Emigrants don’t have a vote, but we do have a voice

Irish abroad are empowering themselves on social media as as the same-sex marriage referendum approaches, writes Quentin Fottrell in New York

When I moved to New York four years ago, I was convinced the US would have marriage equality before Ireland. How fast things can change. If Ireland votes Yes to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples on May 22nd, it could beat the US by a month. In June, the Supreme Court will either uphold or strike down bans prohibiting same-sex marriage in nearly a dozen US states. Americans must wait passively for that decision. Irish citizens have the choice to go out and vote.

Not all Irish citizens, however.

Emigrants are not eligible to vote, which leaves the tens of thousands of Irish abroad who left since 2008 in a kind of political purgatory. There is the illusion of closeness: we can watch the referendum debates on RTE Player and become immersed in the sometimes toxic Twitter wars. We can FaceTime or email our friends and family, urging them to register and to make their vote count. We can talk to our American friends, many of whom are not even aware that Ireland is about to make such an historic decision.

May 22nd is also an auspicious date in the US It is the birthday of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to hold public office in California who was shot dead by a disgruntled former city employee in 1978. It's also the date of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer's wedding in Canada in 2007. Windsor won her Supreme Court case to have her marriage recognised in the US in 2013, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, giving federal benefits to same-sex couples. This seems like a day that could once again go down in history.


But as the referendum grew closer, I became concerned about the result, and felt increasingly powerless. I wrote stories here in New York about how marriage equality strengthens the fabric of society. It gives dignity and legal protection to same-sex families, and says to young gay people, you have a voice, you are important too. Psychological research shows that children do better with parents in a stable and committed relationship. Same-sex marriage did not reduce the value of marriage for heterosexual couples in US states or the Netherlands.

But it wasn't enough. We watched how some people from the No side formed new organisations with little more than a radio interview and a press release. I emailed Aisling Reidy, a senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch: "What can we do?" Aisling emailed me a photograph of Irish people in Sydney, Australia holding up signage asking people back home to #UseYourVote. Other cities did the same. It was deliciously simple. We too would organise a photo, but to ask people to vote Yes and in front of a New York landmark. But which one?

The Statue of Liberty seemed like an obvious choice, but when I got off the subway at Battery Park there was it was, our landmark: the Freedom Tower, shimmering in the late evening sun. I set up a Facebook Event and 60 people showed up, including Sinead Andrews, the public partnership manager at Unicef, Brendan Fay, who helped start the "St Pat's Day for All" parade in Queens, novelist Belinda McKeon, cystic fibrosis campaigner Orla Tinsley, three-year-old Sadie Grant with her father Ciarán, artist Corban Walker and filmmaker Niall McKay.

My father used to say the only thing that started on time in Ireland was mass, and I was concerned that people would show up late, or wouldn’t show. I need not have worried. People actually arrived early. There were hugs and the sense that we were on the right side of history.

We knew social media was critical to raise awareness: Simon McDonnell, a research director for New York State, created and managed a Twitter account, @yesequality_NYC, to share the photos; Niall McKay and Marissa Aroy showed up with a video camera; and my Icelandic friend Snorri Sturluson agreed to photograph the event.

There were some comical moments too when assigning letters to people and arranging their order: “Where’s the P in proud? You’re the H in history!” This was our way to show our appreciation to those who fought so hard in this campaign, and for so long. We are thousands of miles away, but we stand together.

This feels like the end of a journey. We don’t have a vote, but we do have a voice, and it took me years to find mine. When I was 14, I wrote the words “I am gay” in the condensation on my windowpane. I stared at it for a few moments, my heart beating out of my chest, before quickly scrubbing it out. On Thursday, we held up letters spelling “Make Us Proud, Make History #VoteYesForEquality”. This time, I wanted everyone to see our words. Another Irish expat Fred Hanna, a helicopter pilot, even took a photograph of us all from the sky.

Read more: