AS THE MARRIAGE referendum campaign heats up there’s a lot of talk on the no side about marriage being an institution that needs to be protected. But protected against what or who? Marriage predates religion. It was historically linked to land, money and status, with women often traded between families as mere commodities.
Marriage has always been evolving. Up until the ’70s women had to give up work when they got married. In the not too distant past, love between Catholics and Protestants was frowned upon, divorce was illegal, and people were often forced to stay in miserable, violent or abusive relationships for the sake up protecting the institution of marriage.
It’s time now for another change. For too long many of our gay and lesbian friends, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons and daughters have been isolated and marginalised. They have been cruelly judged by some as being freaks and sinners, people who aren’t somehow normal or equal in the eyes of God or the State. It’s hard to believe now but it was only in 1993, and despite appeals by some groups, that being gay was decriminalised in Ireland.
Gay people are still pushed to the margins in many ways
My 15 years’ experience in youth and community work has shown me that a pervasive culture of homophobia has pushed many gay and lesbian people into the margins of society. This has led to depression, addiction, emigration and denial of identity for many. It has meant that some people have never been free to be who they truly are.
Thankfully things are changing but still, all over Ireland, and particularly in rural Ireland, gay people live in the shadows. They listen to the so called banter at school, at work, in pubs and at matches, the jokes and jeers about ‘queers’ and ‘faggots’, and of something negative being described as ‘gay’.
Research by Headstrong – the national centre for youth mental health, has found that 6% of heterosexual young people they surveyed had attempted suicide. This number is too high but it is nothing compared to the figure of 19% for gay and lesbian young people and 24% for young bisexual people. Other research suggests these numbers could be higher.
But these aren’t just numbers and statistics. The figures are made up by real lives –real young people in our families, schools, colleges, churches, work places and sports clubs, young people we need to stand up for, support, love, cherish and protect.
Marriage is a core part of our culture and denying same sex couples the right to be part of this is telling them they’re not equal, that their love isn’t as special or as sacred. For those considering a no vote, think about what message voting no would send to these people who are already struggling with having their identity and sexuality debated on a daily basis. Think about all the young people who are still afraid to come out to their parents. Think about all the suffering and suicides that we can avoid.
Decoys and distractions from the real issues
As to the argument that civil partnership will suffice, there was a compelling riposte doing the rounds on social media recently. It stated that arguing for civil marriage is like saying African-American civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks should have been happy with her seat at the back of the bus.
When it comes to the debate around surrogacy and adoption, this is a decoy and a distraction. These laws are already in place and the Chair of the Adoption Agency has clarified this. No amount of misinformation or fear mongering will change this.
It’s clear too that neither marital status nor the gender of parents can guarantee happiness or safety for kids. The reports of agencies like Barnardos, the ISPCC and CARI provide harrowing evidence of this. There are plenty of single parent families, both single mothers and fathers, who provide better parenting that some families combined. Similarly there are same sex couples who are as dedicated to loving, supporting and protecting their children as anyone you’ll meet.
This time last year I got married. My right to marry was not one I had to fight for, unlike the estimated 10% of Ireland’s citizens who are denied the same right. The question needs to be asked – if marriage is an institution that can foster love and joy in the world, then why deny it to another? If, for some, this is about religion and God is love, then why would that God want to prevent someone’s happiness? Surely none of us has the right to deny that right and to deny another’s happiness.
This is why an unprecedented alliance of diverse voices is calling for a yes vote. This includes Sr Stan, Mary McAleese, Gay Byrne, Fr Tony Flannery, Brian O’Driscoll, the Gaelic Player’s Association, the Garda Representative Association, Amnesty International Ireland, the National Youth Council and all the main political parties.
I understand why some people fear change. There is much to be concerned about in a fast changing world where community is fragmented and compassion is in short supply. But we shouldn’t give in to fear. People have suffered enough. Fear is the enemy of love and on May 22nd we have a chance to choose love. In doing so, we can help heal Ireland and send a powerful message to the world about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we want to be.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar, founder of SpunOut.ie, and a member of the Council of State. His website is www.ruairimckiernan.com