In the run-up to Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum on May 22nd, I’ve invited a series of guest posters– people from Ireland or who live here, of many different backgrounds and orientations- to share their thoughts on the referendum, the campaign, and what it means to them. Contributions to Guest Posts for Equality are welcome- drop me a message.
Ursula has just recently finished studying Psychology and works part-time as a Parliamentary Assistant in the Seanad. In her free time she enjoys writing, playing Bach and Leonard Cohen and long conversations over pots of good tea. You can find her on Twitter.
“Holding your boyfriend or your girlfriend’s hand should not have to be a political statement”, a friend of mine said memorably in a debate about Ireland’s LGBT community five years ago. But during this long and seemingly never-ending campaign, each hand held in public, each vulnerable conversation, each embrace of love, has been a political statement. There exists a debate within the minds of LGBT people when engaged in conversations about the referendum with their families, friends, colleagues, and even at the doorsteps canvassing, of whether to come out yet again, to them. Whether to make the political debate personal. Make it real. Put a face on it. But in so doing, open oneself up, and lay one’s life bare and open to judgement. It has been difficult to escape the politicisation of our lives, and be unaffected by that vulnerability.
Something else has also happened. Not only has the personal become painfully political. The political has also become remarkably personal. We see it in Leo Varadkar saying that he would be more devastated if this referendum does not pass than if he lost his own seat. And you believe him. We see it in political correspondent Ursula Halligan’s beautifully honest article in the Irish Times; Ursula, who found herself compelled to come out and speak out (revealing the power of gentleness) despite being so private, because she could not help being personally affected by the campaign, and knew that it might just help. It’s a lot to hope for, but perhaps this vulnerability can lead the way towards creating a more compassionate politics.
Henry James once wrote that three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. The act of coming out demands great empathy and kindness from the receiver, but it is also an act of generosity and kindness from the person coming out. I think of that line which Nina Simone sings: “I wish you could know what it means to me, then you’d see and agree, that every man should be free.” While I had always felt different in one way or another, when I was nearly 13, I knew I was different in a particular way. Years before I spoke to anyone about it, in my own mind I was happy to name that difference as bisexual. I knew then, as I know now, that I wasn’t undecided or confused. Rather, I had a real sense of my sexual identity. The fact didn’t surprise, or bother me. I had fallen in love with a girl in school, and knew it was as real as any of the crushes on boys which my peers spoke of. Comments from girls at school about lesbian, gay and bisexual people, not directed at me specifically, but a reflection of the overtly heteronormative culture in so many secondary schools until recently, were alienating. Though I bore them no resentment, I could not relate to their language and world, and for most of my adolescence reconciled myself to a happy solitude. Now, 12 years and many loves later, I have no idea if I will ever marry, or if I will ever wish to marry, but this Referendum has helped me to understand more fully what my identity means to me. Beyond that, it has also forced me to consider what that identity means to the society in which I live.
There is no doubt, that whatever the outcome of the count on Saturday, that something remarkable has happened in Ireland during the course of this campaign. The country has been forced into a cross-sectional, inter-generational, and fast-evolving conversation not just around the question which will be voted on this coming Friday. This national conversation is also about difference. As a small nation, obsessed with our historical identity, our struggle with difference, and with what is Irish, or what is Gaelach, has been the inner social struggle of our recent history. Irish people, young and old, have now been faced with vital questions: What is difference? Who is different? Why on earth does it matter? Are we intolerant of difference? Maybe, maybe not, but surely tolerance is not enough when we speak of our fellow humans? And, the most painful question of all, have we been unkind to those we love, who are different?
We’ve seen tens of thousands of young people register to be able to vote on May 22nd, and many hundreds of them out in droves canvassing. This Referendum has given many demoralised and unheard young people the opportunity to dream of an Ireland they can take pride in. Pride, of course, is such a vital word for this community. The right to take pride in one’s life is taken for granted by those who think that pride is the opposite of humility. But pride is not the opposite of humility; rather, it is the opposite of shame. For so long, this community was shamed into invisibility and exile. And pride is a struggle, and an ongoing one, which will continue long after this Referendum.
The humiliating preoccupation of opponents to equal marriage with the sex lives of gay people stems from a very real homophobia. Homophobia is essentially a discomfort with same-sex intimacy, but homophobia further belies an inability to fully appreciate the personhood of LGBT people beyond that preoccupation. I have met that preoccupation on the doorsteps from people whose discomfort with same-sex orientation blinds their ability to see that their love is the same. The seeming contradiction, which is not a contradiction at all, of this campaign, is that we are fighting for the right to live privately, to not have people preoccupied with our lives, and to not have to come out in order for them to understand. It has been so necessary to do so, in order that future generations will not have to bear such a burden. When we ask for equal treatment under the law, and when we ask for the same rituals which are available to others, as Colm Tóibín put it recently, we are simply asking to be included.
The cumulative impact of so many individuals finding their lives are more liveable when they can hope to love freely has had a freeing effect on the country. Ursula Halligan’s piece began with that great line from Martin Luther King and so I’ll end by looking at it another way: that our lives really begin when we can speak about the things that matter. Amidst the trepidation and anxiety of the coming days and the ongoing tireless efforts of the campaign is a sense of a beginning. A kinder, more confident, more alive beginning.