REFERENDUM DEBATE NEEDED

2 May 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Although those campaigning on the opposing sides of the argument in relation to the same-sex marriage referendum to be put to the people on May 22 will insist with increasing emphasis otherwise as polling day approaches, whether the constitutional amendment in question is accepted or rejected will not transform the social, legal and moral landscape of the country overnight.

If the Yes side prevails, gay, bisexual and transgender people may experience some immediate euphoria, and the sense of being part of a more accepting Republic that has given enhanced esteem to their legitimate right to equality in terms of marriage.

But whether it will suddenly become any easier for people conflicted about their sexual identity to resolve their inner struggles is open to question. The process of coming out will still be a difficult and challenging one for them and their families and friends, and the LGBT community will still experience the bullying, discrimination and homophobia that remains deep rooted in the attitudes and instincts of a section of Irish society.

The Constitution may change at the stroke of a pen, but the social climate will take time to adjust.

Similarly, a Yes decision will not suddenly cause the structure of the traditional family to crumble or immediately endanger the parental entitlements of children. And if the country opts to reject the form of words put to it by the Government, we will not in the blink of an eye have cast ourselves back into a dark age of intolerance or become a place of reactionary moralists.

One often unacknowledged difficulty that governments in this country have when attempting to have a referendum issue carried is that Irish people have a genetic resistance to being told what to do, deriving in some degree perhaps from our experience of colonialism.

But we are also an innately disputatious race – we like to debate and argue the point before we come to a decision. We certainly do not like to be told that we are prejudiced and intolerant if we don’t vote for something, and there is a danger where the current issue is concerned that the proponents of the Yes side of the discussion, particularly the Government parties espousing support for the referendum wording, will rely too heavily on the presumption that the day will be carried simply because people don’t want to be branded homophobes or bigots.

Governments, particularly those that have already presumed a great deal on the tolerance of the people for a raft of austerity measures, have to do a lot better than that – they have to address the strong body of arguments being marshalled by the No campaigners and, if they are as flawed and irrelevant as they say, demonstrate so in the forum of public debate.

There is as yet no indication that the Taoiseach or any of his Ministers is willing to take to the broadcast airwaves and fully and properly debate their position with representatives of the contrasting view, and this is regrettable.

If the No people are introducing issues into the argument that are not germane to the referendum question, as the Yes people are insisting, such a debate would surely demonstrate this to the watching and listening public’s satisfaction. And if there are hidden in the relatively straight-forward wording of the proposed amendment precedents and new legal parameters that will fundamentally undermine traditional notions of family and parenthood, timebombs the No side believe the Yes side are attempting to smuggle into the stronghold of the Constitution, debate should again bring those to the surface for the public’s digestion.

There is a danger with this particular referendum question – more so than the others that have been put to the people in the recent past – that the voter is being talked at rather than being talked with. One side is taking it for granted that we will be liberal-minded, the other that we will be morally upright – why we should be either is a matter of presumption rather than persuasion.

One thing we certainly should be as a society is a better place in which to live for people who are other than of heterosexual orientation. That is not, strictly speaking, what this referendum is about, although the trend of the campaign thus far has given some attention to the problems confronting this section of our community.

One statistic cited in the media this week referred to a Trinity College research finding that 50% of LGBT people aged 25 and under surveyed had contemplated suicide. 20% had actually attempted to take their own lives.

Whether they decide to vote Yes or No on May 22, Irish people of conscience can be nothing but deeply uncomfortable at being part of a society where young people in need of guidance and support feel themselves so isolated and rejected.

We would be incredibly naïve if we believed that passing the same-sex marriage referendum, or indeed rejecting it, would make any immediate difference of significance to the young people in this situation.

What they, and all LGBT Irish citizens who find themselves at some point in the progression through discovery, acceptance and integration require is ready access to support and counselling, and an environment where they can make the journey to social acceptance free from fear of ridicule and threat.

It will take more than the tick of a pen on a voting paper to bring this about.

Perhaps, however, a genuine debate of the issues relevant to the same-sex marriage referendum might awaken more awareness of the wider societal and attitudinal changes needed before our LGBT population are cherished equally.

 

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