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From Disgust to Love with the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum

21/05/2015 15:02 BST | Updated 20/05/2016 10:59 BST

This Friday, people in the Republic of Ireland will be asked to amend article 41 of the Constitution, permitting marriage to "be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex." If successful, a Yes vote in this referendum will constitute the first time any state has introduced marriage equality by popular vote - no mean feat given that homosexuality wasn't decriminalised in Ireland until 1993.

The fervour with which the campaign for equal constitutional marriage provision has advanced and been embraced by the Irish people is nothing short of astonishing, with latest opinion polls continuing to show a clear majority of the electorate in favour of the proposal. Nonetheless, caution must be urged in reading such polls as an easy victory for the Yes side, since referenda are notoriously marked by low voter turnout. Debates surrounding sexuality, sexual orientation and gender in Ireland are now irrepressible, though, with high-profile figures and celebrities lending their support to marriage equality and sharing personal stories of their own, or their loved ones', experiences of being gay in Ireland.

The No side have thus found themselves in the challenging position of being nay-sayers to love, acceptance, openness, and hope, and have struggled amid seemingly contradictory arguments designed to fend off charges of homophobia and intolerance. Despite the referendum's narrow focus on the equal contracting of marriage, opponents of the amendment have been at pains to focus public discourse on parenting and reproduction - matters that are entirely separate to Friday's vote, and that will not be affected by its outcome. Even in this regard, though, it's a tough sell for the No side, given the lack of research corroborating claims of inferior or even abusive parenting by same-sex couples, and the public support given to the Yes side by Ireland's child welfare and advocacy organisations, including Barnardos, the ISPCC, the National Youth Council of Ireland, and the Children's Rights Alliance.

Unsurprisingly, then, some No campaigners' appeals to "nature", to gender complimentarity, and to procreation as the fundamental feature of marriage (as one group puts it: "marriage inheres in human nature as male and female; man and woman are naturally made for union together, physically, emotionally, spiritually"), are now, in the final days of the campaign, beginning to be openly underpinned by that age-old driver of discrimination and exclusion: disgust. Disgust has and is being used the world over as a means of establishing difference and emotionally marking others as repulsive and threatening to an established order. This othering, as feminist theorists call it, sets up groups of people as lesser and aberrant from the norms of society, on the basis of which, then, they - historically, gay people, women, ethnic minorities, people of 'different' faiths and classes - may be denied full social inclusion in communities and civic inclusion with equal access to rights and services.

It is very possible that disgust -whether conscious or unconscious - prompted a No campaigner to purportedly lament the "normalisation" of homosexuality in Ireland in a recent article for a US newspaper, and that (imitative?) disgust underlies the supposed reaction to two fathers' parenting in terms of "eww, that's not right." The mobilisation of disgust with regard to the latter, in particular, appears to have been a favourite tool employed by the No side, as same-sex parenting has come to be reduced to two men parenting children. Why the comparative silence on parenting by mothers? What is so different about same-sex parenting by women in this context? The answer is of course that mothering, in Ireland, is extremely difficult to argue against, and that those who oppose marriage equality usually also hold views of women and the family that are very specifically defined in terms of permissible gender roles.

In Ireland, motherhood was traditionally viewed as the primary or sole function of women in society. Much of Church and State rhetoric in the wake of Independence clearly delineated motherhood as the appropriate role for women, and sought to restrict - through regressive laws and social sanction - alternative roles, by restricting women's access to the public sphere. Moreover, those who transgressed this clearly defined role, especially through perceived sexual transgression, were hidden and punished through institutionalisation in Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. For, motherhood was of course only sanctioned within marriage, and reproduction deemed a matter for procreative unions between a man and a woman. Given that this essential family model, and women's role therein, is being promoted by No campaigners, it is not surprising that the argument against same-sex motherhood is a vexed one for them. How can the solely celebrated role for women, championed by conservatives for decades, now be questioned when two women want to be mothers?

It is of course not my role to solve that particular quandary for the No side, as the purpose of this short historical excursion was simply to highlight the assumptions around gender feeding into the current debate on marriage equality, and to show that a politics of disgust has not served Irish society well. Indeed, just as women and girls of all sexual orientations have been historically othered through the mobilisation of disgust and shame that established them as sexual transgressors, and thereby legitimised their incarceration, so homosexuality, more generally, has been deemed suspicious and deviant. Irish citizens now have a chance, though, to move beyond a politics of disgust and shame toward a politics of love. I hope we will overwhelmingly do so by voting Yes on Friday.