‘If I move back to Ireland with someone I love, I want to have the same rights’

Irish emigrants in London make videos appealing for Yes vote in marriage equality referendum

The worry that rests uneasily in the mind of every Irish expat congregated at an event at Soho Theatre in London last week is: what if the majority vote No? The marriage equality referendum looms and the opportunity for a level footing for LGBT people in Irish society is nerve-wrackingly close.

Yet these expats feel powerless. As Irish citizens living overseas, they are without a vote. Their fate rests in the voting power of every person at home in Ireland. They worry that without their say the referendum will fold.

They unite at one of several Vote With Us video days in Ireland and abroad to voice their support for a Yes vote. Donal Mulligan, Eoin Wilson and Ewan Kelly launched the campaign last year, aiming to create a platform for people to tell their personal stories about the real difference the marriage equality bill could make to their lives.

Joey Kavanagh, founder of the Get the Boat to Vote campaign, organised this London event. As a recent immigrant he understands the dismay of Irish expats abroad who are excluded from the electorate. He hopes the videos will help Irish people living abroad who are ineligible to vote to feel they are contributing.

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The criminalisation of homosexuality and in later years the subtle homophobia that still permeates in much of Irish society has undeniably contributed to the numbers emigrating for generations. Those who feel like outsiders will find home someplace else. And for some of the expats at the Vote With Us event, not feeling comfortable being themselves at home was a factor in their reason to leave Ireland.

“It’s drilled in from our society that [homosexuality]is abnormal, that’s not the way things should be,” says 21-year-old student Faye O’Donoghue. “There are people still getting beaten up, it’s not constant but it’s still there. It seems a shame and sad at this stage that something is being held against so many people when there’s not a thing in the world they can do about it.”

For those who wanted to live freely as themselves, London offered a sanctuary. Jennifer Browne, who has lived in London for seven years, describes the city as a place where intolerance is not tolerated.

For many of the attendees, the freedom and acceptance they experienced in London taught them how to be more comfortable and happy with themselves. They all concede that a life in today’s Ireland would still be a limited one, and it’s hard for some of them to imagine coming home.

O’Donoghue describes that struggle between home and self: “I always have my mum saying you can always go off and travel and do what you want but make sure you come home to us. But for me, that puts a sour taste in my mouth. Because I love the place, I love the country and I loved growing up there but knowing that I’m not really welcome is quite hard to take in.”

For some, if the no side were to succeed it would quash hopes of one day moving home. Michelle Dundass, a primary school teacher, reflected on her future: “If I decide to move back home with someone I love, someone I’ve married, I want to have the same rights. I don’t see why we should be treated any differently.”

Kavanagh says it is also about the State trusting the individual: “If I say that I love this person and I want to spend the rest of my life with them, just trust me on that. Allow me the same rights and privileges that any other happily married couple would have.”

The referendum is personal to them. It is a fragile opportunity for equality, and the nervousness at the decision being taken out of their hands is palpable. They will be greatly affected by the vote, yet have no say in it, because the Irish State does not have provisions to allow citizens abroad a vote in elections or referenda.

Mid-way through the afternoon, another conversation starts about whether those more likely to vote in favour of equality no longer live in Ireland. In spite of the optimistic opinion polls, there is a fear that the referendum won’t pass; that some could use the anonymity of the ballot box to cast their true opinion about homosexuality.

If the marriage equality bill were to pass it would make Ireland the first country to instate legislation of this kind by a national public vote. It could be a pivotal moment in Irish history.

William Edgill, who has lived away from Ireland for 20 years, says: “I don’t wish to live in a country that doesn’t recognise me…A Yes vote would mean recognition that gay people exist and that everybody has the same freedoms and rights. It would make me a proud Irish man. A proud Irish citizen.”

It would be a step towards equality. But there are still so many more steps to take. Among the group there’s talk of the changes they’ve witnessed in Ireland over the past decade. They can see how prejudice is filtering out. The desire to flee predominantly because of sexuality appears to be generational. But there are still homophobic undertones.

“When people aren’t talked about as people it’s a lot easier to make them out to be these horrible things, and you know, I’m just a normal human being,” says O’Donoghue.

“If a country’s constitution by law tells its people this isn’t normal then there is still that piece inside of them that says no it’s not ok, it’s not normal. And that is where the vote comes in,” she adds. After constitutional change, social acceptance can flourish.

Kavanagh hopes the Vote With Us videos will humanise the referendum: “It helps to normalise a behaviour that’s been viewed as sinister or abnormal by some parts of Irish society for a long time.”

By the end of the event, the videos seem to have been therapeutic. There’s joviality after each one is filmed. Together, they highlight the idea that nobody’s love should be restricted, or any individual’s human rights obstructed.

Unexpectedly, the day also unfolded into a plea to home not to forget about its emigrants, and for those who still live there to value and use their vote. This group are asking voters to create an Ireland they can happily come home to, within which they can marry someone they love and be recognised in the eyes of Ireland’s constitution.

For more videos from the Vote With Us event in London, and from other Irish people living abroad, see votewithus.org/video-tag/irish-abroad.

Emily Jennings tweets @EmilyJ3105. Read her personal story for Generation Emigration: 'In England I was Irish, in Ireland I was English'