One of my best friends visited me over the weekend and we had a long talk about the marriage equality debate which is going on in Ireland. The Irish Government is in advanced stages of putting a civil partnership bill through the Irish Parliament. To be fair, this is much sooner then I ever thought Ireland would move on the issue so I think the Government should be commended on that basis. I'm sure the Fianna Fail government themselves thought this would only reflect well on them, and that the gay community itself would be tripping over themselves in gratitude. Considering homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993, this wasn't an unfair expectation.
What has actually happened is a split has occurred in the gay community between those who support the introduction of civil unions and those for whom this second best option is not enough. Those who support the law, understandably, are excited about finally being given legal protection for their relationships. For many people who have lived with Ireland's stifling homophobia, the idea that their lives and relationships are being officially sanctioned, even if they are being treated as second best, is a historic moment.
However, there is a large and vocal constituency for whom the Civil Partnership Bill is unacceptable. They argue that the Bill enshrines discrimination into Irish law, and that the Constitution, which doesn't define marriage as an institution between men and women but does state that all citizens should be treated equally, should guarantee that gay couples receive full civil marriage equality.
My initial thoughts were that if the Bill offers full rights to gay couples, then it may be worth accepting it as the political will to push for full marriage equality may not be there (the Irish Government is in serious trouble at the moment). The Catholic Church is cowed after the damning Ryan report into systematic sexual abuse by priests and nuns in Irish institution, so there may never be a better moment then now to introduce this. I even argued this with Robert. But the Bill doesn't offer full rights and, crucially in my opinion, denies couples who are civil partnered adoption rights. This decision, which was taken in a nauseating attempt to placate the 'family values' crowd in Ireland actually is a piece of hateful anti-family discrimination and to me would be a deal breaker.
It is a horrible choice that gay people in Ireland are having to make - and it is easy for me to sit here in London and pass judgement on what they should or should not do. But I think that the compromises in the legislation go too far. With full marriage equality now happily enshrined in several countries, even ultra-Catholic Spain, we know that the Chicken Little-sky-is-falling predictions about the potential destruction of marriage as an institution by allowing gays to take part is bollocks. It also seems that a majority of Irish people actually support giving gay couples full marriage rights. So why this legislation which is actually less progressive than the Irish population?
Marriage is seen in a slightly skewed way in Ireland compared to a lot of Europe. Divorce was illegal until the nineties, so it was incredibly rare for couples to split up until very recently. Marriage was intensely associated with the Catholic Church and there was really no concept of a separate civil institution. Since most people would instinctively view a marriage as incomplete if only done in a registry office, they have less of a problem about opening it up to gay people. That's my pet theory anyway.
Still though, its exciting to hear that gay people are becoming more visible and empowered, which can only help successive generations as they come out. The debate in the gay community has spilled over into the general population, with many leading media and political figures coming out in favour of full marriage equalityh. This is a hugely exciting development.
This has been a difficult day for me personally, and I didn't think that anything could cheer me up. But my friend Robert told me to track down the speech given by Dublin drag queen Panti at this year's Pride and I am glad I did. I was really moved by what Panti said, as well as the sight of hundreds of proud Irish gay men and women cheering in the bright sunshine. I would have loved to have been there.