Happily ever after? Life since Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum

It’s been nearly six years since Ireland said ‘yes’ to marriage equality. Irish people in same-sex relationships chat about what’s changed and what remains challenging
Happily ever after? Life since Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum

James Kavanagh and William Murray say that the 2015 referendum result enabled them to be more open about their relationship. Picture: Moya Nolan

Wonder engulfed the nation after the historic result of the 2015 marriage referendum. We endorsed it by a landslide, becoming the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. To the world, we had turned from being conservatives to liberals inside a generation. But did the victory close the book on LGBTQI+ rights?

In the four years following the referendum, 3,210 same-sex marriages have been performed in Ireland, making up just over 3.5% of all marriages from 2015 to the end of 2019. While the numbers choosing to wed have been steady since the vote, 664 couples in 2018 and 640 in 2019, it’s not all happily ever after.

‘We are real people’ 

“The marriage referendum was about way more than simply saying ‘I do’,” says television presenter and social media personality James Kavanagh. “It was an entire country telling the LGBTQI+ community that ‘we see you, and we love you’.” 

The cooking enthusiast lives in Dublin with his long-term boyfriend and Currabinny native William Murray, who came home to Cork to vote in the referendum, which was held on May 22 2015.

“I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life,” says William. “I had been to Cork to vote and was on my way back to Dublin when I heard the news. When I got off the bus on the quays, the whole city was vibrant. People were beeping their horns, flying flags, there were families in Dublin castle. It was a beautiful day.” 

The couple has been together for eight years and were both involved in the Yes Equality campaign during the referendum. Growing up in Dublin with a circle of accepting friends, James says that he encountered few difficulties in the years before the vote.

“I knew I was gay at 12, and I came out at 16,” he says. ‘When I did, I disarmed people who might have thought they had something on me. You can’t be your most powerful self until you are your true self.” For William, it was different.

“I came out slightly later than James, and sometimes found that when you did, you had to play the role that people expected of you,” he says.

“You were either ‘one of the lads’ or gay. And if you were gay, you had to be outrageously gay. Whereas most people fit somewhere in between. Meanwhile, you’d hear things like ‘I love gay people, they’re gas’. People don’t realise how damaging that kind of thinking is.”

Both James and William marvel at how the referendum result enabled them to open up about their relationship and find more confidence to do little things like hold hands in public. However, the vote was not the end of the equality movement.

Government statistics from 2019 have shown that, even in the time since the marriage vote, 29% of gay men have reported being physically attacked in public. While 24% of transgender or intersex people reported suffering similar abuses.

“It’s not a time to rest on our laurels,” says James. “As a white gay man. I’m very privileged, and I have to acknowledge that I feel very comfortable after the referendum.” 

“But you have to realise only some of us are this far,” William interjects. “There’s still so much prejudice out there, and some haven’t seen as much of the equality as we have.” 

'It's not a time to sit on our laurels,' James says from the couple's home in Dublin. Picture: Moya Nolan
'It's not a time to sit on our laurels,' James says from the couple's home in Dublin. Picture: Moya Nolan

During the referendum campaign, William also noticed that it evoked a debate about gender that continues right through to today.

“One argument from the ‘no’ side was that two men couldn’t give a baby maternal love,” he says. “We have a lot more to do to change how people expect masculine things from guys and feminine things from girls. Nobody is a caricature. We are real people with real feelings.” 

Tug-of-war 

Ireland has seen big changes for LGBTQI+ people in the last decade but can’t get away from the cliché of “a lot done, more to do'', according to University of Limerick Sociology lecturer Dr Aoife Neary. For her, there’s a danger in “declaring certain fights over when they have only just begun". 

“While recent legislative changes are a positive start for many LGBTQI+ people, they can sometimes distract from the compromises that have been made and the cultural realities that exist,” she says.

She praises some legal milestones since the marriage referendum, such as the Gender Recognition Act of 2015. However, she says that the wording makes it particularly “light” on provisions for young transgender people, a group that remains “particularly vulnerable” in legal terms.

Meanwhile, as young people of all identities move through their school years, she says they can get caught in a tug-of-war between conflicting priorities.

“There is a distinct lack of knowledge and awareness of how it feels to be an LGBTQI+ person or experience overt discrimination,” Dr Neary says. “There are opportunities though to address gaps in policy, curriculum, and practice and such changes would make a very real difference. But it will also be necessary… to continue to listen to and really hear the experiences of LGBTQI+ children, young people, and adults.” 

‘Still work to do’ 

It’s very important to find a community and a voice and none of that is happening right now,' says artist Vickey Curtis.
It’s very important to find a community and a voice and none of that is happening right now,' says artist Vickey Curtis.

It’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room and when artist Vickey Curtis thinks about the biggest challenge for people finding LGBTQI+ relationships, her answer resonates beyond social boundaries.

“The pandemic,” she says. “The same challenge as there is for everyone else. For LGBTQI+ people, it’s very important to find a community and a voice and none of that is happening right now. I do feel sorry for younger gay people and younger queer people who don’t have that alternative.” 

Vickey is a spoken-word artist and performer under the name Ragin Spice. She lives in Dublin with her partner, whom she met one year after the referendum. They’re hoping to get married this year, restrictions pending.

Since first coming out in 2003, Vickey has seen the landscape of hurdles change for members of the LGBTQI+ community. She fondly remembers being in the count centre the day after the marriage vote, watching papers flood from boxes, ‘yes’ ticked on sheet after sheet.

She’s proud of the change, but she recalls prejudice too and knows that it’s something that hasn’t gone away.

“I canvassed for a ‘yes’ vote in the estate in Dublin where I grew up,” she explains. “We dropped leaflets in one door, then moved on. A few minutes later, a child from that house, around five or six years old, caught up to us and returned the leaflets.” 

Vickey recalls the child saying 'My mam wants you to have this back'. It’s a low point for her as she looks back, and a reason to stay concerned for the future.

“It does feel a lot more normalised now,” she says. “But there’s still work to do. Kids are still getting bullied, and education is needed.” 

If there was one piece of advice that Vickey could give to someone who is young, exploring relationships and figuring out their sexuality, it’s to “be safe and don’t be afraid”.

“Get a safe space to talk, explore it as much or as little as you want, read and watch everything you can.” 

Meanwhile, James and William hope that the idea of ‘coming out’ will be less important in the future. “People aren’t gay or straight or bi, they just ‘are’ now,” William says.

“I have a niece and nephew in their teens, and they would speak about a friend’s sexuality like they would speak about the weather,” says James. “Oh, he’s seeing a guy, no big deal."

While there is still concern for the future, the impact of the vote and the scale of the victory still resonates with the community nearly six years on.

“The future isn’t a gloomy void,” says James. “We’re going in the right direction. We say céad míle fáilte, but we’re not at a ‘hundred-thousand welcomes’ just yet.”

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