It might seem a bit of a stretch, but bear with me for a few minutes and I’ll explain why the recent decision by the Irish people to include same-sex marriage in our constitution gives me hope that we possess the capacity for a much greater public appreciation of climate change.
And no, it’s not just because climate change has long been viewed as bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberal issue and the referendum was a victory for bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberals everywhere. Though there is that too. For me, the most heartening aspects of the campaign for the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples were its sheer positivity and how visible it made the more enlightened views of the Irish towards LGBT people. The new law recognized that change of attitudes, and it’s the difference between laws and attitudes that I want to talk about.
Let’s put things in perspective: Ireland’s laws, and the attitudes they originally reflected, specifically concerning homosexuality, date back to the Victorian era. The 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act outlawed: ‘the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal’. So homosexuality was aligned with bestiality, under the heading, ‘Unnatural Offences’. The state’s official position on this remained unchallenged until about 1970, when David Norris, lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin, spearheaded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, trying to get it decriminalised.
It wasn’t until March 1983 that Ireland had its first Gay Pride Festival. In 1988, Norris, by then a member of the senate, won a case in the European Court of Human Rights over the criminalisation of homosexuality in the Irish Constitution. It was a legal process he had started in 1977, that was beaten down in both the Irish High Court and the Supreme Court.
The law declaring that homosexuality was illegal was eventually changed in 1993, with the future Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore (who had campaigned on this since his student union days), declaring: ‘The sexual activities of consenting adults in the privacy of their home are a matter for the people concerned and should not be the business of the Dáil, the Garda or anybody else, including the peeping Toms of the self-appointed moral police from whom we hear a great deal nowadays.’
That was in 1993. Think about that for a second. A little over twenty years ago, according to Irish law, you could still be put in prison for making love to an adult, consenting partner. It was written into the same statute that included: ‘Causing bodily injury by gunpowder.’ and ‘Impeding a person endeavouring to save himself or another from ship-wreck.’ And it was included in the same sentence as bestiality. By 1993, however, nobody in their right mind would have attempted to try someone for the ‘crime’ of gay sex. That law is a reflection of the establishment’s position back in the nineteenth century, but it also reflects the attitudes at the time when, we must assume, Ireland’s population had the same proportion of homosexuals as it does now. People who had to live their whole lives suppressing their emotions, hiding their loves and denying their true natures for fear of arrest and imprisonment. If they were in any way religious, then, by the teachings at the time (and still for some religious nuts now) they would have been assured by their religious leaders that God himself condemned their ‘abominable’ kind.
And though society evolved after that law was passed in 1861, those damning words remained there, a fixed point in a tide of slowly shifting public opinion. Strong, vocal, passionate activists started arguing for this law to be changed, but for a long time, the Irish conservative, predominantly-religious public opinion wasn’t ready to accept it. With growing numbers of people starting to take an interest, however, and looking beyond religion for their moral principles, the campaign began to gain momentum. Women’s rights were, slowly, gaining ground and this, in turn, contributed to other civil rights causes. The conversation on gay rights spread from being one held solely among strident activists fighting for a cause; to people interested in civil rights in a more general way; to people who just wanted to see others treated decently; to people who didn’t have strong feelings about it but figured, ‘Well, why not?’. As we became more aware of the need to distinguish between them, everyday discussions expanded from just ‘gay’ rights to ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’.
It took over a hundred years, but the weight of public opinion swung from steadfast resistance to the idea of LGBT rights, to a recognition and common acceptance of it.
By which time, the 1861 law was looking more and more absurd, along with many of the Victorian values it reflected.
So in 1993, homosexual sex was made legal. Which was an improvement, but, given how long it had taken, not what you’d call a giant leap for mankind. Looking back at that change in law now, to a time when I had just left college, even I feel a sense of embarrassment about how backwards my country must have seemed to anyone attracted to the same sex. I can imagine what it would be like if someone told me, after years of having to conceal it, that I could no longer be put in prison for having consensual sex with a woman. Would I be relieved? Yes. Grateful? Not a whole lot. But then what could you expect? The Irish were screwed up enough about straight sex. Despite the emerging crisis of AIDS, condoms had only recently become widely available, after bitter opposition – once again – by the church. Only a few years before, it had still been legal for a man to rape his wife. To use the term often trotted out by the ‘No’-siders in the referendum, marriage was ‘redefined’ when the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, was passed in 1990, so a woman could legally refuse to have sex with her husband. Even if the Irish were slowly accepting how unjust our society still was, laws don’t change quickly. And constitutions, by their nature, change even slower.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the Civil Partnership Bill was passed, not allowing marriage, but giving the relationships of homosexuals and transgender people some rights under the law, including the right to adopt children. LGBT couples still didn’t have equal rights, but it was considered a victory nonetheless. The bill went a long way towards helping the public get its collective head around the idea of LGBT marriage.
In 2011, the first openly homosexual TDs were elected to the Dáil. Jerry Buttimer, John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan took their seats, representing Cork South-Central, Dublin North-West and Meath East respectively. Here was proof of public acceptance forging ahead of legal recognition. In legal terms, it had taken nearly twenty years, to go from homosexuality being illegal, to it being so accepted that you could be open about your sexual preferences and be voted into government. And help write new laws. But the Irish people had been changing for a lot longer than that – it just took the plodding system of government a long time to catch up.
In January 2015, Leo Varadkar became the first openly gay government minister when he came out publicly. At this point, Ireland was recovering from a crippling recession and a regime of harsh austerity. There were, and still are, huge protests over the move to start charging for the domestic water supply. The country was suffering and morale was low – but one thing was lifting our spirits. The referendum was looming and the country was clamouring for same-sex marriage to be recognized. It had gone beyond a gay rights issue. This was Ireland wanting to move on from its reactionary, conservatively religious roots.
The ‘Yes’ campaign was, at times, marred by negative terms and imagery, but it was overwhelmingly positive, not just about homosexuality and transgender people, but about our society, about Irish identity itself. The campaign was marked by joy, colour, humour and good will. We wanted to be better, more open-minded, more inclusive. We wanted tangible proof that we had changed for the better and were ready to spread the love. And what’s more, we wanted the world to know it. We had a pretty straightforward decision to make. We were voting on adding the following words to our constitution:
‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’
That’s it. You wouldn’t think it was such a big deal, except there were a couple of million opinions to take into account. I remember walking into the polling station with mixed feelings. On one hand, it seemed bizarre that I should be voting on someone else’s right to get married. I didn’t believe in asking my wife’s parents for their permission to marry her – why should somebody have to ask the whole country? But I also walked in with a sense of excitement about voting that I hadn’t experienced in years. And it wasn’t just me. The country was buzzing with anticipation.
We still weren’t sure of a win. Progressive amendments to the constitution had been defeated many times before by the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church and the conservative element in Ireland, one that might be less vocal these days, but still had a strong foundation and, vitally, had a better record of voting. Ireland’s youth, in particular, had long shown a disconnected cynicism about the political process.
But not this time. The young voted in record numbers. The old came out in support. People from a range of religious backgrounds. There was no urban/rural divide, no division between classes. This was bigger than just an issue over LGBT rights; Irish people were making a statement about the kind of society we wanted. And for a whole lot of straight people, it felt good. When the referendum was passed by a margin of two to one – the biggest margin of any referendum in Irish history – journalist and commentator, Fintan O’Toole said it simply: ‘This moment is not a gift from Ireland to the LGBT community. It’s the other way round. Thanks for making us proud of ourselves again.’
So here’s the thing: Ireland had already changed by the time the law caught up and made it official. That new law will not end discrimination; the world will never run out of assholes – they’re a renewable resource. But it has been made clear that discrimination will no longer be tolerated by society or the law.
That wouldn’t have been possible if public attitudes hadn’t changed dramatically long before that. The law didn’t lead the people, it was the other way round, but making it official marks the end of a process where the idea went from radical, to progressive, to accepted, to just plain . . . normal. And though the change in the constitution will now ensure LGBT couples will have equal rights, it has also made it possible for society to do much more beyond that.
In the campaign to raise awareness about our climate, to promote a more environmentally conscientious way of life, passionate activists have swum against the tide for years, calling for change. Unlike the ultimately personal question of equality and marriage, climate change is a difficult, theoretical, complicated and bewildering issue, but in more recent years, discussion about it has become more mainstream, with those in power now including it in their manifestos, wanting to appear progressive, forward-looking. As they so often do, our elected leaders are watching public opinion, gauging its direction. They want to show they have an eye on the big picture. Climate change has now become the stuff of day-to-day conversations, a part of the small picture, as people accept that it is happening, that we are past the point of preventing it, that its effects are being felt already and it is becoming a part of all our lives.
It is now largely accepted (at least in Ireland) but our official position on the matter still has to catch up – and this time it’s going to take more than one shift in the law to achieve it and to motivate people. But those changes won’t just bring a solution to one problem. As modern life has drifted farther and farther from nature, it has caused all kinds of problems whose solutions lie in the very practices that will help our environment. Getting outside more, getting more exercise, taking the time to reconnect with nature; thinking more about what we’re eating and where our food comes from; making better use of our water; questioning the cost of convenience, reducing our waste; harnessing nature rather than fighting against it; demanding technology that does things better instead of doing more things unreliably; making sure it’s in a business’s interest to be ethical as well as profitable . . . These are changes that will have long term effects, but also offer immediate improvements in our lives – and they can be used to instil the kind of infectious positivity in the campaign against global warming that won the referendum campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.
A lot is going to have to change and, as we’ve seen with LGBT rights, with women’s rights, children’s rights and so many other advances in our country, society is slow to accept a new direction – but it can and it does. As far as climate change is concerned, public opinion is almost there, but to recognize that new reality and to really turn things around, it needs the structure that only new laws can provide.
And we’ll get there. It won’t be easy, but some of it might actually be fun and in the end, maybe we’ll feel good about ourselves for making the world a better place.