"I Can Hold Her Hand On The Street" : what Ireland's embrace of gay marriage means
by Susan Millar DuMars*
Before Ireland goes back to being famous for corrupt businessmen with undue influence who have bankrupted the country; before the summer, when the diaspora's thoughts turn to sheep and stones and tracing one's heritage over many romantic pints of ale; before all that kicks in again, let's celebrate the fact that this small island nation, who many assumed to be in the thrall of the Catholic Church, has just become the first in the world to extend by popular vote the right to marry to same-sex couples.
There were record turnouts at the polls, with thousands of young Irish forced abroad to find work returning home to have their say. On that day, May twenty second, a whopping 62% of Ireland voted in favor of gay marriage.
Let's savor that for a moment.
All over Facebook, people were admitting they had wept as they put their ballot in the box. I was one of them.
The Saturday before the election, there was a silent march through my town, Galway, organized by the amazing YesEquality campaigners. The march took over the city. Shop workers stopped work to stand in doorways, some clapping, some holding up signs saying "Equality". Passersby cheered, applauded. Many marchers linked hands. One banner read "Cherishing All The Children Of The Nation Equally". The silence was broken, as we reached the park by the river, by strains of I'm Coming Out played LOUD by a DJ under a tent. And suddenly there were balloons and face paint and people dancing in each other's arms and a woman on stilts and dogs with YES badges on their collars getting patted and politicians cheerfully getting lost amidst the hugging and the singing. And the sun came out. And Ben & Jerry's gave out free ice cream.
That's what it was like.
I asked someone I know, a lesbian who is raising a child with her partner, to guest-write an article for this blog. I expected a pithy, poignant 'reasons to vote yes' kind of thing. Instead what she wrote was full of pain and furious anger at having her life turned inside out and held up for scrutiny. She was indignant at having to ask permission to do something that most of us do freely. She was sick of people coming up to her in the supermarket and asking scathingly personal questions about her sex life and her child's birth. In case I had not gotten the point, she also asked me to publish the article anonymously. Her partner was afraid their house would be too easily found. The whole experience shook me. And I needed shaking.
Let's take a moment and acknowledge this woman's bravery. And the bravery of the two nationally known journalists and the one senior politician who outed themselves during the campaign. And former Irish President Mary McAleese, who gave speeches about the difficulties her own gay son had faced and urged the nation to vote yes. And the scattering of Catholic priests and nuns who defied the stance of the Church and announced they were going to vote in favor. And the canvassers, who must have knocked on very door in Ireland, and who weren't deterred by insults or frankly weird questions about just what homosexuals get up to when left alone. This is what made the most difference; individuals willing to tell their own stories (or the story of their brother, their granddaughter, their very best friend). People who took risks to put a human face on the issue. That is what turned it.
Campaigners on the No side have tried to say that their people were subject to bullying. This is arse. Pure nonsense, and insulting nonsense, when one remembers how many gay people have been bullied into the closet, bullied literally to death. I cried as I watched a gay woman being asked by a reporter what the result meant to her. "It means," she said, "that I can hold her hand on the street."
Anyone who had even the most limited contact with the Yes campaigners will tell you that graciousness was the order of the day. We were told to not let it get personal, not let it get nasty. To not waste time posting fury-filled comments on social media about the people who sent hate mail to the journalist with cancer. Instead, we were encouraged to write her messages of support. It takes strength to be gentle. It takes strength to remain calm. This was the strength of the Yes side.
As every political party called for a Yes (with varying motives, and varying degrees of sincerity), the result is, in political terms, a wash. The winners are us, the people. It turns out that, despite what the world and even our own politicians would have us believe, the Irish are a loving, accepting, forward thinking people. I read that some of the twenty-somethings who returned home to vote liked what they saw when they got here and are thinking of staying. Good. We can use people of such morals and conviction. We may perhaps be able to go forward now, to throw off the dual chains of the Catholic Church and austerity and show real support for the victims of both. They are all this nation's children. And now we are free to love them all.
(Congrats to all the newly betrothed couples of Ireland! Wishing you a lifetime of love.)(Photo credits: Elaine Cosgrove, Hannah Kiely, me.)
*Susan Millar DuMars lives in Galway Ireland. She describes herself as a "Poet, short story writer, editor, occasional essayist and critic, creative writing teacher, co-organiser of Over the Edge literary events, singer in the shower, dancer in the dark. Lucky, because I love what I do." She can be reached at email@example.com Her blog is at: http://susanmillardumarsislucky.blogspot.ie/