Breda O’Brien: An inconvenient truth about the same-sex marriage referendum
‘734,300 No voters are just as generous and inclusive as those who voted Yes’
A No campaign poster in Dublin: “This same Government presided over the disintegration of mental health services – everything from removing guidance counsellors from school, often the first to pick up serious problems – to decimating the psychiatric services.” The hypocrisy is stunning. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Seven hundred and thirty-four thousand, three hundred people did not vote No to love and equality. They are just as generous and inclusive as their neighbours who voted Yes, and just as fond of their gay relatives. In fact, some of them are gay themselves.
That does not fit the dominant narrative that only people who were rigid, intolerant and fearful voted No. It is an inconvenient truth that this was not a referendum on whether we like gay people or not.
People who voted No recognise marriage as the place where society celebrates sexual and gender differences as deeply embedded features of the human condition, primarily – although by no means exclusively – because it produces children. They wanted to preserve that in our social structures and law.
The vast majority of Yes voters also voted from generous and humane impulses. More importantly, parents and relations of gay children, in particular, desperately wanted to convey to their children that they were just as equal as their straight siblings. We can all admire that and understand why they feel they have achieved that objective.
We do not have to admire the fact that the campaign may have lasted weeks, but the soft coverage of gay icons and celebrities and “human interest” stories pushing the Yes side have been going on for years, with the enthusiastic collusion of the media.
We do not have to admire a Government who relentlessly framed this so it was always going to be a battle between the heart and the head. We do not have to admire Government Ministers who talked about damaging the gay people’s mental health if we voted No.
The same Government presided over the disintegration of mental health services – everything from removing guidance counsellors from school, often the first to pick up serious problems – to decimating the psychiatric services. The hypocrisy is stunning.
We do not have to admire a political system that ignored 734,300 voters, aside from six brave TDs and Senators who dared to be different.
The No campaign was left with the unenviable task of pointing out the consequences of amending the Constitution on the family. They were rubbished and derided at every turn as scaremongers and purveyors of red herrings.
Yet certain facts remain facts no matter how often they are denied. Every time two men bring a new child into the world, they need to use surrogacy. Every time.
It was a fantasy to suggest that the referendum would extend marriage to same-sex couples and then give them no way to have children.
Yet the Yes side kept saying that this referendum had nothing to do with children, much less surrogacy.
Given the Yes vote, when two married gay men conceive a child through surrogacy, then those two men and the child will be the natural, primary and fundamental unit of society and the child’s mother will not be.
We are giving the status of marriage, superior and antecedent to all positive law, to a family that can only bring new children into the world through surrogacy, egg donation or sperm donation.
We have damaged irreparably the connection between marriage and a child’s right to know and be cared for by the two people who each give them half of their biological, social and familial identity.
Sure, reproductive technologies are used anyway, but before May 22nd, no one could say that the Irish people voted to affirm in our Constitution something that inevitably separates children from half their genetic heritage and one half of their relations.
Some day, there will be a young Irish woman wandering the streets of Copenhagen. She will have been raised by her lesbian mother and her partner, both of whom she loves dearly, and who are great mothers.
But she also has a deep longing to know the other half of herself, her father, and simple things like whether she got her love for music or the shape of her hands from him. All she knows is her father was a Danish sperm donor. She has no idea how many half-siblings she has. She is in contact online with other sperm donor children, some of whom have 150 half-siblings.
Her father’s address, given when he sold his sperm, is long out of date. So she wanders, looking at Danish faces, wondering, is that man my sperm donor father? Could that be a half-sibling?
It would have happened anyway, regardless of the amendment. But she also has to deal with the crushing fact that in 2015, her fellow Irish citizens voted for it and affirmed this arrangement that deprived her of half her identity. They voted that it was natural, primary and fundamental, and enshrined it into the Constitution.
These are not comfortable realities. We may want to banish people who disturb the dominant narratives, but certain truths cannot be wished away.