GERARD HOWLIN: Marriage Equality Referendum is about how you really feel about gay people

ONE WEEK from Friday, we’ll have the chance to amend the constitution and allow marriage equality for all.

Previously, two constitutional referenda on marriage were held to allow for divorce. Arguably divorce does undermine marriage. But the decision we took — and there is no sign that we regret it — was that because life is often messy and sometimes hard, people deserve a chance to move on if they want to. I mention divorce because if there are fundamental principles at stake, rationally it was a far bigger jump to allow for the dissolution of civil marriage then than to extend the institution intact now.

I don’t for a moment underestimate the extent of the change being contemplated. But the jump we are considering in nine days’ time isn’t primarily about principles at all. It is much more personal and it is about ourselves. It is about how we really feel about gay people. It’s about how comfortable we are with them, really. Lots of us know, work with, or have family who are gay. And of course, the decent people we are — mostly — we are fine. But maybe we are fine, only up to a point. Good to have them there, and not harassed by laws that made it illegal just to be gay in any meaningful way.

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They are nice people too, by and large. But, and here’s the nub, they are different. We don’t say so that way much anymore. But it is what we think, sometimes. And that is what this decision is about. The referendum itself is about something else, the constitutional detail. It’s certainly not about children or church. But the decision, the truly personal decision, the one nobody is ever going to find out about, is how you really feel about gay people. And how that makes you feel about yourself.

We need to put this in context, and put a bit of history around it. Until recently, regarding homosexuality, you couldn’t be decent unless you were disgusted. That’s a fact. In this age of political correctness there is a lot of sugar-coating on the public conversation. The private, personal chats are a bit closer to the bone. It’s a mesmerising turnaround when not liking ‘the queers’, let alone being one, has gone from being a requirement of decency to being at best, bad manners.

It’s so long ago, I can’t remember exactly, but I am certain I knew what ‘queers’ were years before I understood that there were real people who might be gay. I was well into my teens before even a sense of there being others dawned. Up until then, it was just stinging, insecure stuff bandied about in school yards. You fitted in if your secret wasn’t out. They didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure yet, if they were talking about me. Looking back, it was juvenile banter, of which there was lots. Mainly it was improbable tales of derring-do at the disco. In those days, there was disco and something called the Inter. If either term is too outdated, you can Google it. Nobody does the Inter Cert any more, and disco now is for middle-aged people in unsuitable outfits.

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But, funnily, listen out and you still hear an occasional, uncivil, half-menacing harrumph about ‘queers’. You couldn’t be Irish if you didn’t harbour a passing second thought about the whole thing. That’s fine. It’s the way we were brought up. This issue now is whether it is the way we are going to go on. There is no harm being a bit perplexed. In a single generation we have gone from being the valley of the squinting windows to a country of windows with no curtains on them, metaphorically.

Then there is that peculiarly Irish thing which ostensibly changed completely, but actually continues unabated, where people in pulpits preach and tell you what to think. The pulpits are plentiful in media, social media, and even a few churches but of course you thought exactly what you wanted then; we all still do now. We know the difference between preaching and practising. Life is impossible without exhaling in between our aspirations and our actions. Real life isn’t lived out in nursery rhymes. It’s messy and more interesting.

In the meantime, we get on with it by and large, and make our own space. This referendum is about making just a little more public space, if you are comfortable with that. People living in sin, women who had children for men they weren’t married to — well, there were names for them too. One by one, slowly they were invited out from hidden spaces and taken in. Little acts of discreet kindness became more frequent, more open. Time moved on, laws changed, and attitudes altered fundamentally.

A lot has changed for gay people too. We wouldn’t be having this debate, if it hadn’t. Friday week is about another change. According to some people, contraception, divorce, and civil partnership would end family life as we knew it. In fact, not much happened at all. Except people loosened up a little, were less uptight, less insecure.

And that is what this is really about. What will decide the outcome on Friday week isn’t any great debate about the rights of relatively few. It is really about how secure or insecure, how contented or uncomfortable, the great majority feel about gay people getting married as well as being at work, or in the family tree. This isn’t about them; I must now say us. It’s really about you.

You couldn’t have known and you wouldn’t have intended but the recurring dread growing up of being suspected, or worse discovered was visceral, physically felt. It was a perennial perimeter to behaviour. I understand now, it was more felt, than inflicted. There was never any more than some name-calling, and not much of that. But the inhibition was deeply instilled. Luckily, our lifetime coincides with a slow public thawing of what, in Ireland, had always privately been a measure of personal kindness. Still you never knew for sure. Was discretion required, or just best to leave things unsaid? Don’t ask, don’t tell. Keeping your head down and your mouth shut becomes learnt behaviour. Even after it's necessary, it’s engrained.

Whatever happens on Friday week, not a lot will change on the surface. But public standards impact on private lives. They are the rules of the game. Of course they are routinely ignored but, ultimately, they are the boundaries that count. When those are the boundaries around your life, it really matters a lot. It says what’s possible, what’s permitted. We have renegotiated our principles on civil marriage once already, so this isn’t about that.

This is about how relaxed we are with one another. All that uptightness did a lot of damage. When you vote, nobody will be watching or ever know. It’s about you and what you truly believe — and what you choose to do, you will do in secret.



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