Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reflections on the Referendum

I was travelling by bus to Cork as the first tallies were being announced, fed to me drip by drip via Twitter or excited texts from my friends. I relayed every scrap of information and speculation  to my partner, who was sitting beside me. Combined with the turnout figures from the night before, it was becoming clearer each minute that the Yes side was on course for a stunning victory.

Months before, we had decided to spend this day with friends, to celebrate or commiserate together. So we set up base in front of a friend’s TV, watching the crowds in Dublin cheer as each result was officially announced, sighing with relief once RTE made the official call, switching over to TV3 to witness the bizarre scene of Vincent Browne live from The George and wondering if it would have been more awkward had the referendum been defeated. We hugged and cheered, and went to get beer.

Later, I watched the scenes in Dublin as the evening wore on – thousands of LGBT people and their allies, young and old, celebrating this great historic moment. I saw the joy in their faces and heard it in their voices. And I wondered why I didn’t feel like they did.

I wasn’t happy - I was exhausted.

I wasn’t excited- I was angry.

A referendum is supposed to be the ultimate expression of democratic values, and we are supposed to value democracy as one of the highest political ideals. Wasn’t it wonderful, said the commentators, that the Irish public had had their say, and that they had given their endorsement in the strongest possible terms to same-sex marriage?

Wasn’t it wonderful to have my civil rights decided by a majority? To have my identity and the value of my most important relationship be the object of public debate? To have people give their blessing to the status of that relationship? To do so in a way that demanded balance in the media, because it is important to also hear from those who believe that people like me are not worth treating as equal citizens?

It wasn’t just the content of the debate that angered me, though that would have been enough on its own. Seeing the remnants of Old Conservative Ireland marshal their forces for yet another assault on human dignity was tolerable to the extent that every LGBT person learns to live with the kind of lies and slurs and generally toxic atmosphere that such people like to create. But never had I known it on such a scale, with posters up on every lamppost telling me that I already had as much as I deserved, and that I shouldn’t be allowed to raise children, and that asking to be treated with equal dignity and respect amounted to bullying those who thought otherwise.

That was bad enough, but what was worse was the fact that the vast majority of people, including those who voted Yes, seemed to be perfectly accepting of the premise that this was an issue that ought to be decided in this way – with public debates, and posters, and organized campaigns, and nobody allowed to use the word “homophobic” for fear of seeming negative and turning off potential Yes voters.

There didn’t have to be a referendum – the legal advice suggesting otherwise was controversial at best, and I have argued elsewhere that it would have been constitutionally required following the passing of the children’s rights referendum. But the fact that the government chose to hold one wasn’t just a reflection of a different interpretation of the law – it was a reflection of the belief of many that not only was a referendum necessary, but that it was the most legitimate way of securing marriage equality. After all, how can you get more legitimate than a Yes vote supported by the largest turnout since the foundation of the state? (And yet, I suspect we will never be asked to vote on whether straight people should be allowed to marry)

At the heart of all of this, lies the assumption that the right to be treated with equal dignity and respect should be in the gift of the majority. That this right may be extended to those of us who plead our case in terms the majority find agreeable, and that if we are successful we must be grateful to those who have offered to treat us as equals.

I am not interested in defending my worth as a human being, but I was forced to do it, as were thousands of others. I do not feel indebted to people who only did what they ought to have done, in voting to treat me with equal dignity and respect, but I am expected to be grateful to them.

I am not interested in these kinds of games, but I had no choice but to play them. I am entitled to be treated with dignity. I am entitled to be treated with respect. I am entitled to be treated as any other human being. And I am entitled to be angry when I am not. 

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