Thanks for reminding me that marriage is worth fighting for


GIVE ME A BREAK:BACK IN 1986 when I started out in The Irish Timesfeatures department I pitched an article about the vibrant if hidden world of gay and lesbian relationships and culture. Homosexuality was illegal. Horrendous accounts of gay-bashings occasionally reached the news pages and yet there was a thriving gay community that didn’t officially exist apart from the Hirschfeld Centre in what would later become known as Temple Bar.

I was told that readers weren’t ready for an article on growing up gay, the trials of being gay in a homophobic society and – God forbid – enjoying being gay. Two years later, in 1988, David Norris – the first openly gay elected representative – won his case in the European Court against Ireland’s law criminalising homosexuality. Yet still it was thought incorrect to write about gay families. One wasn’t even allowed to refer to David Norris as gay.

Ireland at the time was in the grip of conservative “family values”. People opposed to contraception invoked “the family”. People against divorce invoked “the family”. Those against equality for women evoked “the family” because without women at the heart of “the family” – chained to the kitchen sink – the family would collapse. “The family” was a liturgically-designed stone structure that no one could challenge and births outside marriage were still called “illegitimate”.

How times change. Who’d have thought that nearly a quarter of a century later, when “family values” are almost a dirty word, that it would be the once underground movement of gays and lesbians who would be urging us to support marriage?

When MarriagEquality’s campaign, “We are Family”, dropped into my inbox yesterday morning, I had already started writing a column on the question of whether Ireland has become a kinder and gentler place since the recession, or whether it has become crueller and more exploitative. Both, I was thinking, depending on who you’re dealing with. (If you’re a homeless family or working for a cash-strapped employer, not good. If you’ve got money, shops are nicer to you.)

Then into my inbox dropped pictures of beautiful and loving same-sex families, along with the message that these images will be put up on the sides of buses and billboards and other public places in MarriagEquality’s campaign for same-sex marriage.

MarriagEquality is campaigning for marriage for gay and lesbian people to have the legal right to marry on equal terms with heterosexual couples.

I thought, when this can happen, of course Ireland has become a better place. Why was I even asking the question? Economically, it’s a disaster, but when people care so much about marriage that they’re willing to campaign for it, we’re in a far better place.

The MarriagEquality campaign for same sex marriage is standing up for what family really means: commitment. Two men, two women, with children or not, having the same legal rights as the rest of us to create a family recognised under the Constitution.

Family isn’t necessarily biological – it’s a social bond made by choice and those who choose to marry and cement the bond are the kind of people we need in these uncertain times. The gay marriage movement knows that family isn’t just words on paper.

They know it’s about what you do and how you show it, day after day, for the people you care about – whether it’s about cooking a meal or patiently listening after a stressful day at work or wanting to be assured that your partner and children will inherit your property. The legal document of marriage is required for same-sex couples who want their partners and children to have the same rights that heterosexual married couples have.

Gay families have done everything that traditional heterosexual families do to make their relationships work, and a lot of the time they do it better. Same sex couples have fostered, adopted and created children successfully, proving that the Adam and Eve rule of the white wedding followed by heterosexual procreation is not the only successful family model around.

What heartens me is that by defending the family, the marriage equality movement is showing how important the family is for all of us, no matter what our sexual orientation, even though marriage is a terrifying undertaking.

The phrase, “for better, for worse” was put into the marriage vows for a reason. It’s a huge warning of risk. When you bind your life to another person’s with the intention of remaining supportive no matter what, you’re practically committing a revolutionary act in today’s culture of selfish individualism. Anybody willing to enter in to a commitment of legal and emotional loyalty to this degree, gets my applause, no matter what sexual orientation they have.

Family in whatever form it takes is what holds us together and what holds society together. In these uncertain times, we need families more than ever. A heterosexual couple probably has no more chance of making marriage work than a same-sex couple does. The same-sex couple may even be a better bet, since they’ve had to fight harder to be where they are.

When the family portraits from the MarriagEquality campaign appear on a billboard near me, I won’t just be pledging my support. I’ll be saying, well done, and I’ll be saying thanks for reminding me that marriage and family are worth fighting for.