Yes to marriage equality in Ireland – an inspiration for battles to come

Irish socialist Jen O’Leary analyses the politics of the No and Yes campaigns, and argues that the Yes victory must be a step in the ongoing struggle for wider LGBTQ liberation. 

Photo: William Murphy, flickr
Photo: William Murphy, flickr

We received Jen’s article after the polls closed, but before the results started coming in. Around Saturday lunchtime, it became clear not only that Yes had won, but that the Yes vote was highest in working-class areas. Irish broadcaster RTÉ reported that “Early tallies are showing a Yes Vote of over 70% particularly working class areas of Dublin… Another feature is the higher turnout in lower income areas.” Yes won over 80% of the vote in parts of north east Dublin which have been the heartlands of the movement against water charges. Jen commented that “It’s not Ireland I’m proud of – it’s the working class and the spontaneous mass mobilisation we witnessed of the returning youth who were forced to emigrate.”

Ireland held the world’s first referendum on same-sex marriage on Friday 22 May.  This was the first instance of any country putting same-sex marriage to a popular vote.  While seventeen other countries, plus some states in the US, have legalised and recognise same-sex marriage, this was achieved by passing legislation through parliament.  In Ireland, the question of “marriage equality” had to be put to public vote since any changes to the Constitution must be put to a referendum.  Regardless of which route to marriage equality is taken, such reforms are the result of decades of LGBTQ struggle combined with the ability of the changing nature of neo liberalism to accommodate and utilise such reforms for its benefit.

The Reactionary Opposition Campaign

The reliance on having to hold a referendum however, has allowed for the voice of a vitriolic opposition campaign to be heard.  During the course of the last six weeks, LGBTQ people in Ireland have been subjected to an amplified and more pronounced expression of the homophobia that we endure under capitalism.  Homophobes have been given platforms to air their hateful views by the media and the streets have been adorned with posters which attempt to draw the issue away from one of civil rights towards a defence of an ahistorical concept of “traditional” marriage and the family.  The fundamentalist homophobia has been defended by liberal voices of hegemonic common sense, in the name of “balance” and for some warped concept of freedom of speech which entitles the oppressor while giving no consideration to the freedom of the oppressed.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, those associated with the opposition campaign and its faux-compassion for the protection of children and the family, are associated with the very values and institutions that damaged children and families over decades in Ireland.  The reality is that it was the religious right who, with the involvement of the state, forcibly removed children from their parents and confined young mothers to the Magdalene Laundries, (institutions run by the Church that confined women to a life of punitive unpaid labour and abuse), reformatories and industrial schools.  It was these exact same people who assisted with the cover up of clerical child sexual abuse.  And it was these very same right-wing fundamentalist views that were responsible for the burial of nearly 800 children in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of a former mother and baby home in Tuam, for which there were no official records.

The hurt caused by the opposition campaign on an individual level has reached beyond those of us who are LGBTQ.  The claim that a child has a right to a mother and father, and that adoptees or children born through surrogacy have a right to know their birth “parents”, affects lone parents and adoptee families too.  Of course, some of the leading voices in the opposition campaign are also involved in anti-choice campaigns and hypocritically advocate for birth to full term and adoption in place of abortion.

Even with the amendment allowing for marriage equality, the section of the Constitution being amended will still remain a reactionary text, in which women’s free reproductive labour in the home is enshrined.  The section states that “mothers” have “duties in the home” which are not recognised as labour but rather a woman’s “life within the home” is a “support” to “the State”.  Further hypocrisy from the opposition campaign includes calling for a No vote on the basis that the amendment does not go far enough.  We are to somehow believe that these opponents to full bodily autonomy for women through reproductive choice are now champions of women’s liberation!  Occasionally however, their mask has slipped and we have seen the true nature of their beliefs in statements such as “gays should abstain from sex”.

In a particularly sinister and repulsive move, the mainstream press began reporting on a strong No vote coming from what they have coined the “New Irish” by pulling spurious figures out of the air of “tens of thousands of Christian immigrants who have become Irish citizens” and even claiming that “up to 200,000 immigrants” may “help swing the vote in favour of No on May 22”.  These articles only serve to perpetuate racism by reinforcing the stereotype of migrants as some sort of hive mind.

The Mainstream Equality Campaign

Many on the queer radical left have felt that the mainstream pro-equality campaign is not a sufficient vehicle for challenging the bigotry of the opposition, for it is not in its design to do so.  In fact, the main campaign has been advising people to call the police on LGBTQ people who take down or do damage to the homophobic posters of the opposition.  The single issue liberal politics of the mainstream LG((B)T) campaign has consistently pulled the focus and resources towards this one goal of attaining a marriage equality reform.  It demands our full participation and in promoting an image of white, middle-class respectability; bisexual people, trans people, gender queers, racial minorities, and working class queers have been totally erased by the language and imagery of the campaign.  This has come as little surprise to those of us familiar with the racism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia and biphobia that exist within the mainstream scene.

The saccharine marriage equality campaign has been promoting the sentiment that this reform will make us full equal human beings with the same rights as everyone else.  However, the reality is that provision for marriage equality operates within a very particular framework, one that is designed to maintain the ownership and transfer of property.  A contradiction of the establishment has been the promotion of marriage equality while simultaneously attacking the working class family through austerity measures.

During the course of this campaign it has become clear that those who stand to benefit most from this reform in a material sense are not the ones who will bear the psychological brunt of the risk should it fall.  A popular rejection would legitimise our oppression and disproportionately hurt the young, the closeted, and the marginalised.  The impact of the result of the vote has therefore become more than being just about marriage – a yes outcome would send a message to the right wing Catholic fundamentalist bigots that their beliefs have no place outside of their church; it would serve as harm reduction by normalising our sexuality and as such sending a message to queer kids that the majority of people in this country do not view them as abnormal, and that they don’t have to feel ashamed, isolated, or traumatised just because of who they’re attracted to or have feelings for; and while it shouldn’t be a prerequisite, it would give us access to the same material benefits that those who enter into man/woman marriages get, such as hospital visitation rights, taxation benefits etc.

Beyond Marriage Equality

While marriage equality was the goal that was chosen to fight on, it can only be viewed as a first step in breaking through the fabric of LGBTQ oppression.  Socialists in Ireland acknowledge that reform need not be a barrier to further struggles, and can actually be a gateway to them instead.  We have created a Liberation Campaign in an attempt to continue the struggle towards full liberation, and to include struggles of women and racial minorities.  Socialists take stands for reforms because we understand that reformist struggles can create the organisational and human material necessary for further transformation of society.  A problem we will need to overcome is that the winning of reforms can further entrench us into or normalise the system that crushes us – a contradiction built into the system rather than into the demands.

The challenge facing us as radicals is, as history tells us, the fact that the accomplishment of civil rights has often been associated with a substantial, but perhaps temporary, demobilisation of the movement, as immediate goals of the struggle are obtained.  However, to believe that we are only faced with accepting a limited proposition of assimilation is not a nuanced enough understanding of the ways in which people negotiate our everyday lives in relation to projects for change.

Radicals who believe in social change can’t just talk about marriage when trans women of colour are subject to violence every day, LGBTQ people can be fired without recourse because of sexual orientation or gender identity; undocumented LGBTQ people are detained and deported.  We can’t stop at marriage when we’re homeless, face harassment, bullying and violence daily, when we can’t have our gender identity recognised, when our different types of relationships and family are not recognised or we don’t have full bodily autonomy.  We must not stop fighting as long as sex work remains criminalised and sex workers remain marginalised.  We must continue to fight for full liberation for as long as we continue to be systemically oppressed.

The movement in Ireland has a chance to continue its struggle, because unlike in other countries where mass mobilisations were not achieved, the putting of the question of marriage equality to popular vote in Ireland did result in the creation of mass mobilisations.  Aside from the huge numbers of people, queer and straight, who knocked on doors asking for rights for LGBTQ people, Ireland is now seeing an amazing spontaneous show of solidarity from the diaspora who were forced to emigrate by the establishment’s imposition of austerity and are now returning home in droves to cast their vote in the very schools where some may have experienced homophobia.  It is hoped that the Liberation Campaign can play some part in uniting the struggles of all those who are oppressed in a continued struggle for full emancipation.

Jen O’Leary is a member of the Irish SWP and a founding member of the Liberation Campaign



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