It has been a long road. I never knew we were on it, or even that we were remotely interested in the journey we have taken together over the past twenty-two years. It’s only in the past month that I’ve come to understand the significance of that journey, and the distance we have travelled together.
I am the son of the son of a farmer. My roots lie in rural Ireland, and thirteen years ago, after almost two decades living in Ireland, it was to rural Ireland I returned. My home county of Wexford to be precise, though this time at the northern end of the Model County, rather than Adamstown, the small village of my childhood. I was born in 1966, in a place where the swinging part of that decade never quite reached. It was a different time, a time when many of our citizens found themselves living on the edge of society because of who they were, or because of who they loved. We all know the stories now, we have faced them with great courage at last over recent years…though we have a few more to face yet. The women cast out because Ireland disapproved of their relationships, or the simple fact of their reproductivity. Those cast into laundries, or Mother and Baby Homes, or exiled to England to save their families from their shame. The children damned to lives of misery, exploitation and abuse because of the ‘sins’ of their parents. The mixed marriages of which both Church and society disapproved; inter-faith marriages which quite literally tore families apart.
It was an Ireland which too often vilified women. Where a terrified fifteen year old Anne Lovett and her new born son died alone in a grotto because of the ‘shame’ of his conception. An Ireland where a teacher could be shamed and fired for being an unmarried mother, in a relationship with a separated man.
And somewhere out there, on the far fringes of that, were the women and men who were guilty of the ultimate taboo, the crime of falling in love with someone of the same gender. I say out there on the far fringes because they were almost entirely invisible. At least they were to me as I grew up, oblivious of the fact that I was one of ‘them’. Many just left. Packed up and ran, as I did. To Dublin, and then on to another country in an effort to escape and find a life free of shame and of judgement. Many hid, in miserable marriages, or lonely lives. Many died. Suicide, a blight on our society for many, many decades seemed like the only way out for some.
I name all of this darkness, not to induce shame or outrage, but so that we might acknowledge and celebrate the distance we have travelled. It is a mighty thing, and we should be proud of it.
All of this is very much in my mind, and in my heart, because of the remarkable conversations I have had with people all around the country over the past two months.
A week ago I was back in Wexford. I was canvassing for a Yes vote in the marriage referendum on the Main Street, the same street an often miserable and confused teenage me wandered thirty years ago. That younger me could never have imagined the conversations I had that day. It’s quite the thing to have to do; asking someone for their permission to do the most wonderful and ordinary of things, to get married. But that’s what people are doing all over Ireland at the moment, and it is amazing to witness. What I have found is a generosity of spirit and an open heartedness that has left me at times profoundly moved.
I have met countless wonderful people. Like the gorgeous couple that day on Wexford Main Street who glowed as they told me that they would be voting Yes. “We’ve been married forty years, said she, why would we deny that to anyone else.” Her husband beamed and smiled as he shook my hand warmly. Or the elderly couple I met in Enniscorthy later that day. I was outside Supervalu and as they walked towards me I could see that she was a little unsteady, and her husband helped steady her as they walked to their car, shopping in hand. I wasn’t going to bother them, but they stopped right by me where their car was parked, and as he open the boot to put the bags away, she struck up a conversation with me. I asked her if she had thought about how she might vote. “I’m voting Yes, she said. We were visiting friends yesterday, and one of them has six months left to live. He has cancer. And they are both terrified about what will happen. I’m voting yes for them.”
Or Mossy, who I met in Galway and who spoke with huge passion about how much he wanted to see a Yes vote on 22 May. He told me that he wasn’t sure at first, but that his daughter helped make up his mind for him. She is thirty years old, and lives in London. She rang him and asked how he intended to vote. When he said he wasn’t sure she told him that she had never before told him what to think, or how to vote, but this time she was. She told him that he had to vote Yes.
And everywhere I have gone I have met people who have been energised and impassioned by this referendum in a way I have never seen before. Queues of people outside Garda Stations and council offices, lining up to make sure they will be able to vote. Public meetings with standing room only, where people came to express their views, have their questions answered or volunteer to get involved in the Yes campaign. In a time when politics has little currency, it is an exercise in a kind of passionate democracy that is a powerful signal of how things could be. Of a society which can passionately and respectfully debate an issue that only a few years earlier would have divisive and fractious.
I know there are those who suggest that some people have been intimidated out of expressing their views. I haven’t met them, or least I’ve met many who have not been. As expected in such a campaign, there are those who hold views I find difficult to hear. But I have heard them. I have been told I am sinful, immoral, perverted, an unfit parent, a threat to society and unworthy of equal citizenship in this, the republic of my birth. And as it happens, I think it is good that people have felt able to say these things, because if they did not, we wouldn’t have been able to have this debate. And we needed to.
Overall though, it has been a joyous experience. I feel, perhaps for the first time in my life, like an equal citizen. I have felt affirmed, respected and valued in ways I have never felt before. I have felt this way because of the people I have met, people I do not know, who have told me in straightforward terms, that I am one of them. That I have the same dreams and aspirations, the same capacity for love and goodness, the same contribution to make to my community and my society as they do. And that is no small thing.
It is something that has perhaps been missed in the debates where instead we have had to focus on issues that in reality have no bearing on the question we will decide on 22 May. And thanks to the intervention of every leading child welfare and children’s rights charity, the clarity of the Chair of the Adoption Authority and the Chair of the Referendum Commission, we now know that this referendum is most certainly not about adoption or about surrogacy, but about permitting any two people who love each other to marry in accordance with our laws. And that is no small thing.
Just think about it for a minute. Imagine a world where you were barred by force of law from marrying the person who you love. Imagine of you were told that the best of who you are, your capacity for love, was flawed or intrinsically evil? Imagine if spurious reasons such as procreation were used as a means for dressing up that denial as anything other than discrimination? After all, any two seventy year old man and woman can marry and have their loving union celebrated and recognised in law, and they won’t be having children either.
Albie Sachs, a former Justice of the South African Supreme Court described the impact of such discrimination on members of the LGBT community when he ruled in favour of marriage equality in that country back in 2005
“The exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities [of civil marriage], accordingly is not a small and tangential inconvenience…it represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same-sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples…it signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than heterosexual couples.”
I am proud of the journey we have taken together as Irish citizens over this past few decades. I am proud of who we are, and of our courage and determination to be the best of ourselves despite all we have endured as a people. And I truly believe that we will take a step closer to realising that, to a Republic of equals, if we vote Yes to civil marriage equality for all our people on 22 May.
By Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International