Is Same-Sex Marriage the Civil Rights Issue of This Generation?

The recent Irish referendum was a national act of inclusion and liberation for gay and lesbian people. But it was also a powerful statement to the rest of the world from a country, once considered to be among the most socially conservative.
05/29/2015 08:37 am ET Updated May 29, 2016
Yes supporters react at Dublin castle, Ireland, Saturday, May 23, 2015. Ireland has voted resoundingly to legalize gay marria
Yes supporters react at Dublin castle, Ireland, Saturday, May 23, 2015. Ireland has voted resoundingly to legalize gay marriage in the world's first national vote on the issue, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday even as official ballot counting continued. Senior figures from the "no" campaign, who sought to prevent Ireland's constitution from being amended to permit same-sex marriages, say the only question is how large the "yes" side's margin of victory will be from Friday's vote. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Ireland is now the only country in the world to have chosen to permit same-sex marriage, by popular vote.

The recent Irish referendum was a national act of inclusion and liberation for gay and lesbian people. But it was also a powerful statement to the rest of the world from a country, once considered to be among the most socially conservative.

The decision by the Irish people will encourage LGBT people in all those countries where they are still denied the right to marry. And it will give hope and comfort to those in places where homosexuals are persecuted and denied their basic human rights. Ireland's vote for equal marriage cries "halt" to those jurisdictions which are still pressing ahead with laws to discriminate.

Ireland now has the moral authority, and a unique mandate from its people, to speak out for the rights of the LGBT community.

Our small country already has a proud track record and reputation, as an advocate and defender of human rights. I saw this first hand when as Foreign Minister I led the successful campaign for Ireland's election to the UN Human Rights Council.

Three years ago, as Deputy Prime Minister and as Leader of the Irish Labour Party, I said:

It is not the role of the State to pass judgement on who a person falls in love with, or who they want to spend their life with. That is why, one of the reforms for consideration by the Constitutional Convention is a provision for same-sex marriage. I believe in gay marriage. The right of gay couples to marry, is quite simply, the civil rights issue of this generation, and in my opinion, its time has come.

The vote on May 22nd, and the happiness and enthusiasm it evoked, shows that the vast majority of Irish citizens agree. We now have a duty to share this liberation with others, to advocate for the decriminalization of homosexual acts, for an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation, and for LGBT people to enjoy the freedom to love, to form lasting relationships and to marry.

Throughout the referendum campaign we heard compelling personal stories, like that of former President Mary McAleese, who urged a "Yes" vote for her son, Justin. I met grandparents, who had lived through decades of social conservatism, and who were voting yes so that every member of their extended family would be treated equally.

As a country, we can now say to LGBT people everywhere to keep up their courage, and that even in the most unlikely places, their freedom will come.

We can tell them our own story of a country, where until a mere 22 years ago, homosexual acts were criminalized, and now the people have democratically decided to allow same-sex marriage.

Ireland did not suddenly change on the day of the referendum. The referendum gave the people the opportunity to express the change that had already taken place, and that had been coming gradually for decades.

All my life, I have worked for that social change. The Ireland, in which I grew up, in the '60s and '70s, was deeply conservative and dominated by the social teaching of the Catholic Church. Women were second class citizens, and denied equal pay and equal participation in the work-force until the mid-70s. Contraception was illegal, and condoms were not generally available until the early '90s. Divorce was prohibited by the constitution until 1996. Books and films, which made any mention of sex, were banned by the Censor's Office. Psychiatric hospitals were full of perfectly sane people, who were committed because they refused to conform.

Change came, because television provided a platform for public debate which aired the hidden issues; membership of the European Union opened our cultural horizons; an education revolution opened minds; and the Women's Movement overcame the church's dogmatic insistence on controlling their sex lives and their relationships.

That slow, sometimes painful process of change led to the celebratory scenes at Dublin Castle when the result was announced, as the Irish tricolor danced with the Rainbow flag, and thousands of same sex couples loudly sang the national anthem to freely and proudly proclaim their love and their patriotism.

It was a moment I will never forget. I thought of the great Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, who wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, while imprisoned for same-sex love. I wondered if this small country of WB Yeats and James Joyce can make this transition, then the great land of Gogol; Tolstoy and Sholokhov can do the same.

This is no longer the civil rights issue for today's generation in Ireland. It is a Human Rights issue for the whole world.