It was very hard to feel cynical last Saturday. 23rd May was a day about which all descriptions sound trite, sentimental, hyperbolic, but there was nothing trite about the joy across the country this weekend. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s openly gay Minister for Health was right to call it a “social revolution”; the resounding ‘Yes’ in the marriage referendum was the culmination of decades of shifting social attitudes in what was once called ‘Catholic Ireland’- the yes result may see a long overdue moratorium on that phrase. Regardless of how it might appear in retrospect, social change is never a creeping gradualism; the slow erosion of homophobia in Ireland has come about through 30 years of ceaseless campaigning by activists like David Norris and Katherine Zappone.
For LGBTQ people in Ireland, the referendum has been as personal as it has been political. All over the country, people were sharing their stories and speaking honestly about what the ‘Yes’ vote has meant to them. In Dublin, I heard people say they felt safer on the streets after the extraordinary support for the amendment – upwards of 70 per cent in most Dublin constituencies – I heard many people talk about their hopes for the future where young LGBTQ people would not have to experience the shame and isolation that they once did. I heard gay people in their 70s talk about weddings they never thought they would see.
As a queer Irish person, I have felt overwhelmed by the compassion and enthusiasm of the straight majority. Flying home to vote, I found myself sitting behind two straight women who were doing the same thing. They chatted about the gay friends and family they wanted to support, and there was something endearingly didactic about the way one said, “Not voting is as bad as voting ‘No’.” The ways in which straight people have made it their duty to stand up to homophobia is a model of how straight allies should behave. In theory, human rights should never go to a vote – in practice it became a beautiful way for Irish people to make their support irrevocable.
Gay marriage is not a panacea for homophobia, let alone for transphobia. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said that the ‘Yes’ vote would “obliterate prejudice”; that is sadly not true as no legislation or amendment can eradicate all prejudice in schools, workplaces and homes.
Young LGBTQ people are still far more likely to attempt suicide or experience mental health issues than their cisgender or straight counterparts. This is particularly the case for young trans people who have no legal recognition of their gender identity under Irish law and who are forced to undergo an excruciatingly lengthy process of medical and psychological examination before they may have their gender legally recognised. These are issues that must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
In discussions of the Marriage Equality campaign, phrases such as ‘the final hurdle’ reappeared. Same-sex marriage is far from the ‘final’ anything. Ireland has much further to go in treating its LGBTQ citizens with empathy and dignity.
But there is no denying that on Saturday 23rd May this year, something seismic changed in Irish society that went far beyond marriage, and even beyond the LGBTQ community. Rather than the final hurdle, perhaps we are witnessing the tentative beginnings of a new, inclusive and secular Ireland. After 23rd May, I feel confident that we will get there.