On Friday 22nd May, the Republic of Ireland gave a resounding ‘Yes’ in the Marriage Equality referendum, becoming the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by popular mandate.
I was one of many who went home to vote, clogging up runways and motorways around the country in our efforts to participate in a little piece of history. The mood was nothing short of inspirational: the turnout was the highest since the introduction of the Constitution in 1937, Yes voters came from every age group and area of the country, and in the end, only a single constituency voted No, with an overall majority of 62% for the Yes campaign.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar summed up this nationwide optimism: ‘It wasn’t just a referendum, but a social revolution.’
This is a highly symbolic victory for human rights and equality in Ireland. Watching politicians share a stage with drag queens and veteran gay rights campaigners to welcome the final result was heart-warming, and a definite sign of progress. This scale of this victory was unprecedented: Ireland only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993.
The strength of the Yes campaign can largely be attributed to grass-roots activism and personal involvement. In an intimate society such as Ireland, nearly everyone knows someone in their family or social circle who is LGBTQI. The campaign seized upon this to encourage people to vote, not for some abstract constitutional idea, but for the human rights of their friends and family members. A number of high-profile personalities, such as Health Minister Leo Varadkar and TV3 Political Editor Ursula Halligan, publicly came out, sparking a number of frank conversations about the difficult reality of being gay in Ireland.
Teams of first-time canvassers knocked on nearly every door in the country. The rainbow-coloured Yes Equality bus parked in hundreds of town squares. Videos of Yes voters outlining their reasons for voting flooded Facebook and Twitter, along with campaigns like TCD’s Ring Your Granny for Marriage Equality (aiming to convince elderly voters) and Be My Yes (asking voters at home to use their vote to replace those of emigrants who couldn’t get home).
The No side, meanwhile, seemed to concentrate on sowing fear and doubt in the minds of voters. Surrogacy came up in what felt like every single interview with a No campaigner (despite having nothing to do with this referendum). Their assertion of ‘the right to a father and a mother’ was the foundation of much of their rhetoric, which urged voters to consider the welfare of children and their relationship to their biological parents.
The No campaign conceded defeat early on Saturday morning. However, it is too easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that this referendum has solved everything, that homophobia has now been eradicated and that we can sit back and relax. This is a symbolic victory for acceptance and equality, but Ireland still has a very long way to go before it can be said to respect the human rights of all its citizens.
While the power of the Catholic Church is certainly declining, its influence lingers. Women are still treated as baby-making vessels by a health service that denies us reproductive rights. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which affords an equal right to life to both the pregnant women and the foetus, has yet to be repealed.
The state still fails to recognise trans people, with no legal provision for gender identities other than those assigned at birth. The recent Gender Recognition Bill has been widely criticised as degrading and inadequate by trans campaigners. The issue has yet to be resolved.
Gay men are still banned from donating blood. We have no hate crime legislation. Religious schools (the majority) are still permitted to sack gay teachers.
And despite the hopes of many, marriage equality will not bring an end to Ireland’s rampant casual homophobia. It has been instrumental in creating a much more positive atmosphere for LGBTQI people, but we need to capitalise on this to question homophobia in all its incarnations and to work to end all forms of structural inequality.
This referendum has the potential to act as a springboard from which to tackle these other shocking human rights abuses. We can’t fall into complacency. We have said ‘Yes’ to equal marriage. Now let’s say ‘Yes’ to real and lasting equality.
Illustration: Mariam Hayat