Fintan O’Toole: ‘Keep your drawers on and pray’ doesn’t cut it

‘I had a vasectomy 25 years ago, so our “union” has not been “open to life” for a quarter of a century. We’re not a proper family’

Did you ever see those simulation games they use for training police officers in firearms? There’s a realistic urban setting of crowded buildings in which bad guys are hiding. Images of people pop up and you have a split second to decide before you shoot – is that a bad guy with a gun or a kid with a lollipop? A crazed terrorist in an explosive vest or a pregnant woman?

Give that test to the No campaign in the marriage equality referendum and they just go Blam! Blam! Blam! They want to shoot their bad guys – gay men and lesbians – but they end up blasting away at everybody else as well. Kill them all and let God sort them out. The big problem for the No campaign is that it can’t say what it actually thinks.

The core of that campaign is made up of conservative Christians who sincerely believe that gay men and lesbians should never, ever have sex. This view seems to me to border on the blasphemous, since it suggests that God is a sadist who created people with sexual desires that cannot, under any circumstances, be fulfilled.


If you hold to it, though, same-sex marriage is repellent because it gives social recognition to the idea that a man having sex with a man and a woman having sex with a woman can be normal and moral human acts.


But as a political argument, “Keep your drawers on and pray” doesn’t cut it. You have to rationalise your distaste by coming up with some general principle that takes the bare look off mere revulsion. And this is where the No campaign has come to grief. For the general principle it has come up with is one that manages to insult, not just gay men and lesbians, but huge numbers of straight people as well.

That principle is that the Constitution must recognise only those marriages (and hence only those families) that are, in the words of the Catholic primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, “the union between a man and a woman which is open to life” (ie open to the conception of a child).

I am married to a woman – full marks there. But I had a vasectomy 25 years ago, so our “union” has not been “open to life” for a quarter of a century. We’re not a proper family.

My late mother-in-law married again (after the death of her first husband) when she was in her 60s. Her new husband was a delightful man and they were enormously happy together. But they apparently weren’t a family either because God in his wisdom invented the menopause and she was not “open to life”.

On the other hand, my lovely young niece has two gorgeous little daughters who, apart from everything else, brightened up my mother’s last years with the joy of new life. But, sorry, she’s not married so she and her babies and her boyfriend are not a family either.

This is the problem with the No campaign. In order to get to the tree it wants to chop down, it has to lay waste to a whole forest. In order to find an apparent principle on which it can reasonably deny equality to gay men and lesbians, it has to tell huge numbers of other people that their relationships are just not up to scratch.

It has set a gold standard for constitutional approval of a family relationship – a man who is not sterile having licensed sex with a woman who is still fertile, with neither of them using contraceptives. (Otherwise their pleasures would not be “open to life”.)

It hits the target all right – gay men and lesbians in same-sex couplings don’t meet this standard. But it’s not an arrow, it’s a multibore shotgun. It hits people who were not in its sights – at least not for now.

Any married woman who is using contraceptives or who cannot conceive is not really a proper married woman. Any man who is using contraceptives or who is infertile or who is married to such a woman is not a proper married man. Any single parent with his or her kids is not a family.


Rather amusingly, of course, there is one category of people whose marriages are saved by this definition – divorcees. Divorce, for the same people who are campaigning against same-sex marriage, used to be the abomination that was going to radically redefine marriage and have every fat middle-aged husband cavorting off into the sunset with a young floozy. But apparently, it’s okay now – at least up to a point. If you’re divorced and remarried and still fertile and not using contraceptives, you are now among the elect type A family of man and woman open to conception every time you have sex.

As a campaign strategy, telling straight people that their relationships are illegitimate is, shall we say, brave. But for most actual couples in Ireland, all of us fallen people whose families fall short of a narrow ideal, it has turned a Yes vote from an act of altruism to one of plain self-interest.