On the threshold of Victory: Marriage Equality for Lesbian and Gay Couples in Ireland

By Youniq Team

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The Same Sex Marriage Referendum is to hold in Ireland on the 22nd of May this year and the stage seems set for victory for those who have campaigned long and hard for marriage equality.

Polls over the years have indicated growing support in Irish society for same sex marriage and these polls strongly reflect the change in societal attitudes to same sex relationships.

Ipso/MRBI poll for Irish times in December 2014 showed that 71% of those polled where in favour of same sex marriage as opposed to 17% against it with 9% undecided.

The upcoming referendum will provide the opportunity for the people of Ireland to decide whether to amend the Irish Constitution to bring about clarity on the rights of same sex couples to a civil marriage.

At present, the Irish Constitution contains no express provisions prohibiting same sex marriage. However, the wordings of Article 41(3)(2) of the Constitution read as follows;

“The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”

The courts in Ireland with the primary role of interpreting the Constitution have determined that the meaning of marriage within this text, is a union between a man and a woman.

This reading of the Constitutional text may well be the result of the application of a harmonious interpretative technique which has taken into consideration other provisions of the Constitution in particular, the preamble to the Irish Constitution which is distinctively steeped in Catholic beliefs.

Be that as it may, victory now seems almost certain for groups and individuals campaigning for marriage equality and there are lessons to be learnt for those working to combat discrimination on any of the other grounds outlined in the Equal Status Act 2000 (Race, Gender, Religion, Disability, Membership of the Travellers Community etc )

Theirs has been a long and difficult journey that saw homosexuality decriminalised in 1993 following the 16 year legal battle of Senator David Norris a gay human rights activist.

A number of other significant gains have been made over the years including the enactment of the Civil Partnership Act in 2010 which allowed same sex couples to enter into a statutory civil partnership with elevated rights in the areas of taxation, social welfare and immigration amongst others. The success of the Constitutional Convention in 2013 also paved the way for the Same Sex Referendum.

Gay and Lesbian individuals have played a leading role in the struggle for recognition of their rights and the Senator Katherine Zappone and Gilligan case currently before the High Court challenging the Constitutionality of the Civil Registration Act 2004 which prohibits marriage between same sex couples is the latest example of this.

Many organisations such as the Gay Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), Marriage Equality and other LGBT organisations that have played a less visible role such as Outhouse have contributed in no small measure in the campaign for equality. In the final drive to ensure a positive outcome for marriage equality in the referendum, Gay Lesbian Equality Network and Marriage Equality have teamed up with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL).

What is most evident in the approach taken in the progress made by the Lesbian and Gay Communities in the pursuit of their goals is the leading role played by gay people themselves.

Ownership of their own agitation has ensured an unwavering focus and dedication to the issues that affect them. Their commitment to real and meaningful change has yielded the dividend of success stories in their cause. For them, it has never simply been just another job or just another funding opportunity. While there is often the need for the expertise of people from outside the communities or groups striving for equality, experience has shown that a martyr complex and know- all attitude often hinders progress and results in the perpetuation of inequality because of the failure to support the disadvantaged communities , individuals or groups to advance their own cause.

Gay and Lesbian individuals and organisations have also been willing more than most to use the courts to challenge legislation or administrative decisions that they perceive as discriminatory to them.

Senator Norris endured a 16 year legal battle even going before the Supreme Court in Ireland and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to challenge legislation that criminalised homosexuality.

Similarly, Senator Zappone has a 10 year ongoing battle in court pursuing the recognition of her marriage in Ireland.

However, most significant in the success story of the Lesbian and Gay communities is the change in societal attitudes. It is perhaps this singular factor that has had the biggest impact in the progress made by the Gay and Lesbian Community to date.

Discrimination or negative societal attitudes against gays and lesbians was always largely based on the perception of wrongdoing or deviation from societal norms. Negative societal attitudes were in turn influenced by religious or personal moral views.

Religious and personal moral views are somewhat malleable and the waning influence of the Church in Irish Society as well as a combination of other factors have contributed in bringing about the change in attitudes to gay and lesbian people.

I find comparison between the different discriminated groups listed under the Equal Status Act neither necessary nor balanced and even sometimes misleading. Besides the common experience of discrimination, the experiences of the various groups differ significantly. I do not subscribe to the idea of a hierarchy of rights and I believe that every right has validity on its own merit. Such comparisons merely reveal a lack of understanding of the experiences of other discriminated groups.

Typically, my experience of discrimination as a black person is significantly different from my experience of discrimination as a woman and yet both experiences are valid.

The fact that black footballers cannot shield themselves from racist abuse on the football pitch by concealing their race and that women cannot rise to positions of political significance by concealing their gender illustrates this point. Nobody should have to pretend to be something that they are not and yet distinctions like these matter where security of life limb or liberty is based purely on unchangeable physical attributes.Racism is not based on perception of wrongdoing or deviation from norms. It is simply based on skin colour and as a result is far less malleable.

Changing negative societal attitudes towards a particular category of people who experience discrimination on one of the listed grounds will prove a completely different challenge to changing negative attitudes towards another.

There is a lot to be learnt from the success stories of the Gay and Lesbian struggle for equality and exploring ways of how to best change negative societal attitudes would be a great place to start.

Image Credit: Journal.ie/PhotoIreland

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