Anything but an early riser, I found myself wide awake at 5 a.m. on Saturday, feverishly anticipating the outcome of Ireland’s marriage equality referendum. Hunched over my smartphone in my Washington bed, reading Twitter feeds and Facebook posts and listening to live-streamed Irish national radio, within minutes I knew this was going to be a day to celebrate. Although I had feared the outcome would be closer than polls predicted, in the end it was a landslide: a 62-38 percent victory for marriage equality with 42 of Ireland’s 43 electoral districts voting in favor. I was especially delighted that my hometown of Dublin voted 70 percent “yes.”
In chats with Irish friends, I’ve been trying to analyze this remarkable turnaround. When I came of age, I was painfully aware that I lived in the last country in Western Europe where being gay was a crime, the law being repealed finally in 1993. And here I am, two decades on, seeing my country become the first in the world to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote. The grip that the Catholic Church held on Irish people in the decades after independence a century ago, steadily weakening since the 1980s, has been further loosened. As someone who felt its harsh strictures and backward thinking throughout my childhood, I can only rejoice. Church leaders are reeling from the defeat, unsure what direction to turn. The Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the church needs to “have a reality check.”
While young people’s overwhelming “Yes” vote has been widely remarked, I would like to note that that it was also my cohort, the generation Xers in our late 30s to mid-50s, who were just as pivotal in this decisive win. We were the first ones to refuse to follow our parents’ orders to go to Mass, to demand full access to contraception and to support amending our Constitution in 1995 to allow couples to divorce.
All the political parties, keen to avoid alienating the new generation of voters, called for a “Yes,” some more enthusiastically than others. A comment that I thought really hit the mark came from the founding father of the Irish gay rights movement, Sen. David Norris, who thanked the 90 percent of the population who are heterosexual for generously extending their right to marry to gay people. Why did they do it? As one straight friend said, “I didn’t vote for gay marriage. I voted for equality.”
Lest anyone think the nation is in unison, we should recall that a sizable minority, 38 percent, voted “No.” Who were they? Probably around half of my own family for starters. Unable to make the trip home myself to vote, in conveying my feelings to family members, I got a mixed response. On the eve of the vote, one parent assured me it would be a 60-40 yes, while another rebuked our former president, Mary McAleese, for “going against tradition” by campaigning on the “Yes” side despite being retired from politics. One sibling sent me messages of support via social media, while when I last broached this topic with another, they likened gay marriage to Nazi Germany’s social engineering policies.
As the hugeness of this news has sunk in, I stand proud that my country is at the vanguard of the global fight for equal rights. I would like to conclude by quoting former president McAleese, a devout Catholic and mother of a gay son, who in a landmark speech given days before the referendum, summed up my feelings more eloquently than I could. “A Yes vote costs the rest of us nothing. A No vote costs our gay children everything.” And to anyone worried about the social impact of extending civil marriage rights to gay couples, she said: “I see nothing to fear in the future. I see nothing but fear in the past.”
Brian Beary is a decade-long D.C. resident and freelance journalist.