At the very back of New York City’s St Patrick’s Day parade this year, a small gay group will join the official festivities for the first time ever.
The organizers of the parade have showed extraordinary hostility to homosexuals for more than 40 years, fighting tooth and nail to keep gay groups out of the annual celebration of Irishness. This year’s small gesture of inclusion—of gay NBC employees—was only made after Mayor Bill de Blasio boycotted the parade last year (he has done so again this year) and a number of sponsors also withdrew from the 253-year-old celebration to protest its openly exclusionary attitude.
So it is fitting that a gay group will march in New York this year as, back home, a decision of tremendous significance is about to be made by the Irish people regarding gay rights.
A proposal to alter the constitution to allow same-sex marriage in Ireland looks set to sail through when a referendum on the issue takes place May 22.
Ireland is often perceived abroad to be grossly homophobic. While there are senior bishops who continue to equate homosexuality to “Down syndrome or spina bifida,” the truth is that Ireland, especially if one is talking about the big cities of Dublin, Cork and Galway, is largely a tolerant, progressive, and inclusive place these days.
Civil partnerships, for example, were introduced in Ireland in 2010 and have swiftly become an uncontroversial part of everyday life, a remarkable turnaround given that it is only 22 years since homosexuality itself was decriminalized, in 1993.
The latest polls show a resounding 71 percent in favor of changing the law. If the support holds steady as the Yes campaign hopes, it will mark the first time worldwide that gay marriage has been introduced by popular vote, as opposed to an act of the legislature (a referendum is required in Ireland because the change in the law requires a change to its constitution).
It is unimaginable that the Irish public might ever have even considered voting in favor of same-sex marriage in such large numbers had the Catholic Church—which strenuously opposes the move—not been so utterly disgraced by the sex-abuse scandals that have been exposed by a welter of inquiries over the last decade. The 2005 Ferns report and the 2009 Murphy and Ryan Reports documented a shocking catalog of abuse by Catholic clergy and lay church workers on an unimaginable scale. Even now, barely a month goes by without some horrific new case of clerical abuse being exposed by the media or judiciary.
The loss of authority by the church in Ireland has not been absolute, however, and the church has sought to cast itself as the defender of family values in the debate. In their official submission on the issue, the Irish Catholic Bishops wrote, “We come to this debate believing that the union of a man and a woman in marriage, open to the procreation of children, is a gift from God who created us ‘male and female.’ Reason also points to the truth about human sexuality that makes the relationship between a man and a woman unique. Mothers and fathers bring different, yet complementary gifts and strengths into a child’s life.”
Casting gay marriage as an attack on the family (the section of the constitution that is to be changed is titled “The Family”) has formed the core of the No camp’s argument.
For example, David Quinn, a leading campaigner against gay marriage and a director of the conservative Iona Institute, a Christian organization that “promotes the place of marriage and religion in society,” says: “I am opposed. I believe that what is at stake here is not the definition of marriage but what we mean by family. Article 41, which needs to be changed, is entitled ‘The Family.’ This referendum is about changing the definition of the family.
“At present what is embodied in law is man meets woman, gets married, and can give a child a mother and a father. What is proposed is that man meet man or woman meets woman and if they have children they can provide two fathers or two mothers. That’s a wholly different vision of the family. We think it is preferable for a child to grow up with the love of a mother and a father.
“The law is going to be saying that in a point of law it is a matter of indifference whether a child is being raised in a man-man, man-woman, or woman-woman relationship.”
However remarks by Bishop Kevin Doran, a conservative Catholic leader, on Irish radio station Newstalk this week were interpreted by many as a truer, less polished version of anti-gay marriage orthodoxy. Bishop Doran compared homosexuality to a disease.
Doran said that homosexuality “was not part of God’s plan.”
The radio host asked Doran to qualify if people being born gay was “as God intended.”
Doran replied: “That would be to suggest that some people are born with Down syndrome or spina bifida, that that was what God intended. The thing about it is, I can’t see it in the mind of God.”
“The things you mentioned are disabilities,” the host pointed out. “Your sexual orientation is not a disability.”
“Well, I’m not entering into that,” Doran replied. “I’m just saying it would be wrong to suggest that everything that happens, happens because God intended it. If that were the case, we’d be talking about a very different kind of God.”
Some campaigners for a Yes vote in the referendum, well used to such outrageous comments by the church, were sanguine about Doran’s outrageous statement. As the Irish social historian and equal-rights campaigner Diarmaid Ferriter commented, “The more the bishops have to say about marriage, the better for the Yes side.”
Others were deeply shocked.
Robbie Lawlor, 24, a student and HIV worker (who was crowned Mr. Gay Ireland 2014) said, “It is quite disheartening to hear stuff like this as I have actually never encountered any homophobia until this campaign began. I am confident in my sexuality but I remember when I was just coming out, acknowledging to myself that I was gay, how hard that was. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had heard comments like this during that transition. I want to know if these people making these negative comments have thought about the impact they might be making on young people coming out.”
Lawlor, who is heavily involved in the Yes campaign, is hopeful that the poll lead will hold, but is concerned that low turnout among younger people could damage the Yes side’s chances.
“Now it’s really all about making sure young people—students and young families—get out and vote. It is about being seen as equal in the eyes of the law and the state and peers. We just want to live our lives in society the same as anyone else. What makes this an exceptional referendum is that we are the only country in world to ask people to vote on marriage equality. It will be wonderful if it goes through, but if it does not, it could be very damaging and disheartening for the gay community.”