Written by Orla Egan
I am still reeling from the emotional rollercoaster of the weekend as my country finally voted to respect me, my son, my family, my friends and my community.
This weekend Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through popular vote. And by a resoundingly popular vote – 62.1% overall, with only one constituency (Roscommon-South Leitrim) voting No. The highest YES vote was in Dublin South East with 74.9%. In the 5 Cork constituencies the YES vote ranged from 56% (Cork South West) to 65.8% (Cork South Central).
It has been a long and hard journey to get here. This weekend’s vote is the result of decades of LGBT community activism all over Ireland. Since at least the 1970s Irish LGBT people have supported one another to build community and have pride in who we are, despite the consistent messages from the church, the laws, the media and society telling us that we were sick, evil, lesser and unworthy. We set up LGBT organisations, centres and services. But we also created community – we created the positive spaces where LGBT people could be together, to love, to party, to affirm each other – to counterbalance all the negativity. We gave each other the strength to come out in ever increasing numbers. And that’s what made the difference. People respond to the personal. Its easy to vilify a concept – a gay man, a lesbian family etc. – its harder to hate the person standing in front of you: your son, your daughter, your mother, your uncle, your neighbour, your colleague. Its the stories of real people’s lives that have convinced so many people to vote YES.
I have been lucky to have been part of a vibrant and supportive LGBT community in Cork since the 1980s. I hope I have played my part in getting us to where we are today. I was involved in organising the first ever Irish LGBT float in a Patrick’s Day parade in 1992 in Cork. We organised it in response to the fact that Irish LGBT people were banned from marching in Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston. We wanted to show that LGTB people are part of the Irish community. Our float was colourful and celebratory and we sang ‘Sing if you’re glad to be gay’ through the streets of Cork ’til we were hoarse. And we won the prize for Best New Entry in the Cork parade! We showed we belonged and we were proud.
In 2006 my then partner and I appeared on the Late Late Show, Ireland’s prime talkshow, as well as a number of other television programmes. We spoke about our experiences as a lesbian family in Ireland and of the challenges we faced given the lack of any formal or legal recognition for our family and the difficulties we had faced in not being able to access fertility services in Ireland (we had had to travel to a fertility clinic in London!) We also spoke about our fabulous son and the joys and challenges of parenthood. The response to the ‘Lesbian Family’ was overwhelmingly positive. As we walked through the streets of Dublin the following morning we were stopped constantly by people, of all ages and backgrounds, coming over to us to say they saw us on the telly and to wish us well with our family. One little old lady came running across the street shouting “I have to see the Late Late Show baby!’ Personally it was overwhelming, but politically it was amazing. Irish people respond so warmly to real people’s lives and stories. And we have seen this in the results of the referendum this weekend.
Despite my years of activism and my deep seated pride and comfort in who I am and in my lesbian family, I have found the past few weeks really difficult. The NO campaign focused on the ‘family’ – or at least their version of the family i.e. married, heterosexual with children. They vilified me and my family – they told us we were lesser and not worthy of respect or protection. I felt it as a personal attack. It was personal. They talked about protecting the children – but it was impossible for me to protect my child from the impact of their campaign. Every day as he walked to school he had to pass posters telling him that he and his family were lesser, that there were people out there who did not respect or value us. ‘Why mammy?” he would ask me, ‘Why do they say those things about us?’ How do I explain?
For me a bare YES vote wouldn’t have been enough. I needed a resounding YES to make up for the impact of the NO campaign, so I could tell my son that Ireland has said YES, that we are respected, that we are a worthy part of the Irish family, that we can continue to be proud.
The count on Saturday was an emotional rollercoaster. I arrived early at the count centre in Cork. There was elation as it became clear that it would be a YES vote. The only question became by how much. My friends who have a civil partnership or who married in other countries began to ask when they would be married in Ireland. It was becoming real.
But then I watched the tally for my neighbourhood. There were more YES votes (3:2) but it was so difficult to see all the NO votes from the people I live near, that I pass in the street as I walk my son to school. I started to feel very emotional to think that I was surrounded by so many people who hate me and my family. But then this was counterbalanced by messages of love and support from friends and family throughout the world, as well as by friends arriving to the count centre bringing me coffee and snacks. My straight male buddy suggested that I ‘Use the love as a shield and deflect the negativity with one finger.’ My niece messaged me from Vietnam: ‘thinking of you today. Just want you to know you have a family that loves you and tell you you are an amazing auntie, so try your best to ignore the haters.’ That had me in floods in the count centre!
I then headed over to the headquarters of the Cork YES Equality campaign who have run an amazing campaign over the past weeks and months. The atmosphere was electric as we waited for the results from the official count. We watched the news reports as constituency after constituency voted YES. There were wild cheers as Kerry South voted YES – that was a hard fought one. There were moans as Roscommon-South Leitrim voted NO – followed by suggestions that we should all move there and surround them with love and gay pride!
And finally the moment when all the results were in and it was announced – Ireland had voted YES YES YES for equality! More cheers and tears, hugs, kisses.
As we celebrate we must acknowledge all those who made this journey towards equality possible, the hundreds of activists throughout the country – not just the tiny few whose names are continuously mentioned. (See my site corklgbthistory for more about our fabulous history.) It is also important to remember those who didn’t live to see this day – especially those who died by suicide as the pressures of living in a homophobic hateful society became too much.
This weekend was a huge step towards a more equal respectful Ireland. But we are not there yet. The LGB community mustn’t forget the T – the Gender Recognition Bill has still to be ratified. As photographs and video of cheering gays dominated social media, there were also videos of a different kind – showing Traveller women barred by the local priest from entering the church where their children were making their communion.
YES YES YES!