On May 22nd earlier this year, the South of Ireland voted 62% ‘Yes’ in the Marriage Equality referendum, introducing same-sex marriage (SSM) for the first time through popular vote. A few months later on July 15th, the Gender Recognition Act was passed in the Dáil, allowing all individuals over the age of 18 to self-declare their own gender identity. So after these two major victories, where does the LGBTQ+ movement in the South stand and where does it go next?
There was an unprecedented level of youth involvement in the referendum, with even school children ineligible to vote getting active in campaigns. Over 60,000 younger people registered to vote for the first time, and 50,000 returned from abroad for voting day. Working class areas were found to be generally more supportive than middle class areas, achieving resounding ‘Yes’ results as high as 90%. The result symbolised an increased acceptance of homosexuality (and to a usual lesser extent, bisexuality) by society, and a strong rejection of the Catholic establishment; it meant an end to discrimination in another part of the lives of same-sex couples and their families, so they would be treated as any other couple or family would in the eyes of the state.
Watching coverage of the result, we were presented with a series of white Irish, able-bodied, middle-class, cisgender men all proclaiming that “We are all equal now!”. Their reactions were both a result of their otherwise presumably quite privileged lives and of the atmosphere that permeated the ‘Yes’ campaigns in the lead-up to the referendum. The lack of access to the institution of marriage by same-sex couples was posited as the final bastion of inequality in the South, particularly by the unpopular, unsuccessful, neo-liberal government. Rather than being about addressing oppression, discrimination, or inequality, we were told that it concerned “Love” and we should all vote ‘Yes’ to “#make grá [love] the law”, as those hip kids at the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) put it. This idea that the marriage referendum was entirely about love and toleration, and would finally mean supposed equality for all is harmful and damaging for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it’s flagrantly false.
The Left and all the major parties of the establishment supported a ‘Yes’, although some clearly more than others. Yes Equality, the well-funded coalition of organisations calling for a ‘Yes’ vote, held a position as weak, moderate, apologetic, and pathetic as one could have while still actually supporting the ‘Yes’ vote. There came a point during the postering campaigns where at a glance, you might be unsure if certain posters were advocating a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote, as both sides were simply claiming that “Marriage Matters”. Yes Equality, quite similarly to the government, called for ‘Yes’ on the basis of the importance of marriage in society, and for love. On the other hand, the posters of the Anti-Austerity Alliance loudly proclaimed that “Discrimination Damages Lives”, immediately hitting home the major message that should have been at the forefront of the ‘Yes’ side. The referendum should never have been made out to be about love. But this was the most palatable and conservative way of selling to the public the idea of SSM, and more generally, a toleration of LGBTQ+ people in society, neither of which are in any way even vaguely radical goals.
The Gender Recognition Act originally proposed by the government was already outdated and behind the rest of Europe. But pressured into making important alterations, it is now among the most progressive, despite failing greatly in a number of areas. It still excludes young, intersex, and non-binary people. Trans youth if aged 16-17 require a court order to have their correct gender recognised, and below that age are excluded from recognition. A blanket age restriction is backward and harmful, and instead youth should be treated on a case-by-case basis. But this maltreatment or entire exclusion is the norm for how the rest of the LGBTQ+ acronym is generally treated after the ‘LGB’. A lack of marriage is less critically damaging than not recognising people by their correct genders, but one should not have to wait for the other to be achieved. Although SSM gains public support because homosexuality is easily mainstream and marketable by capitalism, the rest of the people in the acronym are less fortunate, and tend to be forgotten.
However, what LGBTQ+ people have won in the lead-up to and during the summer of 2015 is remarkable nonetheless. It would have been near unimaginable twenty-two years ago, when homosexuality was decriminalised and the first Pride parade took place in Dublin. But as is the trend in Ireland, it should have all happened years ago. Still, the goals of a history of LGBTQ+ struggle should not be allowed to be reduced to marriage, a patriarchal institution used to oppress since its creation. Lack of separation of Church from state, seen through control over schools and hospitals, means gay and bisexual men still have a blanket life ban placed on blood donation. Teachers in schools can still be fired for their sexuality, permitted in Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. Horrific transphobia and homophobia are still rife in society, and will continue to be if not aggressively challenged. Schools at an early stage must cover alternatives to the perceived heterosexual and cisgender norm, coupled with better sex-ed than the embarrassing standard we have today. A heteronormative and cisnormative world without proper education leads LGBTQ+ children to believe they are broken and do not exist. It is no mystery then, as to why problems such as mental health are more prevalent among LGBTQ+ people, as they are fatally neglected, along with mental health in society in general.
But the marriage referendum didn’t have the lasting radicalising effect we hoped for, core components have gone back home rather than fighting for real, full equality for themselves, their fellow LGBTQ+ people who are not so fortunate to only want marriage, and for every other oppressed section of society. If all those that campaigned and fought for ‘Equality’ in the marriage referendum truly desired it, they would be out alongside others fighting for change, in the vast number of other movements active in the South right now, striving not merely for marriage, but for genuine equality for all. James Connolly said it best, when he claimed that “Our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth.” and we have no reason to fight for anything less than that.
by Darragh McCarthy
Darragh is an LGBTQ & Socialist activist in Limerick, who was active in the campaign for a Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum that took place earlier this year and returned an historic Yes result.