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a powerful, collective coming out in ireland

We look at how the Irish gay marriage campaign has changed the country’s cultural landscape forever. (And urge anyone in Ireland to vote Yes!)

by Colin Crummy
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21 May 2015, 4:40pm

photography william murphy

I want you to imagine knocking on the door of the bloke down your street. Maybe you know him from the Amazon parcel that got wrongly delivered, or the time he came banging on your door when the RiRi track got a little too loud for his delicate eardrums. Maybe you have never spoken. I want you to think about this man and going up to his door and telling him something deeply private, something you spent a lot of your life feeling a secret shame about it. Something you've since told your mam about, your friends, your work colleagues about, but not the man three doors down. I want you to tell him this thing. Then I want you to ask him to accept it.

Hard, right? This is exactly what hundreds of young gay men and women in Ireland have been doing, canvassing for a Yes vote in the Irish same sex marriage referendum. They have been knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, talking to familiar faces and total strangers about what the introduction of gay marriage will mean for Ireland, for children, for neighbours, for themselves. If they win when Ireland goes to the ballot box tomorrow, it will be the first country in the world to introduce gay marriage through a popular vote. Even if they don't - and the polls suggest this is now unlikely, if not impossible - they will have changed the cultural landscape in their country forever.

This is how: the referendum campaign for same sex marriage in Ireland has been defined by a collective coming out on a scale hitherto unseen. From government ministers, television personalities to people on your street, closet doors have been forcibly removed from their hinges. If that sounds dramatic, then read the personal testimony from Ursula Halligan, a familiar face on Irish television, a 54-year-old political editor who found the referendum so profoundly affecting that it moved her to come out. It stopped her, she said, from being "a roaring, self loathing homophobe".

For a nation renowned for having the gift of the gab, we Irish aren't so keen on airing the difficult stuff. Sometimes, like Halligan, we keep it secret for so long, it feels impossible to let out. Or we come out, and the subject's never really broached again. Society is structured that way: where in the social arena can we publicly express our sexuality? We don't hold hands in public; we will rarely risk a kiss on the street. We don't have the option of the Big Day Out.

That is damaging, though it's often still a surprise how deep and internalised homophobia dwells. When the journalist Una Mulally was handed a cancer diagnosis during the referendum, she fumbled over naming her girlfriend as next of kin. She'd written a book on marriage equality. She'd been on TV and radio arguing its case. "Yet I still stuttered to a nurse when I said 'girlfriend'," she wrote in an extraordinarily moving piece about the diagnosis. "What am I like? I guess it's hard to accept yourself when your country doesn't."

Coming out is, firstly, an act of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is difficult. You can read it in every word during this referendum on social media, in Facebook posts that begun with an apologetic "I don't usually say anything personal/political/ask anything of anyone on here but…" before launching into incredibly impassioned calls for a Yes vote. You could see it in YouTube clips, like the #askyourgranny campaign, where students called up their nans and asked them how they would vote, knowing how the answer would personally affect them. Then there were the canvassers, knocking on doors and asking people to vote Yes. You have to be good with yourself to go do that.

It was incredibly powerful, moving stuff. The kind of stuff that turns hearts and minds. It was the same kind of direct action, the late great gay activist Harvey Milk advocated in San Francisco in 1978 when he urged his followers to come out to their parents, to relatives, friends and neighbours. "Once and for all, break down the myths," he said. "Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake."

In turn, the referendum campaign produced many, many straight allies who came out for gay equality. Many parents of gay children urged a Yes vote. The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, publicly stated that her son was gay. The writer Sebastian Barry said he would vote yes for his gay child because by doing so "I will be engaging in the simple task of honouring the majesty, radiance and promise of his human soul." Ordinary people had their say too, like Brighid and Paddy, elderly Catholic parents, who took to YouTube to explain why they were voting Yes. This acceptance seemed so surprising, perhaps because we'd never asked them how they felt about us and, equally, because they'd never told us.

During the referendum, I spoke to the Irish artist Joe Caslin for i-D about his contribution to the Yes campaign. He'd constructed two large scale, building high public illustrations of gay couples. He's an art teacher in rural Ireland and he'd been inspired to do the piece because he'd watched gay pupils struggle with their sexuality; in eight years teaching five young people he knew had killed themselves. Some of them may have been gay. He put up the first drawing over a wet, dark weekend in Dublin's city centre, on his own time and money. He said he could have afforded a new car with the cash, and I don't think he was joking. I asked him why do it and his reply was so simple, so emphatic. "It's right," he said.

Joe's response made my heart swell. It was so humane - or as we say at home in Ireland - so decent of him. He didn't need to say anything else. He'd added real gay people with real lives to the debate. This may prove to the triumph of the Yes Campaign. It put so many brave, positive, brilliantly upbeat faces in the heart of the debate, on our Facebook timelines, in our newspapers, on people's doorsteps. It takes a hard heart to go to the ballot box and tell someone you know, whose hand you may have shook, that you don't accept them. There may well be people who vote no, in spite of this. But no matter about them. Gay people have come to terms with themselves in this referendum. We've learned so much about how accepted and loved we are by our family, friends and fellow citizens. You can't shut the door on that. 

Credits


Text Colin Crummy