How gay marriage went mainstream
THE GAY WEDDING BUS is revving up. In the driving seat is Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, sporting a big red T-shirt with the message, “Civil partnership is NOT marriage equality”. Behind him, highly excited, the latest crew to leap on board: the entire membership of Cork City Council. Hovering around the door is the Fine Gael Minister Leo Varadkar, murmuring that he’ll “probably” hop on at some stage.In Britain the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, is very relaxed about gay marriage and says he supports it because of his conservatism, not in spite of it. In the US President Barack Obama finally jumped on board, confident the issue has enough public momentum in election year. “Thank God I got gay-married last year when it was still cool and underground,” tweeted a New Yorker in response.
Back in Ireland Gilmore cited a February opinion poll that showed 73 per cent public support for same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, the Fianna Fáil ardfheis adopted a motion to recognise same-sex marriage, and about 60 gay couples turned up for Ireland’s first gay wedding and civil partnership fair, at the Absolute Hotel in Limerick.
A few weeks ago every political party in the State was represented among the 30,000 marchers at the Pride parade in Dublin. For the first time, amid the riot of feathers, heels, big hair and gold lamé hot pants, the parade was led by representatives of national and international police forces. Now that’s mainstream.
The breakneck gallop of the gay-marriage issue to the top of the social agenda has alarmed opponents. Even some gay-rights campaigners considered Gilmore’s characterisation of it as “the civil-rights issue of this generation” a bit over the top.
On the Telegraph website the blogger Brendan O’Neill noted that the “speed and ease with which gay marriage has gone from being a tiny minority concern to become the No 1 battle in the modern culture wars has been truly remarkable and revealing”.
The reason “it has been so speedily and heartily embraced by the political and media classes”, he suggested, “is because it is so very useful as a litmus test of liberal, cosmopolitan values. Supporting gay marriage has become a kind of shorthand way of indicating one’s superiority over the hordes, particularly those of a religious or redneck persuasion.”
There is no doubt that many conservative commentators in Ireland share O’Neill’s view.
The Fianna Fáil senator Jim Walsh, invariably described as a gentleman, even by his gay-rights opponents, says: “The problem is there is no counterbalance to the gay and lesbian lobby groups and the people within the media who are driving what’s happening at the moment . . . The IFA would have been the number-one lobby group in the country at one time, but I think the gay and lesbian lobby groups are far more effective, far more professional in their approach, far better resourced.” He means it as a compliment.
“There are no good, professional NGOs on our side.” Why? “The reality is that people are married, people have children, and as a consequence are focused on other priorities. And often this is going on without them necessarily engaging with it.”
Some around Leinster House pull surprised faces when they hear this. The Iona Institute, for example, blessed with extremely high-profile members with priceless multimedia platforms, is said to be “very, very engaged” with politicians. Small groups that were devoted to opposing civil partnership or that rallied against David Norris’s bid for the presidency haven’t gone away.
There are also rumours of a Catholic lobby group being set up within the Oireachtas. Walsh denies this, saying: “There is no Catholic lobby group on this issue, and I wouldn’t like it if there was.” But there might be a group for people “who are Catholic and want to be able to integrate their faith and their political life, where there would be a way to practise it,” he says. After all, he says, Mass is said regularly in the House of Commons and in the Bundestag.
BUT IN THE HUNT for something or someone to blame for the rise and rise of gay-marriage power – mysterious funding, liberal friends in the media, metropolitan snobbery, bandwagon-jumping – opponents have overlooked the most obvious factor of all: the staggering power of human visibility.
In Ireland the ground for civil partnership or gay marriage had been harrowed by couples such as Katherine Zappone and Ann-Louise Gilligan, whose public appearances in their ongoing court battle for the right to an Irish marriage revealed their unthreatening, almost nunlike ordinariness. They were followed by 738 couples – more than one a day – who have celebrated their civil partnerships since the law was enacted, 18 months ago.
No public-relations company could have done a more comprehensive job. Suddenly, same-sex couples were beaming delightedly from the front pages of every local newspaper.
In nearly every county, town and village, family, friends and neighbours flaunted their “wedding” invitations as a badge of pride, or of cool, or of downright relief after years of whispers and cover-ups. “It moved from an issue seen only in the pages of Hot Press to happy front-page pictures in the Longford Leader and the Enniscorthy Echo. The veil of strangeness was ripped off,” says Tiernan Brady of the Gay Lesbian Equality Network. These folk looked normal. “Kylie’s not behind you in the pictures, and you’re not in high heels,” says Brady with a grin.
Those couples at community level have changed everything, he believes. “They were given a large level of State recognition, and people saw that the sky didn’t fall down. They know now that this is not about ideology; it’s about real people being treated equally.”
In a way, says Brady, the “tragedy of a great social change such as civil partnership is its success. The day after it is passed everyone forgets what it was like before.” Politically, “it absolutely would not have happened without [then minister for justice] Dermot Ahern. He was a classic example of what I see as the Irish people’s sense of fairness. First, he was prepared to move from his original position, and then he really drove this at legislative level. There were backbench wobbles in the [Fianna Fáil] government party, and great care had to be taken that it didn’t become a political wedge.”
Only a few years on it seems the challenge now is to find a prominent politician prepared to oppose gay marriage out loud. Is the Taoiseach, who famously collided with a flowerpot in the rush to elude his questioners, in favour? There has been no indication that he supports it. “But he’s never said he’s against,” insists the Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer, with bullish confidence. The Corkman, who came out in April and describes himself as “very pragmatic as well as being a romantic”, says he understands why Enda Kenny is standing aloof.