How Irish gays became ‘normal’ – and why the Church was unable to do much about it
The author of a new book on how churches worldwide use moral authority to influence policy compares how Irish and US views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved
Teenagers (from left) Ailish Kerr, Glasnevin, Trina Tsai, Waterford, Dylan Byrne, Tullamore, Nathan Patterson, Swords, Alison Kershaw, Blanchardstown, Dan Connor, Drumcondra, and Darragh Staunton, Finglas, at the launch of the BeLonG To YES campaign in Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
The upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage shows both striking differences and common dynamics across the Atlantic. Ireland and the United States have both travelled a dizzyingly fast path in accepting homosexuality and supporting same-sex marriage. These two countries, linked in common stereotype by their religious fervour and their conservative moral attitudes, have both gone from prevalent homophobia to widespread acceptance in less than a generation.
In the United States, popular support for gay marriage has gone from less than a quarter in 1994 to nearly two-thirds by 2013. In Ireland, support for same-sex marriage hovers between 74 and 80 per cent in the year leading up to the May 22nd referendum. This would be stunning before any referendum, but it is all the more so since 20 years ago, less than 20 per cent of Irish respondents accepted homosexuality, much less same-sex marriage. The pace of the revolution in public opinion is also increasingly rapidly: in 2006, 41 per cent of Irish respondents favoured same-sex marriage. Five years later, over two-thirds did. And in both countries, younger cohorts vastly outnumber older people in their support for same-sex marriage: the opponents are in many cases from generations that are simply dying off. The rapid pace of these shifts in public opinion only seems to increase, in a cascade of support for gay rights and same-sex marriage.
Why? Because of a peculiar paradox: the fact that homosexuality can be hidden makes its acceptance especially rapid. In conservative societies, the first openly gay people in a society have to be especially brave: and are likely to be different from the rest. They are “risk acceptant” in the language of social science: willing to court stigma and disdain for their dress, behaviour and demands, which are perceived as campy, outrageous and radical by the rest of society.
But as more and more gay people come out, what is striking about them is how “normal” they are: the neighbour or co-worker with whom we’ve shared gossip and beer comes out of the closet, but nothing else about them has changed. They have revealed a previously secret and stigmatised aspect of their true selves – but their friends, neighbours, and co-workers have long accepted them. In this situation, most people will shift their view of homosexuality, rather than dropping a friend. In fact, recent experimental research shows that even a brief contact of 20 minutes or so with a friendly individual who reveals they are gay can have lasting effects in increasing warm feelings towards gays and voting on gay-friendly measures. The result is more and more societal acceptance – which in turn prompts those deeper in the closet to feel more comfortable in coming out.
In the United States, this cycle eventually took off thanks to both enormous religious diversity, pop cultural changes and the state’s federal structures, which allowed for policy innovation and experimentation, with individual states legalising same-sex marriage willy-nilly over the course of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Yet the policies in the United States are still more traditional, and the population more conservative in its views: Supreme Court judicial decisions, rather than popular consultations like the Irish referendum, have made the changes possible. There has been no radical shift in either the religiosity of Americans or the deference they give to conservative religious authorities.
The contrast with Ireland is telling. In this religious monopoly, the initial takeoff was made possible by the Roman Catholic Church’s fall from grace, and the enormous losses in its moral authority. For decades, the church had dominated Irish politics, shaping public policy through consultations and secret meetings, and confidently policing both private and public morality with assiduity and exactitude. Its moral authority was high – but also, it turned out, very brittle. The church in the 1990s faced revelations of sex scandals, the incidence of paedophilia and the abuse of the most vulnerable of Irish citizens in church-run Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, industrial schools and other church-run agencies. For so long, the church held up rigorous moral standards for society – standards that it itself had failed to fulfil. After the legalisation of homosexuality in 1993, and the revelations of what was often seen as church hypocrisy, the atmosphere became less suffocating.
As the air cleared of incense, more gays could come out – and their political demands had also shifted, to the most mundane and “normal”: the right to marry and to have families. The Zappone and Gilligan case was critical here: two ordinary women who sought not to revolutionise society, but to file taxes in Ireland as the married couple they were in Canada. By 2012, this newspaper noted that “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 … these folk look normal …Those couples at community level have changed everything.”
This is exactly the dynamic of gays revealing themselves to be simply… boring and normal, no different from their straight counterparts. And in becoming “normal”, gays have gained greater and greater acceptance, prompting more and more people to live their lives outside of the closet.
From the vantage point of the United States, two aspects of the Irish referendum are so striking. First, the most Catholic of countries is voting in a very non-Catholic way. The church has sounded alarms. But in contrast to prior episodes such as the 1986 divorce or the 1983 abortion referenda, it can no longer count on either an electorate or politicians that defer to its moral authority. Nor can the church stop the spiral of acceptance. In the United States, by contrast, the paedophilia scandals of the early 2000s seem to have had little impact on either the church’s role in politics, or on the strong religious tint to public policy. Second, despite the radical change in attitudes towards homosexuality, attitudes and policies towards abortion are proving far more durable. Could it be, perhaps, that if our friends and sisters, mothers and aunts, co-workers and colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances could come out and tell us of their experiences with abortion, they may be met with more compassion and understanding? And maybe, even, acceptance?
Anna Grzymala-Busse is author of Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy (Princeton University Press) and the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan.