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Moment that mattered: Ireland votes to legalise same-sex marriages

Irish senator Katherine Zappone (right) and partner Ann Louise Gilligan celebrate a decisive ‘Yes’ vote to legalise same-sex marriage in Ireland, 22nd May 2015. Photo: Petros Giannakouris / AP / PA Images

On the day after the vote, I went with some of our volunteers to the count centre to help with the tallying. Then at about lunchtime I went into town to meet my girlfriend and some friends at a bar near Dublin Castle, where a lot of people were gathered to watch the results being announced on a big screen. All around the streets were teeming with people. It was like Pride had come early.

When the returning officer for the referendum came on TV and read out the result with the full figures [which showed that only one constituency out of 43 had voted against the motion], we all screamed our heads off – and then I completely broke down. Everybody started crying like children. It was just a weird moment: total relief.

I came to this as a novice. I hadn’t had any real experience in any campaign work or politics beforehand. In February I’d contacted the 
Yes Equality national campaign headquarters to find out what was going on in my area [the Dublin South Central constituency, which included more than 80,000 voters*]. They more or less said to me, ‘Well, there isn’t really anything happening at the moment – could you lead the campaign?’ Naively I said, ‘Oh yes, of course,’ not realising how it would grow.

Initially I had trepidation about canvassing. The very first door I knocked on was some guy who answered the question, ‘Have you heard about the referendum?’ by asking, ‘What do two women do in bed?’ So that was kind of a trial by fire.

In the weeks we were campaigning I experienced more vicious homophobia than I’ve ever experienced since coming out”

Of the people who indicated they would vote no, it has to be said the vast majority were very pleasant and straightforward. But the ones who weren’t so pleasant certainly made up for it. In the few weeks and months we were campaigning I experienced more homophobia – and more vicious homophobia – than I’ve ever experienced since coming out in the late ’90s.

One of our volunteers had eggs thrown at her and was spat on, and others experienced things amounting to assault. This was a small minority of people and maybe they felt that the rhetoric of the opposing campaign gave them licence to be more vociferous. Or maybe the volunteers were just an easy target for people to direct their anger against – I’m not sure, but that was pretty difficult to deal with.

Out of the blue, in the middle of the campaign, my girlfriend had to go to hospital to undergo a heart procedure. For those two weeks during April, I spent every day in hospital with her, and everything just fell by the wayside.

It brought the relevance of the referendum home to me, because if something had happened to her, the issue around next of kin would have been a problem. If we had the option to marry and full recognition under 
the law, that wouldn’t have been an issue. If you’re blindsided by a major medical crisis, you really don’t want to have to fight some battle, or fear you’re going to be discriminated against, when you’re in this stressful, dreadful situation.

The result has made me feel more comfortable in my own country. ‘Affirmation’ is the word that sums it up for me”

Thankfully she recovered and it worked out well. She got a clean bill of health on the day of the vote, in fact, which was amazing. And she reminded the staff in the hospital to make sure they got out and voted.

The result has made me feel more comfortable in my own country. ‘Affirmation’ is the word that sums it up for me – it encapsulates all of the acceptance and the solidarity and the support and the relief I felt on 23rd May. Something people noticed almost immediately was that more same-sex couples were walking around hand-in-hand. So that’s been one effect – not that homophobia’s completely gone, but people are more relaxed and less afraid.

At the same time, I do think there is a problem with the idea of a majority voting on minority rights. 
If the majority had said ‘No, gay people don’t deserve equal rights,’ 
would that have been acceptable? In Ireland you have other minorities – people from ethnic minorities, or people who are travellers – and if the majority were to reject those people’s rights, would that be acceptable? 
But at the same time, with the referendum you can now literally put a number on it and say: ‘Look, we are welcome in society, we are part 
of society.’

Marriage is still very important for a lot of people in Ireland, and when those first gay weddings take place, the fact that people will be doing it on an equal footing regardless of the sex of their partner will allow gay people to 
be accepted even more by their families and communities.

* The final results for Joan’s constituency were 34,988 in favour of equal marriage rights and 13,418 against, with over 60 percent turnout.


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