In May of 2015 the Irish people will be voting on whether to change the Constitution to allow for same-sex marriage. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect upon the staggering changes to the status of LGBT people living in this country, and what it took to get where we are now. The campaign for equality is one that the LGBT movement has shared with Irish women’s battle for equality at work, in the home and even in the pub.
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Ireland’s decriminalisation of homosexuality. Since 1993 there has been radical transformation in LGBT equality in Ireland, socially as well as legally. Although the decriminalisation of homosexuality took years of sustained activism, changes following that have been incremental but relatively quick. “In the Irish context, evolution rather than revolution was the model that delivered change,” says Brian Sheehan, director of GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. “The evolution has been almost revolutionary in its brevity.” Ireland was the first European country to make discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, and the introduction of civil partnership gave as many of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples as was deemed possible without constitutional changes. The coming years will see legislation to allow adoption by same-sex couples as well as a referendum to allow for marriage.
“20 years is too long for people living at the coalface of inequality and discrimination. But, if you step back, 20 years is a remarkable time for such a social transformation to take place.” Brian Sheehan believes that, as well as dedicated campaigners, a change in Irish society facilitated this transformation. The massive emigration from Ireland in the ‘80s was followed by a period of economic boom, which meant that Irish emigrants returned from living and working abroad. “They came back with different ideas, cultures and experiences. Our expectations of what Ireland could be were different. The control that various institutions had within Ireland changed, both of women and of gay people, but of society in general. Economically, culturally, and socially, Ireland became an outward-looking country.”
Ruairi Quinn and John Bruton are credited with ensuring the inclusion of anti-discrimination provisions in the Treaty of Amsterdam – one of the treaties that govern the EU as we know it – which is behind much of the current EU legislation on LGBT rights. Brian hopes that Ireland can continue to be a positive influence on the international community, as LGBT movements in other countries also make progress. In Europe, there are two definite identifiable trends. While many of the non-EU countries are either drifting towards the EU and Western European nations in regards to LGBT equality, others are beginning to echo Russia, which recently brought in several laws discriminating against the LGBT community, as well as other social movements.
Speaking at an event organised by GLEN and Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based group protecting human rights defenders working in dangerous countries, Igor Yassin spoke about his involvement in the LGBT equality movement in Russia. The government attacked LGBT rights so as to divide the opposition movement that had been rallying around calls for better education, healthcare and the tackling of corruption. Regressive legal developments on LGBT issues in Russia, like the outlawing of “homosexual propaganda”, seem to be spreading to former Soviet states wishing to more closely align themselves with the local superpower. As it stands, homosexuality is illegal in more than 80 countries worldwide, and in at least five it still carries the death penalty. Even where homosexuality has been decriminalised, there are persistent problems of discrimination and drastic inequality.
Igor and the other LGBT activists at the event stressed the need for international solidarity between LGBT movements. There has been much talk about possible protests and boycotts around this month’s winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Igor insists that a boycott isn’t the answer, but events like this should be used as a platform for protest, to show international disapproval from citizens to the treatment of LGBT people. Perversely, Russia’s legal crackdown on LGBT people may contain the seed for positive social changes. “We used to be considered freaks and dismissed,” says Igor. “Now they try to make us seem dangerous, so for the first time we are being taken seriously. For the first time there is a conversation.”
There’s more social and legal change needed in Ireland, too, Brian insists. While great progress has been made for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, an awful lot more change is still needed both legislatively and attitudinally concerning the rights of transgender, transsexual and intersex people. This is an issue that is beginning to be addressed in schools, as the Department of Education will soon be requiring all schools to have an anti-bullying policy, including homophobic and transphobic bullying. These are problems that need to be tackled in the workplace, too. Although legally speaking you can’t be discriminated against in employment for your sexual orientation, being comfortable at work is one of the most widely cited concerns of LGBT people in Ireland. Brian thinks this is very understandable. “If you’ve got a job, and you feel you can be yourself in work, then the rest of your life becomes possible.” GLEN works with employers to make the workplace not only non-discriminatory, but proactively and positively welcoming for LGBT people.
Brian is optimistic about the referendum on marriage equality planned for 2015, and considers it winnable, but cautions that referenda in Ireland are always very complex. “One critical issue getting confused was around parenting and children,” Brian explains. “We’re delighted that the government has brought forward bills to address this prior to the referendum.” The Family Relationships and Children Bill will update Ireland’s children’s law, a relic of the ‘60s, and will legislate for gay and lesbian adoption. As this will happen without the need for constitutional change, and before the referendum campaign begins, it will hopefully neuter adoption and parenting as a diversionary issue in the conversation about marriage equality.
With the impending referendum on gay marriage, there is the hope that the Irish gay and lesbian community will gain legal acceptance as fully-fledged members of Irish society. More than sexual freedom, this is about gay couples being able to be citizens, with families and children and the responsibilities which that entails. There are many reasons to be hopeful, with poll numbers showing overwhelming support for marriage equality. The success of the Civil Partnership Act has been important for this. As Brian puts it, “it helps people to understand that it’s the same love and commitment.”
Words: Zoe Jellicoe