the conversations on the lives and relationships of LGBT people to party members. We had great assistance in establishing ourselves from our general secretary Tom Curran, who shared his own family story during the campaign.
There are many others in the parliamentary party I could mention here, though I would pay a particular tribute to Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, our vice chair on Fine Gael LGBT. We were in a good position with both ministers for justice during this period, with Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald showing a clear commitment to equality, and through their efforts at different stages, we saw the passage of the comprehensive reform of family law in the Children and Family Relationships Act. During these few years, the understanding of Enda Kenny has grown, from when he was jumping over flowerpots to avoid answering questions, to dropping into our Christmas drinks in Panti Bar, and speaking with a true insight when launching the Fine Gael campaign.
The end of the campaign brought with it a strange feeling. We had a great celebration at home on the Sunday. Then in the days after, I came across a few in work who had voted No. Some were light-hearted about it, but others were bitter. Despite the high Yes vote as evidence of Ireland as an open society, there were still many who voted No. The result will certainly make lesbian, gay, bi and trans people feel more relaxed and comfortable in our country, as we saw in reports of gay couples feeling more confident holding hands in public since the vote, but also with an awareness that homophobia still exists. On the other hand, it was to be able to just walk away from comments, not be in campaign mode, where I’d feel an obligation to counter what they said for any wavering voters there. And I should say, most in work were very positive in the days after the referendum, some of them having spotted me in the news coverage.
I also heard of gay people who knew of immediate family members who had voted No. Exhilarating as the campaign was, it wasn’t an easy one. Putting it to a vote wasn’t all positive. It was sometimes difficult to canvass, not knowing what the response would be. I’ve had negative responses before, canvassing for both the PDs and Fine Gael, but that wasn’t personal in the way this was. But though my exam schedule meant I couldn’t go out as often as I’d like, it still always felt worthwhile doing so, and was glad I did what I could.
The emotional comedown was difficult, knowing that it was over. I know I’m not alone in that, and it’s good to see a focus from the Yes Equality campaign on emotional well-being. The campaign wasn’t easy, putting so much of ourselves out there, directly or indirectly, having our lives, or the lives of friends or family, as a matter of public debate or disagreement. That’s part of what took me time to write this. The relief of knowing that this was no longer something I’d have to think about, at least as far as Ireland goes. It will be a while before it truly sinks in, whether it’s after what will be an amazing Dublin Pride, the legislation is enacted, or we see the first marriages take place. But there are already small effects of the change. It is a great feeling to know that I will not have to campaign on this again. I will watch with interest what happens in other countries, how big the majority will be on the US Supreme Court, but no longer with half an eye on the momentum it will build for change here.
Almost immediately, we heard people asking what’s next. It was great to see progress so swiftly on an improved gender recognition bill, one of the best in the world. The trans members of our community had stood with us during this campaign, like Sam Blanckensee here in Wicklow, and it’s great to see that there is something for them too to have Pride in their country this year. Whether someone identifies as male or female, or somewhere along the spectrum, should be their decision alone, a simple matter of a free choice in a free society. Given the prevalence of single-sex school, I hope the review in two years which forms part of the bill will make provision for those under 16.
There are, of course, many other social issues in need of legislative and constitutional reform. There always will be. Not all these campaigns can be compared precisely in how they will succeed to this campaign for marriage equality. The rapid change in attitudes that occurred as more people came out to their family and friends, and in the context of a global debate and legal change (unfortunately in both directions), cannot be so easily replicated. But the lesson must be to maintain focus in further campaigns on the lives and experiences of individuals, and how restrictive laws affect them. We have a great group of people in Wicklow, and we mean to find ways to continue to campaign.
It was a great campaign to be involved in, and one I’m sure I will always cherish. And that day has made possible so many great days for so many, even better than the win itself, not just this year, but forever more.
Coming more than 36 hours later, I’m not going to claim to present Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech on Tuesday on LGBT rights as news. It was a great speech though, and well worth watching if you’ve only read the text.
Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same. Now, of course, 60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community. They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups. Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity.
This recognition did not occur all at once. It evolved over time. And as it did, we understood that we were honoring rights that people always had, rather than creating new or special rights for them. Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.
It is wrong to make legal distinctions, prohibitions against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people because no one should be subject to any special exception from human rights. It is not about creating exceptions, but ending them. Culture and religion can be no excuse for an infringement on human rights.
As I posted on Facebook, she didn’t start being great on Tuesday. This speech consciously mirrors her speech in Beijing at the Fourth World Conference on Women. This is a speech should be read again now by all those inspired by her speech on Tuesday,
It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.
These abuses have continued because, for too long, the history of women has been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words. But the voices of this conference and of the women at Huairou must be heard loudly and clearly:
It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls.
It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution for human greed — and the kinds of reasons that are used to justify this practice should no longer be tolerated.
It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small.
It is a violation of human rights when individual women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.
It is a violation of human rights when a leading cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are subjected to in their own homes by their own relatives.
It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation.
It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.
The problems she refers to are unfortunately as alive today as they were 16 years ago, and we must continue to scrutinize our approaches to human rights issues around the world to ensure that we do not place the right to life and personal autonomy of any individual on a lower scale for any reason.
I had a letter published in today’s Irish Times, in response to Breda O’Brien’s article on Saturday, “Genuinely tolerant society will not be a cold house for religion”.
A chara, – Breda O’Brien writes that “how we handle gay rights versus religious rights will determine whether we become a polarised society that is a cold house for religion, or a genuinely tolerant society”.
Implicit in this comparison is a faulty assumption these rights fall under equivalent categories. Ms O’Brien might plausibly contrast religious views of society against secular views, both being deeply held outlooks.
However, the same cannot be said of gay rights, which are a recognition of an innate characteristic. In classical liberal terms, the rights afforded to religion are derived from freedom of speech and association, and in a pluralist society we should naturally be respectful of differences in such matters, whereas the rights recognised for gay people are a matter of equality before the law, which surely ranks higher in any estimation of rights. – Is mise,
Bray, Co Wicklow.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Portmarnock Golf Club was entitled to exclude women from full membership (I covered this on Facebook, still not in the habit of posting such things here). I would agree with their decision in this case, based on the idea that individuals have the freedom to associate with others on the terms they decide for themselves. I’m not saying that this is an absolute right in all cases, particularly that there could be discrimination on the basis of race that should at times be prevented.
(Having said that, while it cost them money in the courts, and anything that hurts them is a good thing, I see little sense either in forcing the British National Party to allow membership to those who aren’t white. They very clearly are a racist party, I can think of no reason someone who wasn’t white would wish to join, and allowing them to be explicit about it had the benefit of discouraging votes from them.)
This is a different case to whether sex discrimination should be allowed in matters of employment. It is easy to conflate issues because of the broad similarity of what is involved, and the common principles, but because there are no economic structures, the principles are subtly different. In this case it is simply a matter of the freedom of association, that in a free society any group of people may come together to decide how they want to organize.
There are any number of ladies’ clubs around the country, which no one objects to. They may not bother stating explicitly in their rules that their membership is exclusively for women, but it is understood to be so. For whatever reason, men and women often like to associate without the other. Some women might like to chat at their book club, while men might like there to be only other men while chatting in the members’ bar in Portmarnock. Perhaps a ladies’ sports gym would have been a better example, as men and women respectively often like to be with their own before and after sports. Not all do, of course. I have little interest in sport myself, and in general, prefer mixed groups. And in any case, I hope never to middle-aged enough to wish to join a golf club.
The bigger perspective really is where does what is known as the equality agenda end. As far as I’m concerned, the state should tackle discrimination in as far as it is directly responsible for the employment or association. However people wish to organize socially should be their affairs. What those on the left of this and related issues forget is where we’ve come from, and what they historically fought against. In years gone by, conservatives sought to mould society in a particular image, and interfered with matters that should have been the private domain, controlling the interactions between individuals. This is now what those who wish to force social clubs to open their membership are trying to achieve in reverse. Until all units of society are tolerant and diverse, at least in principle, they don’t seem to be happy. Except, that is, that they won’t tolerate those who have no wish for diversity.