Same-sex couples may find that achieving the right to marry in Ireland’s referendum on May 22nd does not provide the panacea they had hoped for, a new study has found.
Legal change does not always mean social change, Dr Mike Thomas of the University of Kent, told The Irish Times. His study of the UK, Canada and California in the US, where same sex marriage have been introduced, provides "a bit of a reality check", he said.
“A country, like Ireland, seeking to make same-sex marriage available,” should bear this in mind, he said. “Couples will wake up the day after the referendum and homophobia will not have been eradicated.”
If Ireland decides to legalise same-sex marriage, it’s up to couples, families and service providers what they “actually do after that”, Dr Thomas said.
“A few years ago in the UK, people were saying it was bad for children even to be aware of same-sex relationships. The political debate was pretty nasty.” He cautioned that “no state should rely on legal change to deliver social change straight away”.
Dr Thomas’s research shows that same-sex couples experienced reactions ranging from rejection and abuse to respect and affection when they announced their decision to marry.
He said that although “no government can really legislate for the dynamics that go on within families”, there was a sense of “powerlessness and a degree of anger” about the reactions some couples received after same-sex marriage was introduced.
Mixed reactions to their marriages from work colleagues were accompanied by negative reactions in public and commercial settings, such as when they went to book their ceremony or arrange their reception, Dr Thomas found.
However, he said that it was not all doom and gloom. Positive stories emerged in his research. “These included same-sex marriage laying down legal rights and entitlements and also giving couples an opportunity to celebrate their relationship in the company of family and friends.”
Ireland should think about parallels with the UK, Canada and California, Dr Thomas said.
“Legal change isn’t the same as social change. If the referendum is passed, it will open up a whole new set of challenges for gay couples. People will come into contact with outright homophobia as they will find themselves ‘coming out’ again, often to strangers, just to actually get married - buying rings, booking hotels and so on.”
A referendum will not change people’s minds overnight, he said. “I’m married myself, to a man, and people still ask me what my wife’s called.”
Dr Thomas said that if Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum passes there will be “a lot done, more to do”.
“There is absolutely more to do. There is still homophobic hate crime, there is still homophobic bullying in schools. It’s a start but it’s not an end.”