The Blog

Ireland's Gay Marriage Referendum: Beware The Silent Minority

I have to admit, when I first resolved to write a column on the upcoming gay marriage referendum in Ireland, I was tempted to write an eye-catching headline like "If you're not voting Yes, you're probably an asshole". But then I thought harder on the matter: was that really fair?

I have to admit, when I first resolved to write a column on the upcoming gay marriage referendum in Ireland, I was tempted to write an eye-catching headline like "If you're not voting Yes, you're probably an asshole". But then I thought harder on the matter: was that really fair?

Bear with me. Yes, the public face of the No campaign resembles Helen Lovejoy on pep pills. Yes, the No side's posters have as much to do with the actual wording of the referendum as BMXs have to do with lunar exploration. They may as well say "Vote No because A Gay mugged me once". And yes, some of their quarter are almost poignantly sensitive about what's said about them in the press, railing against the unfairness of not being able to be flagrantly anti-equality with impunity. But surely that can't be it? Can a whole bloc of voters be just awful, awful people?

All this has been brought to my mind by the laudable Call Your Granny campaign, and it has been truly lovely to see older people, some being prompted on the issues by their gay grandchildren, saying that they'll vote yes. But some grandparents won't be like that.

I can no longer call on my own grandparents for confirmation or refutation of this, as they are all quite dead. The earliest of my grandparents' death was in 1971, (when women still couldn't' access contraception and homosexuality was a full 22 years away from being decriminalised) and the last was in 2007 (three years before Civil Partnerships became a thing). So while I can't know this for sure unless I re-enact a scene from Beetlejuice, I can take a good guess. And I would bet all the money I have that these people - those normal, mannerly, industrious, occasionally very drunk people - would have voted no.

And it's those people that I'm, for want of a better word, concerned about. The people who have never met a single gay person. Or one in a relationship for that matter. The people who think Liberace was just waiting for the right girl. The people who probably think heteronormative or genderqueer are brands of ultra-modern washing machine. The people who can't work said washing machines. Not that reactionary views go hand in hand with older age, no more so than youth and progressive values do. Isaac Burke is in his mid twenties for example and he's the one of the leading voices of the Mandate For Marriage group, whose main thing seems to be advocating a No vote and having a truly intriguing fascination about what how two men have sex with each other.

But let's face it, sex and love of any kind was a difficult thing to show or discuss for several generations in Ireland. It's not terribly easy even now. Patrician overreach into social policy and social life was comically overstretched to the point where even admitting sex exists was often a progressive concession. If such a thing as a straight closet existed, Ireland would have been in it. Sometimes it wasn't even the act of sex that would freak people out, even an allusion to the reproductive cycle was enough. One of my dead grandfathers used to walk out of the room when tampon adverts came on. I doubt the other even knew what a tampon was.

This isn't to excuse people intending to vote No that do us the courtesy of keeping their ignorance to themselves (or can't deal with Bodyform). But, we can't ignore the fact that thousands of people who will vote No are people known to us that we see all the time and are Perfectly Grand People - but have this weird switch turn on, for a range of factors, when it comes to matters beyond their own narrow definition of acceptable.

So the people who make very public doom-laden noises about redefining marriage, but conveniently forget that marrying for love in the first place or not leaving a dowry was a redefinition of marriage too, are but a small, loud, undignified minority even within the No side. The majority of the people who will vote No on May 22 are people who aren't overtly devout or doctrinaire, who would happily have a chat in a pub with a gay guy about the football, but go a bit funny if his sexuality came up. The same type of person you'd know from secretary school who casually called people poofs all the time. The Homer Simpson type of voter, basically.

But both these type of No voters are more to be pitied than pilloried, and of course they're also wrong. But you know what, let them. Let them stand there, on the record, and be wrong. They're wrong on both ends. Legally, there's no logic to them. Why shouldn't any couple be able to avail of the opportunities and advantages of protected marriage? Emotionally, there's no logic to them. I can't claim to be much good at it, I've been in love a couple of times and it's the most soaring, effortless, natural feeling there is. To say to someone my version of it is fine but yours isn't is perverse. The Yes side knows this, but that alone isn't enough. It needs to suck up all its liberal tendencies, don't take the bait of the fundies, and let the people who are just behind the curve and behind the times catch up at their own pace without holding anyone else up. Their future embarrassment is worse than any current criticism we could land on them.

On all these matters of extending civil rights to their natural homes, be it letting people vote, join the military, marry someone of a different race or basically any other advance of this last 100 years, you can either be one of two things (and here's where I come full circle on the movie references): you can be John Lithgow in Footloose, or Kevin Bacon in Footloose. If you're a Bacon, don't worry about Lithgow. He ends up being pretty OK, and he ends up sympathising with minorities well in within the decade too. So cut loose to the ballot box on May 22, and do the right thing. But to make sure silent minority aren't dangerously over-subscribed, maybe bring a large, move-frustrated posse with you.