Today, Ireland may make history by becoming the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via popular vote. Considering the long-standing influence of the Catholic Church on Irish life and politics and the church’s continuing opposition to same-sex marriage, the referendum has a surprisingly high level of support: New polls suggest that voters support the measure, as do all four of Ireland’s major political parties. Last week, Taoiseach Enda Kenny (Ireland’s equivalent to a prime minister) took to television to urge voters to approve the measure.
This is a dramatic development for a country that has often been viewed as one of Europe’s most religiously and socially conservative places. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993, and civil partnerships for same-sex couples weren’t legalized until 2010.
Same-sex marriage is already legal in at least 20 countries, according to LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, and Ireland would be joining much of the rest of Western Europe, including England, France, and Spain. The difference is that Ireland's shift is coming via the ballot box.
“It’s an unprecedented change,” Una Mullally, a journalist with a long history of covering Irish LGBT issues, told TakePart. “A change many Irish people didn’t think they’d see in their lifetimes.” Although she is fighting stage 3 cancer, Mullally is one of a small army of volunteers who have been canvassing neighborhoods to raise awareness of the issue and get voters to polling stations. A-list Irish celebrities such as Colin Farrell and Bono have also lent their support to the campaign.
What prompted this sweeping change of opinion? One factor is the diminished moral authority of the Catholic Church in the wake of a series of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Ireland’s faithful. Another is the rising tide of LGBT rights around the world. But Mullally believes the most significant factor is increased visibility of LGBT people across Irish society. Ireland, she says, is “a community-based country. So coming out has allowed people to know and understand LGBT people in their communities.”
These are people like Orla Ryan and Emily Mac Nichols, an Irish lesbian couple who’ve been together for 10 years and have been engaged, waiting to be allowed to marry, for the last three. “I felt that being true to myself was wrong. I hid my sexuality from my friends and family,” Ryan told TakePart.
Part of their reason for getting involved in the same-sex marriage debate is a sense of responsibility to future generations of LGBT people in Ireland. “I want them to grow up in a country where they don’t feel ashamed, different, or oppressed because of the way they were born,” Mac Nichols said.
Supporters of the measure caution, however, that it is far from a done deal. Ireland legalized divorce by a similar referendum in 1996, and while it too had high polling numbers, in the end it passed by just 0.28 percent of the vote.
If the same-sex marriage amendment passes, “it will say to gay people that they belong and are accepted by society,” Ryan said. But there will still be work to do on LGBT civil rights issues in Ireland. Mullally points out that as in the United States, action around marriage has outpaced antidiscrimination laws and that religious freedom clauses are just as pernicious a problem in Ireland as they are in Indiana.
When asked what she thought would be the next hurdle for the LGBT community in Ireland, Mullally said one of the immediate would be the abolition of Section 37 of Ireland’s Employment Equality Act. This, she said, essentially allows discrimination against LGBT people in religious institutions—primarily schools.
All three women agreed that transgender rights are lagging behind those of lesbians and gays. Ireland is the only European Union member state that does not legally recognize transgender people. The Gender Recognition Bill that is working its way through Ireland’s government has been criticized for not including protections for young transgender people and for creating unnecessary and difficult barriers for individuals seeking to have their gender identity recognized on official government documents. Still, the debate may be a first step toward change for transgender people in Ireland.
For now, activists are working around the clock to ensure the referendum passes. Now, the world is watching to see if Ireland turns over a new leaf on LGBT rights.