Head to head: Why I’m in favour of the same-sex marriage referendum

Grá and not gender should be at the heart of the debate

I lean in and touch my lips against his. He’s still asleep. His lips are dry and coarse. His breath is a clash of last night’s chicken curry and the remnants of the Aquafresh toothpaste, that failed to fully fight the Indian odour. I lean in further, and chirpily whisper “Good morning” into his right ear. His eyes flash open and a glowing smile ripples across his face. He replies with a warm and croaky “I love you”, and playfully turns away from my pestering. Neither of us speak for another 10 minutes. Instead, we lie still, spooning, quietly sharing and cherishing each other’s body heat, before we face the cold world. We have woken like this almost every day since we fell in love in early 2013.

If I could, I would stay with him in that bed, like that, forever. If I could, I would provide for his every need, protect him and care for him, forever more. Someone once asked, “Will you marry him?” I said, “I would if I could, but I can’t”.

Despite our enduring love we are barred from the institution of marriage in our home country. The Civil Registration Act 2004, Section 2, (2) part (e) states that there will be an impediment to marriage if “both parties are of the same sex”. While Bunreacht na hÉireann, the 1937 Irish Constitution, pledges that the State will “guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded”, it doesn’t place a ban on marriage between people of the same sex. The 2004 Act was the first time marriage was defined exclusively as an institution for couples of the opposite sex.

Senator Katherine Zappone and Dr Ann Louise Gilligan were married in Canada in 2003. In 2004, they bravely began a legal challenge against the State’s refusal to recognise their Canadian marriage. Theirs has been a long and no doubt expensive battle. They began in the High Court, lost, appealed to the Supreme Court, returned to the High Court, amended their challenge, lost, and now the case is once again on the waiting list for the Supreme Court.


The political and legal landscape has, however, changed drastically since Katherine and Ann Louise first lodged their papers 10 years ago. It now looks certain that marriage equality will be won through the ballot box and not the courts. In 2010, on the insistence of the Green Party, the then Fianna Fáil-led government introduced the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, which provided for same sex civil partnerships. In 2011, the Fianna Fáil–Green government was replaced by a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour. The new programme for government, on the behest of the Labour Party, included a commitment to establish a Constitutional Convention. Among the issues the Convention were to examine was same-sex marriage.

The Constitutional Convention met to consider the issue in April 2013. Comprised of 66 citizens, 33 politicians and an independent chairman, the Convention voted, by 79 to 19, in favour of recommending a referendum that would insert an article in the Constitution explicitly allowing same-sex marriage. That referendum is now set to take place in May. If the referendum passes, Ireland will be the first country in the world to introduce same sex marriage by a national public vote. If the referendum falls, it will be at least a decade before it’s put to the people again.

While studying for an undergraduate degree at University College Cork, I was heavily involved in lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) community organising and rights activism. Within the university, I ran a very active, activist led LGBT Society. Ours was a thriving community of young queer people from both sides of the city, from the Republic and the North and some international students who used the freedom their overseas trip offered them to explore their sexuality. We ran film nights, sexual health workshops, club night, campaigns and peer support sessions.

In September 2009, as my friends were eagerly recruiting new freshers to join our Society, then tánaiste Mary Coughlan, with a bunch of loyal Ógra Fianna Fáil members in tow, approached our stall. She asked us what LGBT stood for. The government she was part of had defined marriage as a man-woman institution in the Civil Registration Act 2004. A fellow activist seized the moment to press the tánaiste on the need for marriage reform. She said, “You’re too young to be worrying about marriage”. We weren’t too young. Our straight friends had been afforded the right to marry at 16 – we were now all in our very late teens or early 20s. Even if we didn’t have urgent plans to get married, we knew it would take years to get to the Supreme Court or a public vote, and if that failed it could take a decade before any of us were afforded the right.

We were worried about marriage because marriage matters. Marriage is a core institution of the State. It has value. It has meaning.

Aaron and I, and lots of other same sex couples, want the protection and status that marriage affords. We want to be able to celebrate our love with friends and family. Beyond the ceremony, we want the stability that marriage provides. We want to share everything we own. We want to build a home together. We want our family to be valued no less, or no more, than any other family.

To be excluded from a core institution of the state sends you a signal that you are somehow worth less. In this case that your love is less valuable. That your relationship is inferior. That you don’t belong. That rejection adds to the social stigma.

I recently started a Masters of Public Policy, at the University of Oxford. Among my class of 70 or so, three have recently got engaged. At lunch on one of the first weeks, one of the newly engaged students was being overloaded with advice and reflections from those who had already been through the ceremony. One by one, the people around the table shared their personal experiences of a Hindu wedding in Australia and a two-day long celebration in Chile. I sat and listened. I couldn’t help but feel a tightness in my chest. A dread. A sense of not belonging. I diverted eye contact. I hoped I wouldn’t be asked to contribute. I had no personal experience or anecdotes to share. I wasn’t married or engaged, and unless a referendum passes, I never will be.

Many who will oppose the referendum will say that I should be satisfied with civil partnership. I fundamentally disagree. Shortly after civil partnership was introduced, the campaign group, Marriage Equality, conducted an audit that set out the key differences between civil partnership and civil marriage. The Missing Pieces Report highlighted a staggering 169 differences. These ranged from areas such as immigration, housing, court procedure, inheritance, taxation and freedom of information.

Thanks to the hard work of Senator Zappone and others, many of these gaps have been closed, however key differences still remain, in particular in relation to family law. Civil partnership was built as a second-class institution and to my eyes will always be viewed as such.

Others who oppose the referendum will argue that the purpose of marriage is procreation and because same-sex couples can’t produce children alone they shouldn’t have access to marriage. By this logic heterosexual old people, the infertile and those who simply don’t wish to have children should also be barred from marriage. The reality is that there are many children in the State being raised by parents who are in a same-sex relationship. Even if these couples are in a civil partnership the children can only have a legal relationship with one of their parents. If the child needs permission to leave school or to have an operation, that consent cannot be given by the non-legal parent. What happens if the legal parent dies? Instead of losing one parent these children could lose both. Can we really say that we treat all of the children of the nation equally when we treat some children like this?

The Government has promised to close these family law gaps in advance of the referendum. However, the full detail of the much talked about Children and Family Relationships Bill has yet to be revealed. Even if the Bill eliminates the final legal differences between civil partnership and civil marriage, civil partnership will still be a separate institution. Separate but equal is not equal. Lesbian and gay couples will still not be afforded the strong social and cultural capital that comes with marriage.

As we move towards 2016, the 100-year anniversary of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, we have a chance to reflect on what kind of Republic we want to live in. Do we want to live in a State that denies some citizens basic rights? Or do we, as the Proclamation declares, want the Republic to guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”?

LGBT rights have advanced greatly in my lifetime. I’m part of the young LGBT generation that until now hasn’t faced much legal discrimination. I was born in 1990. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993 – 10 years before I ever knew about the fundamentals of sex. The Employment Equality Act was passed in 1998 – six years before I started my first part-time job. My life has, however, caught up with the pace of change. I don’t want to have to wait a decade or two to get married. This referendum is giving us a real opportunity to keep the momentum of change going.

Between here and May, those of us who passionately believe that gay and lesbian couples should have the right to get married, have a choice to make, do you actively engage in the campaign and help build that momentum or do you not?

Picture the referendum results day for a moment. You are watching the results on RTÉ’s referendum special. You can see the results flow in, constituency after constituency. Bryan Dobson says “It’s incredibly close, but the Yes side are losing”. The older commentators are drawing parallels to the 1995 divorce referendum. 50.3 per cent in favour to 49.7 per cent against, but this time it’s reversed. The referendum has been lost by less than 10,000 votes. Your heart sinks. You try to hold back the tears but you can’t. You let one tear out but the emotions just flood you mind and a hundred fall. You are gutted. That night you head to the George for what the complacent thought would be a victory party. You look around and you see the entire community is deflated. In the days and weeks ahead, all you can think about is, what if I had played a part, what if I had done a bit more. Thankfully it’s not too late.

To win the referendum the Yes side are going to need two things: money and people power. Rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight there is a role for everyone in this campaign.

To get the message out, that marriage matters, is going to cost a great deal. The Yes equality campaign led by Marriage Equality, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, will need to pay for billboard ads, posters, flyers and if we can raise enough, TV ads. There is a role for everyone in this fundraising effort. Those who can afford to make a donation can do that directly via the Marriage Equality website. If you have nothing to give, why not run a fundraiser like a pub quiz or sponsored walk?

The second key asset we need is people power. We need supporters to start conversations with their family and friends. Explain to people why marriage matters to you. When you have spoken to all your family and friends move onto your street, town or city. Knocking on doors and canvassing people has been shown to be one of the most effective campaigning tools. You don’t have to do this alone. You can volunteer with one of the political parties or civil society groups.

The signals so far are that the LGBT community is going to come out in force. We saw this last November when LGBT student societies in conjunction with the Union of Students of Ireland registered 20,000 students to vote. Let’s keep this momentum going.

Beyond the LGBT community we need straight supporters to be vocal and active. We need parents of gay children to talk about why marriage matters to them. We need straight allies to take up leadership roles and to lessen the woes of the opposition and the win over the undecided.

If the referendum passes, for the first time all loving relationships will be recognised equally. Grá and not gender will be the test of the law and that will be a beautiful thing.

Pádraig Rice is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford.