There have been few days in my life where I could wholeheartedly say that I was proud to be Irish. 23 May 2015 was one of those days.
It’s hard to believe what Ireland did last week – an often religious, often conservative nation becoming the first in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote. But whilst the legal battle has now been won, the social battle continues. In a recent article for the Irish Times, conservative columnist Breda O’Brien articulated what she felt was the inconvenient truth surrounding the referendum.
O’Brien, also a patron of the Catholic advocacy group ‘The Iona Institute’, took issue with what she called the dominant narrative that the referendum was about whether or not we liked gay people. In her column, she argued that people who voted ‘no’ were “just as generous and inclusive as their neighbours who voted ‘yes’, and just as fond of their gay relatives”.
If homophobia were a simple matter of whether or not one hated gay people, then maybe O’Brien would have a point. However, if Panti-gate taught us anything, it is that O’Brien and the Iona Institute lack a nuanced understanding of what homophobia is. Vincent Browne, a respected and veteran Irish journalist, once noted on his daily news programme that, to one extent or another, we are all infected with homophobia.
The otherisation of LGBTIQ people has meant that for many years society looked down on them and they themselves had crises because of their sexual orientation. Society programmed them to be ashamed of themselves on a subconscious level. That is why the coming out process and being accepted for who they are is so important for their identity and their mental health. Homophobia does not necessarily mean hating gay people, it is not linked with malicious intent, it is far more subtle than that.
O’Brien argues that the ‘no’ side merely saw value in the traditional views of the family and state, which recognised differences associated with gender and sexual orientation. These views were to primarily see marriage as a vehicle for procreation. The problem, which none of the opponents to the referendum wished to acknowledge, was that those views were predicated on homophobic conception of society.
It is an underlying homophobic notion to assume that by virtue of an arbitrary factor, such as sexual orientation, that they are somehow inherently less qualified to be parents. Behind the ‘no’ vote was a value judgment which effectively said that members of the LGBTIQ community are lesser members of society.
O’Brien argued that the media had been pursuing a “gay agenda” for some time. It is odd to think that she takes issue with societal progression which naturally would be reflected in the media. The fact that society has evolved to be more respecting and open to voting ‘yes’ disturbs her.
She would have us ignore the progress that Ireland has made over the last number of years in recognising the importance of treating the LGBTIQ community as equal members of society. It’s all part of a conspiracy, you see.
O’Brien also notes that “[w]e do not have to admire a political system that ignored 734,300 voters, aside from six brave TDs and Senators who dared to be different”. With all respect, O’Brien needs a reality check. She refers, of course, to the fact that no political party openly supported a ‘no’ vote – although reports from a former member of the Fianna Fáil party, Averil Power, suggests that core members of the Parliamentary Party did so in a private capacity.
It can hardly be said that these voters were ignored simply because they engaged in the democratic process and were unsuccessful. The marketplace of ideas allows all voices to be heard, but the ideas which are best for society at that time win out. This is what occurred on May 23rd and this is what has occurred in every referendum that has even been held.
Your belief that the wrong decision has been made doesn’t discredit the political system; nor does it mean you were ignored. I will admit that a significant number of people voted against the proposal (37.9% of those who turned out). Indeed, the Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency voted against it, though it should be noted that it was the only constituency to do so.
O’Brien argued that we did not have to admire a government which advocated that negative impacts that a ‘no’ vote would have the mental health of gay people because that same government had a dubious record as to its mental health policies. How dare O’Brien use the referendum to take a cheap shot at the government without dealing with the substantive issue of the mental health of the LGBTIQ community.
Had the referendum been rejected, it would have been devastating for gay people in Ireland in terms of how they are perceived by wider society and how they perceive that society. It is simply unacceptable for O’Brien to belittle that issue in the manner that she did.
It is ironic that O’Brien concludes her article noting that society may wish to banish those who disturb the dominant narrative meaning those who prescribe to her beliefs. Clearly, O’Brien wants us to see the ‘no’ side as the victims of a great injustice; the injustice that is losing the argument.
O’Brien portrays herself as a victim of a society that shuts out her ideas. Ironically, perhaps she can now relate to how the LGBTIQ community has felt for decades. What O’Brien and likeminded groups don’t understand, is that society doesn’t have to facilitate their ideas (outside of the strict broadcasting standards surrounding referendums such as this).
The right to free speech means that we must respect their right to make those ideas known, but we don’t have to agree with them and we certainly don’t have to facilitate them, whether that is through support from a political party or otherwise. The right to free speech is not undermined by wider society disagreeing with your views and providing a counter-argument that such views are of dubious merit. There is no right to a platform and the Irish Times would do well to reconsider giving O’Brien one. Their right to free speech also comes with a responsibility for the consequences of that speech.
Arguments, outside of university debating societies, do not exist in a vacuum and one must take ownership of their opinion and accept responsibility for its consequences. In this case, opponents of marriage equality, even those with good intentions, have to realise the impact that would have on the mental health of LGBTIQ people. If they are still happy to oppose marriage equality then that is their right, but they must own those consequences and look themselves in the mirror afterwards.
People like Breda O’Brien are the reason why the campaign for social equality does not end with a referendum. Legal status and legal respect have never led to social respect. The fight for de facto equality will continue. It will be a long fight. It will require us to change the hearts and minds of a significant number of people on a fundamental level. It will be a long road, but we can do it and we must do it. That is the only way we can ever hope of eradicating the scourge that is homophobia in all its forms.