Societal shift: When Ireland came out for equality

Even before the marriage equality referendum, the Yes campaign had already raised the status of LGBT people in Irish society for good

Photo credit: © Brian Lawless/Newscom

After casting my vote for marriage equality last week, I took off at dawn on Saturday to spend a few days with my godson and his parents. Other than a few snatched moments of internet access, I had little connection to what was happening at home. But I talked with my friends about what was happening, about what I hoped and what I feared might happen. I told my godson’s father about how I was worried the vote would be a lot closer than the polls showed, that a silent No vote could hold sway. He said something that gave me some hope. He said that even if it came to the worst, even if it was a No, it wouldn’t be a No for long. Eventually, he predicted, equality would come, because something amazing had already happened and Irish society had already changed.

I knew he was right. I’d seen that change. We’ve all see it. Over the last few months, Ireland’s LGBT community has come out en masse – with all the uncertain and nerve-wracking courage and bravery that must take – come out to ask for acceptance. Not tolerancea distinction made brilliantly by American activist Ash Beckham – but acceptance, to be inclusively treated as equal citizens in Irish society. There was no ignoring or denying the scale of that movement: Yes or No on the day, the closet door was open for good.

Coming out to the nation

Even beyond the issue of marriage equality, that coming-out will surely have a profound impact on how Irish society views its LGBT community. No matter how often as I hear the stories, I cannot imagine the anxiety, the doubt, the fear of rejection that people must feel in coming out – even to friends and family. That anxiety is fuelled by stigma, prejudice and bullying; too often, depression, self-harm and suicide flow from it. For all the advances in the 40 years since Sen. David Norris began his crusade for gay rights, those anxieties and threats remain very real for LGBT people in Ireland.

Which makes the unfaltering determination with which they have stood up, faced the risk of rejection and come out to the nation all the more humbling and awe-inspiring. By coming out in search of equality, the LGBT community has itself advanced Ireland towards equality, and in doing so loosened the bonds of stigma and prejudice and all that is tied to them. Young LGBT people in particular can take courage and have greater confidence that they will be accepted for who they are.

The YesEquality bus on the canvass trail in Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Photo: Ger Duffy/

In the last days of the campaign, a six-year-old marriage equality ad resurfaced on social media. In it, a young man in a badly-fitting suit knocks at a door and awkwardly asks the man who answers for “Sinéad’s hand in marriage.” He goes to the next door and then the next. He asks the same question of everyone he passes around the country. “How would you feel,” the caption asks, “if you had to ask 4 million people for permission to get married?”

That’s just what LGBT people on the Yes Equality campaign did, and – no matter how unfair it might seem that their equal treatment should be dependent on a vote – they did it with all the trepidation and tenacity of the young guy in the ad. They drove around the country, pounded the pavements, knocked on door after door, asked people about their concerns and sought to assuage them. They came out to the nation and they came out proudly. That so many straight people joined them and supported them in that diligent, determined campaign illustrates that my godson’s father was right. Ireland had already evolved for the better. Whether the majority would accept it on polling day or not, huge numbers of Irish people of every sexuality had worked together as equals for equality and equality would come – sooner or later.

It came sooner than I, or anyone, expected. As soon as I got a chance, around noon on Saturday, I checked to see what the early tallies were indicating. I knew a definite result was still a good five or six hours off – but the first thing I saw floored me. The No campaign had already conceded defeat.

Panti Bliss (Rory O’Neill) and Amnesty International’s Colm O’Gorman celebrate the Yes vote at Dublin Castle. Saturday, 23 May 2015. Photo: Peter Morrison, AP

By the end of the day, right across the country, the majority of people in every constituency but one had said yes to marriage equality – and that one had only barely said no. Later, when I finally got enough internet to catch a glimpse of the carnivalesque celebrations I was missing, I heard Panti Bliss, heroine of the Yes campaign, echo that six-year-old ad and declare: ‘It feels like we asked the whole country to marry us and they said yes.’


There needs to be a word of caution. However delighted and proud we are for all that Ireland and the Irish people have achieved, we don’t speak for everybody. There are 734,300 Irish people who voted No, whose concerns about same-sex marriage were not alleviated by the efforts of the Yes campaign, and that is not insignificant. It is patent nonsense to claim – as Iona’s Breda O’Brien has, with characteristic petulance and exaggeration – that those voters were “ignored”. This is a democracy and (as I wrote in a letter to the Irish Times when Patrick Treacy said more or less the same thing) it is a fundamental facet of democracy that in any and every referendum, many citizens may have to accept an outcome they don’t agree with. But that does not mean they are ignored – and they should not be.

Image: MCI Maps. Click to enlarge

The evolution of an equal Ireland does not end with a Yes vote. Not everyone in the nation is on board, but over time, I do believe many of those 734,300 people will gradually come on board. In the meantime, it mustn’t become an ‘us and them’ situation. People who voted No should not automatically be considered homophobes and they shouldn’t be ignored. I’d like to think that, even though the campaigning is over, we can still hold to the approach of the Yes campaign – not to condemn or to bully those who may not agree with us, but to listen and discuss and inform. That empathetic approach is what breaks down resistance, builds respect and spreads acceptance.

Equality is not just about Xs on ballot papers or amendments to constitutions – it’s about how we act and behave towards each other, about real acceptance of each other’s differences. The referendum is not the whole story. In the words of Ash Beckham: “You can legislate tolerance but you can’t legislate acceptance. That takes a societal shift.” Yes campaigners – gay, straight and of every sexuality – working together and helped to bring about the beginnings of a societal shift. They not only asked to be accepted as equals: they acted as equals. I have no doubt that played an enormous part in the great majority of Irish voters accepting that equality. It will continue to. If that is how this new, more equal, Ireland progresses, I believe that, over time, that accepting majority will only grow.

In yesterday’s Irish Times, BeLonG To’s Michael Bannon wrote that “the marriage equality referendum has showcased the best of what it means to be Irish – to have open, kind hearts, a generosity of spirit and a great capacity to love. It has led the way and opened the door to a more progressive Ireland.”

The door is open, there’s no closing it, Irish society is shifting and I feel nothing but pride.

Central Count Centre, Dublin Castle forecourt. 23 May 2015 Photo: Getty/
Central Count Centre, Dublin Castle forecourt. 23 May 2015 Photo: Getty/

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