Noel Whelan: We had been blind to prejudice facing gay community

‘Even on the Yes side many of us had, however, failed to appreciate the true extent to which passing this referendum would matter to gay man and lesbian women’

‘I was emotionally overwhelmed by the acknowledgment of my small part in their campaign but I was also deeply distressed by the intensity of their gratitude.’ Above, crowds celebrate in the court yard at Dublin Castle, the Central Results Centre, at the results of the referendum on marriage equality. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

‘I was emotionally overwhelmed by the acknowledgment of my small part in their campaign but I was also deeply distressed by the intensity of their gratitude.’ Above, crowds celebrate in the court yard at Dublin Castle, the Central Results Centre, at the results of the referendum on marriage equality. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

For everyone involved in the Yes campaign in the marriage referendum there was at least one point last Saturday when the impact of the result just got too much.

Some cried early in the morning when the ballot boxes were first opened and revealed a landslide. Some cried early in the afternoon when listening to Mary McAleese’s impromptu address to Yes Equality activists in the Ballsbridge Hotel. For others it was the scenes in Dublin Castle in the evening when the results were announced that set them off.

I had managed to keep it together through all of that. As we left Dublin Castle after the declaration and came out on to Dame Street, however, it became impossible to hold it in. The massive crowds who had gathered at the gates to be close to the result had broken into a spontaneous carnival of rainbow colours. Cars beeped as they passed and thousands on the street cheered and sang and toasted the Yes. There was exhilaration and tears. It was joy unrestrained.

Distressed by intensity of gratitude

Just at that point dozens and dozens of men and women came up and asked to shake my hand. They said “Thank you”, which was humbling, but then almost all of them added: “Thank you for advocating for us.” I was emotionally overwhelmed by the acknowledgment of my small part in their campaign but I was also deeply distressed by the intensity of their gratitude.

How in our Republic had it come to this? How had the rest of us been blind for so long to the prejudice visited upon the gay and lesbian community? Why had those of us in the mainstream been deaf for decades to their cry for equal recognition? How was it that we had failed to appreciate the sting of discrimination they felt? How come in their sense of isolation it meant so much to them that a straight man in the public eye, who was not a politician, had spoken out for their right to love and marry as equals?

Inside Dublin Castle I had seen the landslide Yes result as a generous recognition by the Irish people of equality for the gay and lesbian community. On Dame Street I was left hoping it was also a partial, if inadequate, apology. The majority should never have had the right to decide on equality for the minority. We should never have been so tardy in doing so.

As a straight man I have always been able to assume that I could marry once I found someone to love who would have me. I can never claim therefore to truly understand how frustrating it must feel to have to ask the entire country in a public vote for the same right.

Even on the Yes side many of us had, however, failed to appreciate the true extent to which passing this referendum would matter to gay men and lesbian women. For those of us who had come late to this issue, last Saturday was the exciting end to a few months of campaigning. For Ireland’s LBGT community and their long-time allies it was the culmination of a 40-year struggle for equal rights. It was more than merely a constitutional change allowing them to marry; it represented real recognition and true acceptance for them and their families.

Being involved in the extraordinary phenomenon that was Yes Equality would have been reward enough. I learned a lot about this country and its politics.

It has been wonderful to have a ringside seat from which to witness the mobilisation of thousands to political activity for the first time on this issue. To see the respectful way they canvassed and the dignified manner in which they dealt with the abuse they were exposed to at some doors was a wonder to behold. Their passion and enthusiasm was of a type not seen for decades in Irish politics.

It has been fascinating to learn from a new generation of political operatives about how social media and online technologies can transform patterns of political engagement. It was amazing to see their sophisticated knowledge of the importance now of visual and dramatic forms of communication.

The most useful politics I have done

Each of us hopes, if we are lucky, to have a few occasions in our lives when whatever mix of skills and experience we have comes together to be of some real value. For me this campaign was one such moment. Trained as a lawyer, capable of holding my own in a TV or radio studio, having access to column space on this page and being experienced in large-scale political campaigning, I was fortunate to be able to make a small contribution to the Yes Equality effort on a number of levels. It is the most useful politics I have ever done.

The Irish people did a wonderful thing on this day last week; they may only gradually come to know how truly important it was.

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