I’m of (part) Irish descent, so I like to keep up-to-date with what is happening in the so-called old country. Last May, however, a piece of news out of Ireland grasped the attention of many people with no connection to that country whatsoever: the Irish public voted in a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage. ‘Gay Couples Awake to New Ireland,’ shouted The New York Times.
Part of the headline grabbing stemmed from the fact that Ireland was long considered one of the most socially conservative countries in Western Europe. It was one of the last nations in the world to legally permit divorce (in 1995) – interestingly, also after a referendum. Abortion still remains highly restricted. With regard specifically to same-sex relations, male homosexuality was a criminal offence in Ireland until 1993 (lesbianism in contrast was never illegal).
On the other hand, it is clear that Ireland has changed. For instance, in 2007 33% of babies in that country were born outside marriage – although a couple of studies suggest that these children are not born to mothers truly on their own but to women living in what are marriages in everything but name. Public support for same-sex marriage seems less surprising in light of these figures.
One perceived hindrance to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ireland was the Roman Catholic Church, the religion to which most Irish adhere and which officially opposes gay marriage and homosexuality in general. However, many individual Catholics do not necessarily share the church hierarchy’s views on same-sex marriage. Polls in the United States have shown that Catholics are actually more likely than the general population to approve of marriage between two people of the same sex, at about the same level as mainline Protestants and at far higher levels than Christian fundamentalists. Even some Catholic priests in Ireland have voiced support for same-sex marriage. One priest in County Donegal explained why he would be voting ‘yes’ in the referendum in defiance of ecclesiastical doctrine. Finally, not all homophobia is religiously motivated: for example, male same-sex relations were punishable by jail time in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union.
Ireland’s ‘yes’ vote appears to be part of a trend toward the recognition of same-sex relationships throughout the Western world, whether in the form of actual marriage or civil unions, which even some people who feel marriage should be between a man and a woman can accept. Canada legalized marriages between members of the same sex in 2003. An effort to re-open the issue by the federal Conservative government in 2006 failed. Ireland now simply seems to be coming in line with the rest of the West.
As a person of Irish descent (and, for the record, a heterosexual), I lack strong feelings about same-sex marriage in Ireland or elsewhere, for that matter. I tend to be fairly skeptical of marriage as a whole, regardless of the gender of the people involved. Part of this may be due to my own parents’ highly dysfunctional marriage. My skepticism is further boosted by news reports, for instance, of a woman forced to pay alimony to her ex-husband ‘disabled’ by his alcoholism. On the other hand, if heterosexuals have the option of legally marrying, homosexual couples should be able to do so too, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with legal wedlock – such as having to pick up an alcoholic ex-spouse’s bar tabs. Speaking more seriously, I can understand why a gay or lesbian couple might want to have an official seal of approval on their relationship, especially if they have children. I wouldn’t begrudge any gays or lesbians the right to marry – not in spite but perhaps because of my own disinterest in the institution of matrimony.
To Irish gays and lesbians hoping to take advantage of their new right, choose wisely!