29 May 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The outcome of the same-sex marriage referendum, while in conformity with most predictions, was sufficiently emphatic for it to take on the appearance of marking a very significant change in the prevailing attitudes, and social landscape, of the country.

If indeed such change is discernible from the referendum’s passing by a comfortable majority, it has not come about overnight or been wrought by the workings of the campaign that preceded last Friday’s poll.

The accommodation of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people as a discrete minority component of the population has been more an act of accretion, a slowly awakening awareness deriving from the processes of cultural osmosis our society has been undergoing along the journey towards secularism and the primacy that individual choice has now achieved over prescribed codes of behaviour in the way we fashion our lifestyles.

Before the referendum we were significantly more advanced that we were even a couple of decades ago in acceptance of a broader freedom of choice in the modes of sexual expression – but that did not mean it was always easy for people of convinced LGBT orientation to openly express their sexuality, or those conflicted about this element of their identity to resolve the conflict in an accepting and supportive environment.

One of the practical imperatives arising from the referendum is the question: will it be any easier now?

After the referendum, same-sex couples would appear to enjoy more definitively the presumption of acceptance in Irish society, a home at its centre rather than on its margins, and many will certainly opt to enshrine their union in marriage once the necessary legislation is enacted.

The exercise of the right to marriage equality will of itself bring gay and lesbian people more into the mainstream of Irish life, and should in that way accelerate the process of acceptance.

While not all same-sex couples will be disposed to choose this option, if all benefit from the enhanced integration that this new right would seem to inherently confer, then the referendum outcome can be seen to represent a significant social advance, ultimately worthy of some of the history-making claims that have been rather precipitately made for it in its immediate aftermath.

But for the referendum result to carry the substance rather than the illusion of change, the embrace of sexual minorities it is perceived as carrying with it must be openly rather than grudgingly extended by wider society.

There was a significant body of opposition to the approval of this constitutional amendment, grounded in concerns about the future integrity of parenting and family composition. Many who voted No did so on the basis of deeply held religious, moral and ethical convictions – and there will have been others who opposed the change because of antipathy towards people of same-sex orientation: that particular mindset will not vanish at the whim of the ballot box.

While celebratory, there was nothing particularly triumphal about the reception the referendum outcome received from the Yes advocates – and yet the perception of winners and losers that inevitably attaches to the determination of any issue by popular vote is an obstacle that must be overcome if the aspirations for this amendment are to be truly realised.

If not, there is some immediate danger that instead of a more inclusive social embrace, gay and lesbian people in some instances might encounter the backlash of greater exclusion and marginalisation by those harbouring resentment at the referendum outcome.

In effect there are no winners and losers here – the country has made a determination on an issue of social significance in democratic fashion, and has moved forward along a path which has been heralded in the wider world as a progressive and exemplary one. There are undoubtedly some unanswered issues and concerns left in the referendum’s wake, and future legislators may have cause to lament the ambiguities latent in the phrasing of an amendment that had its simple form of words extolled by their predecessors as a virtue.

But what was surely not at issue in this constitutional question, or in the often acrimonious argument that surrounded it, was the manner in which we treat our fellow human beings.

Before this referendum we carried on our shoulders the responsibility shared by all who want to live in a decent and human society to ensure that none of our fellow citizens came to suffer rejection or indignity, discrimination or exclusion because of their sexual orientation.

That responsibility has not become any greater or lesser because of the way the people voted last Friday – it is as onerous, and as dependent on individual attitude and action, as ever, because the work necessitated by it is by no means complete.

The image of the rainbow was one embraced by elements of the Yes campaign, and the appearance of that atmospheric phenomenon in the skies over Dublin Castle as the referendum result neared its announcement was milked for all the symbolic meaning it could yield.

Some over-enthused by the vote’s outcome have been tempted to regard it as the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end – but in terms of our journey towards the creation of a society where all minorities are cherished and respected, it is perhaps a more realistic interpretation of the referendum result to see it as placing us somewhere OVER the rainbow.

We may be on a journey towards a better and more inclusive society, but we still have some way to go before that particular destination is reached.


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