Extending LGBT rights will help end pain of discrimination

Legislating for equal social, civic, and human rights is the mark of a tolerant and inclusive society, argues Prof Fahey. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The marriage equality referendum is an important step along our journey as a tolerant and inclusive society, argues leading doctor Tom Fahey

THE Marriage Equality Referendum seeks to insert a new sentence into the Constitution: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

This may seem like a trivial issue but it is not. As the Constitution currently stands, lesbian and gay couples cannot get married and do not have equal status under our Constitution.

The amendment we are being asked to vote on Friday is about guaranteeing constitutional equality for lesbian and gay citizens in Ireland, on the same constitutional basis as heterosexual couples.

READ MORE: Marriage Equality Referendum: Answering key questions

As a practicing general practitioner, medical researcher, and teacher of medical students and junior doctors here and in the UK over the last 20 years, I have seen at first hand the consequence of inequality and discrimination on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in health and education.

As a doctor, I have supported and treated LGBT people who have been bullied and isolated because of their sexual orientation.

This often happens during the vulnerable teenage years, when people are developing a sense of themselves and how they fit into society. During medical training we teach medical students that good medical practice is based on the relationship of trust between a doctor and his or her patient.

This trust involves mutual respect, confidentiality, honesty, responsibility, and accountability. Without legislation to guarantee these rights, it is inevitable that prejudice will prosper and vulnerable people will suffer as a consequence.

When I qualified as a doctor in the 1980s, homosexuality was a criminal offence. The medical students I now teach find this incredible — how could one practice as a doctor when such discrimination is part of the law?

READ MORE: Marriage Equality Referendum: Answering key questions

When I outline my experience of being a doctor to LGBT people I reflect on how the stigma of the 1980s and early 1990s caused mental ill-health including anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide.

It has only been through incremental change in society towards greater tolerance and inclusivity that accompanying legislative reform has occurred. I see the proposed referendum as an important and necessary step along our journey as a tolerant, civic, and inclusive society. This is why this referendum is so important.

Younger people understand this and are intuitively in step with these reforms. People of my generation find these issues more challenging, as we were brought up in a more traditional society, and have a past history of what traditional models of marriage mean.

Marriage is an institution that acknowledges, promotes, and provides legal protection for citizens who wish to have a long-term, stable relationship. When people’s health fails and life and death decisions need to be made, as doctors we know that talking to a partner is not legally the same as talking to a patient’s spouse.

This creates difficulties in terms of medical decisions and shared decisions about people’s welfare. These difficulties are similarly acute when illness involves a child of a same-sex couple, as they currently do not have the same rights as a married heterosexual couple. Voting yes in the referendum will mean that these couples will have the same constitutional rights as heterosexual couples.

On a personal level, I have been fortunate to be married for nearly 24 years and have three grown-up children. Like all couples, my wife and I reflect on things we might have done better when bringing up our children.

The great thing about marriage is that couples share their journey together. Society recognises this, and the Constitution codifies this shared responsibility.

To my mind LGBT couples are simply asking for the same right that I have taken for granted throughout my marriage. I feel that LGBT couples should be given this right.

Legislating for equal social, civic, and human rights is the mark of a tolerant and inclusive society. My belief is that a yes vote in the marriage equality referendum will give LGBT this right and place them on equal footing with heterosexual couples. I urge you to support and vote yes for a change in the Constitution.

Tom Fahey is professor of general practice, RCSI Medical School and general practitioner, Belgrave Clinic, Dublin

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