This post is written in my capacity as an Irish citizen. The sentiments contained within are equally applicable wherever marriage equality is at issue, particularly those places where the legislative arm is stalling.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." I've come to see the falsity of my beloved childhood rhyme. It isn't true.
On May 17 we marked the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO). It reminded me of the president of Ireland's recent address, speaking at a youth conference in March. President Higgins spoke of the "appalling, destructive reality of homophobia." It is a reality, a very sad one, and it's not confined to the menacing child in the schoolyard, nor is it confined to the young. It reaches beyond the classroom, through the staff room, outside the school gates, and into the workplace, and it permeates society.
President Higgins went on to state, "The idea that any young person could be driven, not just to lower self-esteem, exclusion, isolation, loneliness, but self-destruction itself, is an appalling blight on a society." His words are chilling. His words are true. The president was deservedly commended for his condemnation of the harsh actuality we face as a society. But we're missing something.
Bullying comes about through a lack of empathy inside, displayed outwardly as intolerance. Anti-gay bullying and the denial of marriage equality are not mutually exclusive in that sense. People are bullied because they're perceived as different. We blame the bully, possibly the parents. We want to hold someone accountable. But we need to look at the wider picture. We need to consider the fact that the law treats citizens differently. The law perceives some of us differently. The bullies aren't blind. Whose lead are they following?
The Constitution of Ireland sets out our bill of rights. Article 40.1 makes a guarantee that "[a]ll citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law." And therein lies the problem. The problem is the fact that where the issue of marriage equality is concerned, the emphasis is placed on our gender, on our sexual orientation, whereas marriage laws should be about us as human beings, as "human persons," in line with Article 40.1. The law has created this divide. We need to bridge the gap. Youngsters, and indeed some older minds, can see that gap, and they're clearly influenced by it.
We want youngsters to develop self-esteem and embrace who they are. But a difficulty presents itself as they grow up: The law doesn't embrace who they are, not fully. Article 40.1 becomes conditionally operational and is precluded from being relied upon in certain circumstances. The family provision, Article 41, goes one step further and even operates to deny a right: the right of marriage. What message is this sending down the line? It's a very strong message. It comes from on high. It comes from the top. It comes from the very document our heroes of history fought to establish, for Ireland, for the people, for all of us.
To achieve progress, our role is two-fold. We need to address the bully and the bullied. We need to focus on empowering the young. We must highlight their strengths and teach them how we're all unique, how we all have something to offer. We need to encourage youngsters to celebrate their uniqueness. We have the opportunity to send them out into the world armed and equipped with an appreciation of the value of love and compassion, and, most importantly, a working knowledge of empathy.
It's worth noting that exclusion, isolation, and loneliness can function with or without a bully. I speak from experience. Teenage years are defining. Those years are troublesome enough to navigate without any further obstacles. Self-acceptance can be slow coming, slower still when society presents a hurdle.
It was during my teens that I acknowledged the fact that I liked girls and not boys. All I could see around me were "normal" families, whether it was in my physical surroundings or in the media. I knew I didn't want that. Did that make me different? Did it mean something was wrong with me? Where did that leave my self-esteem?
I looked to my friends. They had Mom and Dad, some just Mom and some just Dad, but nobody had what I didn't realise at the time I would want in the future. I knew I didn't want a boy, but I never thought I could have a girl. It wasn't something I could see in my future, because I couldn't see it in my present. The option wasn't there to see. My teenage mind was in need of education. My teenage self was in need of approval. We struggle to accept ourselves, but then we also have to take on society. It's a lot to ask of youngsters to develop self-esteem under those circumstances.
It's now 15 years later in my own journey. Has Ireland evolved? Are we serving our young? I can imagine the exchanges in schools today. "But your family isn't the same as my family. My parents are married." Another difference. Another divide created by the law in the form of civil partnerships. When will we learn? When we do, we can teach the young what equality really means. They're following our lead.
We're a progressive country. We pride ourselves on embracing all types of people. Why, then, do we stop short of embracing all types of families? How can we teach these youngsters to accept themselves when we know they're going to grow up without full acceptance from society, from the law? The mainstream, and indeed the law, is not reflecting equality. It's not reflecting reality. It's excluding certain people, and it is having a damaging effect.
This all begs the question: Does society not approve? We can't answer that conclusively. The people of Ireland are yet to cast a vote. When we close the gap, when we level the playing field, when we correct the mainstream, we'll see that we're not so "different" after all. And so says Article 40.1.