Decriminalisation of homosexuality was just the beginning

Máire Geoghegan Quinn: ‘It is naive to suggest that the equal marriage referendum relates to the last great civil rights issue’

Someone once said that statistics are people – with the tears wiped off. When, in 1993 as minister for justice, I decided to decriminalise homosexuality, I did so because I met people, rather than statistics. Women with the tears unwiped. Mothers of gay sons, terrified that their children might fall foul of a law that characterised their sexuality as against the interests of the State.

The women I met changed my understanding of what it meant to be gay in Ireland at the time. The government made a decision that may not have been popular but which was certainly right.

I suspect many people, in my own and other political parties, felt at that time that they had done the right thing and that it would be enough. Just as American politicians, when they abolished separate schools for black children, separate eating places for black adults, felt that they had done the decent thing. And that that was the end of it. It wasn’t the end of the civil rights issue in the United States any more than the decriminalisation of homosexuality was the end of the civil rights issues attached to being gay in Ireland.

Churchill’s observation applies. It was not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end. It was, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Society evolves and with it the need to address how it expresses itself in its defining communications, the statements of how a nation understands itself and wishes to be understood.


Major civil rights issue

It is, therefore, naive to suggest that the marriage equality referendum relates to the last great civil rights issue. That will never be true as long as humanity develops and encounters new challenges. It is, however, very definitely a major civil rights issue, belonging in a continuum of insight and growth of which Ireland can be proud.

When I went into politics, the “liberation” of women was such an issue. It was tackled by the European Union and by Ireland, so that the legal position of women and the possibilities open to women underwent fundamental change.

Yet on any day when you go on news websites or open a newspaper, you can find references to inequities at board level in major companies, mentions of inequality between men and women when it comes to pay and outrage that we do not have anything approaching equal representation in the Oireachtas. The old question “What do women want?” is answered differently by different generations of women. Similarly, the situation of gay men and women in Ireland requires different measures at different times.

Civil partnership was a welcome measure, and some people today would say: “Isn’t that enough? Gay people wanted it desperately. Why do they want to rush forward from that?”

The answer is simple. Equality is an absolute, not a parcelling out of progress by the powerful. To suggest that civil partnership is enough for gay people is to say: “Thus far and no further.” It is to set limits and boundaries on one group in society – a minority – based on what may be comfortable for another group within society. That’s not how equality works.

Equality means that if, as a society, we cherish the institution of marriage as essential, we cannot then exclude a substantial minority from that institution. Gay people are either equal or they’re not. It is simply unequal to have a situation where a woman can be mother of the bride and mother of the groom for two of her three children but cannot take that role for her gay daughter or her gay son. It is simply unequal to say to the children of a couple who have loved each other – and their children – for years that they can be the family of a civil partnership, not of a marriage.

Because I was minister for justice when “the end of the beginning” happened with regard to gay people, gay people have stopped me on the street in the succeeding years to express satisfaction that they are free of the overshadowing legal threat of the past and to talk of where the arc of freedom meets the arc of equality. I believe that junction point happens, in this country, on May 22nd of this year. On that day, Ireland is invited to answer a question and express its real values.

Values manifest in behaviour

Values, individual or national, are to be found in behaviour, pure and simple. Not in aspirations. Or statements. Values are manifest in the way we interpret words such as “equality”. They are tangible in the way we behave around a concept such as marriage. Straight people in long marriages have quiet griefs and unspoken disappointments. But they exemplify hope over experience, generosity over selfishness, decency over display.

Beneath the question asked on the referendum form is another. Will we, as individuals and as a nation, be proud of ourselves, be proud of how we demonstrate our commitment to equality, be proud of our faiths and our comfort with diversity, after that date? Máire Geoghegan Quinn is a former politician and European commissioner. As minister for justice in 1993-94 she oversaw the decriminalisation of homosexuality