Mr Buttimer became Fine Gael’s first TD to come out, saying: “I am a TD who just happens to be gay — it is one little composition of the story that is me, and I will continue to be the politician I was yesterday.” In talking about being gay, he spoke of hoping a time would come when being lesbian or gay would be unremarkable. We salute Mr Buttimer’s leadership in bringing that day much nearer. His openness will be an inspiration to many young gay people and will be warmly welcomed by lesbian and gay people throughout Ireland.
He was speaking in the context of a major initiative, the launch of a group within Fine Gael which is aimed at promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality. It is a tribute to Mr Buttimer, and to the openness of the party, that he and the group have got the strong support of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Cabinet ministers.
As important was that Mr Buttimer used this opportunity to set out the need for further reform, including civil marriage for same-sex couples.
“We need to have an honest debate about gay marriage equality,” he said. “Polls show nearly three in four people in favour of gay marriage. What heartened me was the acceptance of civil partnership — the world hasn’t ended. It has been a huge benefit to many couples. I’ve always viewed civil partnership as being a stepping stone, a platform from which to build gay marriage.”
The “stepping stone” metaphor is exactly right: civil partnership is an incremental step building on the powerful civil partnership legislation. With the exception of parenting, where reform is urgently needed, civil partnership provides almost all of the responsibilities and rights of civil marriage.
The right to marry is a basic human right, as set out in the UN Charter of Human Rights. The fact that our Constitution, and its provisions relating to marriage, have been interpreted to exclude same-sex couples from this fundamental human right is deeply regrettable. While this constitutional barrier is in force, lesbians and gay men will not have full equality under our Constitution.
Civil partnership has had a transformative effect on social attitudes and on the status of lesbian and gay people in our society. In the nine months from its introduction to the end of the 2011, more than 500 couples went to their registry offices and, before the registrar, solemnly affirmed their love and commitment to one another.
These legal commitments are then followed by joyful wedding celebrations where family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours give their affirmation of the profound commitment the couple have just given to one another.
In this open-hearted welcoming of civil partnerships, Irish people have spoken, saying that we are entitled to marry. The hundreds of lesbian and gay couples who have celebrated their civil partnerships have brought the day of civil marriages much, much closer.
Mr Buttimer highlighted the issues faced by young gay people, saying that “if we can ensure that no young person is bullied, no young person is attacked because of their sexual orientation, then it has been a good day”.
The introduction civil marriage and of full constitutional equality would be another great signal to young gay people that this State says that they are equally cherished under our Constitution.
The Civil Partnership Act is a great achievement for Irish society. Mr Buttimer spoke eloquently in the Seanad supporting the bill, stating that “what we need is a new republic in Ireland”.
“In a modern republic we must be tolerant of one another in a society where we are all equal — men, women, gay or straight, black or white, it does not matter, we are equal,” he said.
In 1993, we achieved decriminalisation of gay men based on equality, followed by powerful equality legislation, civil partnership, and now progress towards civil marriage. In a relatively short period of time, Ireland has moved from being one of the most unwelcoming countries for gay people to being one of the most progressive globally. But we have a way to go yet, for example, in ensuring safe and affirming schools for young gay people.
The constitutional convention provides a forum to further build a consensus for civil marriage and address other issues. Mr Buttimer’s openness and the Fine Gael initiative give us the prospect of all-party consensus on these equality and human rights issues for gay people.
* Kieran Rose is chair of Glen (Gay + Lesbian Equality Network).