With so many pressing time commitments and financial responsibilities facing Irish people, it is not difficult to understand why achieving civil marriage equality for same-sex couples may not quite top their agenda. However, it is important to recognise that the achievement of civil marriage equality for same- sex couples is not simply a minority issue for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The forthcoming referendum on civil marriage equality next spring is a rare opportunity for the electorate to have a meaningful say in shaping the type of Ireland we live in and that we want for young people.
A majority Yes to civil marriage equality in this referendum would mean every child and young person who has yet to “come out” would do so in an Ireland where they would only ever know legislative equality; and all the parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers and others who love and respect them could be assured that they would not be denied equal opportunities in life on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Moreover, legislative equality would help provide a platform on which we could build an Irish culture in which diversity was valued and celebrated and in which people could be their true selves. Legislative equality essentially paves the way for a society that celebrates diverse identities and empowers all citizens of Ireland to live openly and authentically. Building such a culture would greatly help combat the vicious homophobia and transphobia that still exists in many schoolyards, work canteens and on street corners.
Although Ireland is at least on the journey towards social acceptance of LGBT people, homophobic bullying and prejudice, with all of their damaging effects, are still very prevalent in our lives.
It is difficult to accept that in a country whose people have been so damaged by repression and oppression in the past, we are still facilitating a culture in which LGBT people are discriminated against and where anyone perceived as different is bullied and made to feel lesser for that.
Achieving civil marriage equality will also signal to the thousands of LGBT Irish citizens living abroad, many of whom left because they could not live open and honest lives here, that Ireland has joined the extensive and growing number of countries and jurisdictions that afford full equality to LGBT citizens.
Providing protection of and equal status for our relationships and families in the most powerful document in the State, Bunreacht na hÉireann, will be a clear statement by Irish people that discrimination of LGBT people, repression and narrow-mindedness have no place in modern Ireland. Indeed, it would finally make good on the promise in the Proclamation to cherish "all the children of the nation equally" just in time for the centenary celebrations of the Rising.
There is every indication that civil marriage equality enjoys overwhelming public support. The most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll (October 2014) indicates that some 67 per cent would vote in favour of civil marriage equality while 20 per cent would vote against it – (9 per cent had no opinion and 3 per cent refused to respond). However, this clear readiness to embrace civil marriage equality will count for nothing if it does not translate in the polling booths.
There is a danger that because there is such strong public support for civil marriage equality many will assume this referendum will pass easily. Indeed, there is already an element of fatigue in hearing about the issue because it is erroneously seen as a done deal.
The reality is that unless every person who supports the idea of a more equal Ireland goes to the poll and votes Yes in the referendum on civil marriage equality – and galvanises the support of friends, family and colleagues – the opportunity to shape Ireland for the better will have been lost. And for a very long time.
Opponents of civil marriage equality are well organised and their concerted campaign will motivate and mobilise very significant support for a No vote in the referendum. The campaign for a No vote will likely be extremely well financed, including by people who live outside the country but who see Ireland as a last bastion of “traditional values”.
As much of the media interpret the McKenna judgment to mean equal time must be given to both sides of the argument in any referendum in order to provide the required balance, the referendum campaign is likely to be bruising in parts, not least for young LGBT people starting out on their journey of self-discovery during this debate.
Indeed, the entire LGBT community will once again be forced to listen to whether our relationships and lives are really of equal value or worth. All this will take its toll on the lives we are living.
What matters most is that we make that toll count for something. So many organisations, activists and LGBT people living openly have laid the foundations needed to win this referendum over many years. We are now relying on the electorate to complete that good work and pass the referendum. In doing so, together as a nation, we can send a powerful message to the world that Ireland is ready to be a country that celebrates diversity and where all of its people live in dignity and as equal citizens.
Olivia McEvoy is chairwoman of the National LGBT Federation