24th Mar 2018

Irish referendum: 'The gayest day in history'?

  • Irish people will vote on same-sex marriage on Friday (Photo: Marit Fahlander)

Judging by the number of Yes-buttons worn and the ubiquitous rainbow coloured shop windows in Dublin, Ireland is heading for a strong yes to same-sex marriage on Friday (22 May).

The Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to hold a referendum on legalising same-sex marriage this Friday. By Meabh McMahon

Opinion polls also suggest a Yes vote is likely.

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  • "The referendum has forced the country to have a very indepth conversation about how we treat gay people," says Panti, Ireland's most famous drag queen (Photo: Marit Fahlander)

Then again, Dublin does not represent all of Ireland, and while the yes campaign is more visible, there is generally assumed to be a large number of silent No voters.

The No campaign says this is due to the aggressive campaigning – tearing down posters, disturbing meetings – of the yes side. “Don´t be silenced, vote no,” reads one of their posters.

If no voters are afraid to speak out it might also be due to the fact they have little support within the political establishment.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny, from the centre-right Fine Gael, announced his party’s support in February.

But changing the constitution requires a referendum. If the Yes side wins, Ireland will be the first country ever to introduce gay marriage by changing its constitution.

Legal experts opinions differ as to whether it is necessary to do so. As of today, marriage isn’t defined in the constitution as being between a man and a woman, but the Supreme Court has, in a number of high profile cases, interpreted it that way.

The country has been engulfed in debate about the issues for weeks. One of the most talked about incidences was when a prominent Irish journalist, Ursula Halligan, came out just ahead of the referendum.

She wrote in the Irish Times about what it was like to grow up in conservative Catholic Ireland in the 1970s “where homosexuality was an evil perversion”.

LGBT rights

The referendum more has put the spotlight on LGBT rights more generally. And for that Panti, a famous Dubliner drag queen who goes by the name of Rory O’Neill when she´s not in drag, is happy. But still Panti feels a little ambivalent about some aspects of the debate.

“In some way it´s kind of humiliating for gay people literally having to knock on other peoples doors and then ask them to approve us. But on the other hand: If we get a success it will then have been a greater achievement.”

It´s Sunday evening and Panti has taken a break from canvassing to DJ at her own Pantibar in central Dublin.

Colourful lights play over the guests and some of them are dancing. When Panti came out as a college student homosexual acts between men were still criminal according to the law. This was only changed in 1993.

But being an outsider wasn’t entirely without its benefits.

“You were so far outside of the norm that time that you were free to make up your own conventions,” says Panti

Now my small fear is that gay people start to feel that pressure. But the truth is they already do. Gay culture has changed. Young people want to find a boyfriend and bring him home for Christmas,” she adds.

Pantil will probably never want to get married. For Karen, who is in a civil partnership with a woman, it’s different.

“My partner has three children from a previous relationship. And I have raised those children. For me they are family, and I am family for them. But according to the law we are nothing. The no side says it´s about family – and it is,” says Karen.

She knows nobody that will be voting no, or perhaps they wouldn´t dare to tell her.

“Maybe things have changed too fast in Ireland for some,” she suggests.

When Karen grew up no one talked about homosexuality. And now people say it’s the opponents of same sex marriage that don’t talk.

The silent voters outside Dublin

So where are these silent voters?

The typical No voter is a man, over 44 years, living outside of Dublin. Is he religious? Statistics don´t tell, but the Catholic church is against gay marriage.

Yet its response to the referendum has been less loud than many had expected. The association of Catholic Priests has advised its members not to direct their parishioners to vote in one way or the other, and individual priests have come out saying they will vote Yes.

However, it’s not religion but biology that drives the no-campaign, stresses Rik van Nieuwanhove, a theologist and member of Mothers and Fathers Matter.

The organisation opposes gay marriage as well as the recently introduced Children and Family relationships bill, allowing people in a civil partnership to adopt children.

Same sex marriage would further violate the biological bond between children and parents, says Van Nieuwanhove, as it would open up the door to surrogacy.

“Imagine two homosexual men turning to the Supreme Court saying: ‘The only way we can form a family is through surrogacy’. Because they are protected as a family by the constitution they will have the right to do so.”

The government rejects the statement.

As of now a law regulating surrogacy is still in the making, and the minister of health, Leo Varadkar, promises that it will be very strict, only allowing altruistic surrogacy.

Varadkar also recently come out as homosexual.

Silent or outspoken, on Saturday Ireland will have certainty on same-sex marriage.

That same evening the Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcasted, and Panti, the dragqueen, hopes to be able to celebrate both in her bar.

“It might be the gayest day in history,” she says.


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