[Op-Ed] The Irish Referendum
11 June 2015
On May 22, Ireland became the first country in the world to approve by popular vote marriage equality for all people, including homosexuals and lesbians. The “Yes” vote garnered 62% of the public vote.
Five days earlier, on May 17, Chisinau held its 3rd public LGBT Pride event. For the third year running, police provided excellent protection to the handful of people who came out to support the principle that no one should suffer discrimination because of some innate, intrinsic quality. This year was more difficult than last year however: there were public calls to attack participants before the Pride march, and very vigorous efforts by counter-demonstrators to break through police lines to attack people during it. Those of us who joined the event were showered with rotten eggs, and chased as we left.
In advance of the Irish referendum, Ursula Halligan, a prominent journalist, came out publicly, in an editorial in the Irish Times, which began: “I was a good Catholic girl, growing up in 1970s Ireland where homosexuality was an evil perversion. It was never openly talked about but I knew it was the worst thing on the face of the earth. So when I fell in love with a girl in my class in school, I was terrified.”
In the paragraphs which follow, Halligan describes her internal conflicts and desperate efforts to deny her sexuality, as well as the powerful forces in the Ireland of the 1970s which drove her to do so: “In the 1970s, homophobia was rampant and uninhibited. … Homosexuals were faggots, queers, poofs, freaks, deviants, unclean, unnatural, mentally ill, second class and defective humans. … They were other people. I couldn’t possibly be one of them.”
And she goes on, powerfully:
“For years I told no one because I couldn’t even tell myself. It was a place I didn’t want to go. It was too scary; too shameful. I couldn’t cope with it. I buried it. Emotionally, I have been in a prison since the age of 17; a prison where I lived a half-life, repressing an essential part of my humanity, the expression of my deepest self; my instinct to love. … At every turn society assumes and confirms heterosexuality as the norm. This culminates in marriage when the happy couple is showered with an outpouring of overwhelming social approval.
“For me, there was no first kiss; no engagement party; no wedding. And up until a short time ago no hope of any of these things. Now, at the age of 54, in a (hopefully) different Ireland, I wish I had broken out of my prison cell a long time ago. I feel a sense of loss and sadness for precious time spent wasted in fear and isolation.”
Ireland is an overwhelming Catholic – Christian – country. It did not cease to be so on May 22. The Irish Church has intractably opposed homosexuality as sin, as the Orthodox Church does here.
So what changed in Ireland? In short: a view that equal dignity, fairness and justice requires overcoming prejudice against homosexuals and lesbians and celebrating their equal dignity, and that solidarity requires that the majority stand with them in their just struggle. Far from rejecting the Church, 62% of Ireland made the enlightened choice of a free people: polite, democratic disagreement.
Human rights praises the Moldovan authorities for continuing to act on the obligation keep open the public space on an equal basis for all people, without discrimination. That is the legal requirement binding on Moldova as a result of its international law obligations, and Moldova has, for the past three years, upheld it.
But Moldova deserves – for itself – to take the next step: to reject hatred and prejudice and to join the societies of inclusion and mutual understanding; to help Moldovans similar to Ursula Halligan find their voice, and to listen to them with respect and support; to join them in their struggle for freedom.
Human Rights Adviser, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
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