Mixed Emotions One Month On – Campaigner Sarah Clancy reflects on the Marriage Referendum

It is almost one month since the day that a majority of Irish voters said Yes to marriage equality.  Since the result was announced I’ve been struggling with getting a few words together about it. It sounds like it should be a satisfying and congratulatory thing to write but for me things are never quite that simple. Just to get the few obvious things out of the way, I am delighted at the result. I am delighted for myself, for the LGTB people here now and all the generations to come who will have one less symbol of their inequality publically mocking them. I’m delighted for all of those who care about us and who cared enough to get behind the campaign. I’m delighted too for the extra space others might have for their equality campaigns in the wake of this one. It may seem self evident but every step forward for people opens more space for other steps forward to happen. We have done something worthwhile for all of us.

Now, to the less obvious: before the referendum I wrote a blog post explaining my own ambiguous feelings about the very fact of having a referendum on marriage of all things. In it, I explained how despite my misgivings about almost every aspect of the referendum I was certain that we desperately needed to secure a yes vote.  Then, having convinced myself of that fact as much as anyone else, and having been gently bullied (yes it’s an oxymoron but an apt one) into it by Colm O’Gorman who is difficult to say no to at the best of times, I got stuck in and did my share of organising and canvassing for it in Galway where I am from until I was called away to the necessary business of earning my living. So now that I’ve got what I wanted you’d imagine I’d be happy wouldn’t you? And I am, in all sorts of ways, but mostly I am relieved.

Really, I’m such a tangled mixture of nerve endings and emotions about it all that I’d probably be better writing a poem than a blog post. (You can get away with all sorts of emotional guff in poems).  So what do I feel?  How about affirmed, relieved, furious, lonely, confused, relieved, outraged, delighted, accepted, relieved, disgusted, loved, cynical, tearful and did I say relieved?

Why so much relief? Well because we could very easily have scored a spectacular own goal against ourselves by returning a no vote. Imagine what I’d be writing now as a lesbian citizen or resident of this country had we voted no? Yes you’re right it does have a few swear words in it and a packed bag and a plane ticket feature there too.

I want to go a small bit backwards to the day of the referendum count. On Saturday 23rd of May I was away for work and it was evening time before I was alone in my hotel room and able to think about the result. You know what happened? I was immediately filled with sadness. I was sad for all of  the people we have lost to suicide, to drink, addiction, to forced exile and most of all to the debilitating all pervasive shame and that has been inhaled by most of LGTB people of my generation for most of our lives. (Actually inhaled doesn’t quite cut it, ‘inhaled’ sounds like we did it to ourselves when in fact the church, government, health service, education system and often our very own families were involved in actively repressing us in my life time). My sadness was and is still at how needless and senseless all of this oppression was. What on earth was everyone frightened of?

I also felt a little bit sheepish given how quickly this change came in the end, that I had not personally done more to ensure that LGTB people’s dignity was respected by the society I lived in. As my sadness abated slightly that same evening I felt an enormous surprising and sudden joy at the feeling that I was and am accepted now by most people in Ireland. As soon as that feeling descended on me though, I was horrified with myself- I had no idea I wanted to be accepted. So there’s something I learned about myself from this referendum campaign: I want to be accepted. Fuck it all anyway.

While I am in here in the confessional, I may as well also tell you that around my slightly darker edges while I was watching the celebrations on the news I was wondering why quite so many congratulations were due to people for agreeing to stop discriminating in one fashion against one minority group.  It seems a little like we were congratulating a man (or woman) for stopping beating his (or her) partner for example – i.e a good development but one aimed at stopping something that shouldn’t have been happening in the first place.

After that Saturday I settled into being proud of having been involved and also being impressed at all the others who got stuck in to it in Galway where I was based for the campaign. The effort that people put into securing the yes vote was something I have never experienced before. Just to give you one example of how deeply this affected me I found it extremely moving when on my second evening canvassing a man I know for years who I had phoned for advice on routes and running the canvass showed up unannounced and said, ‘well, come on, standing here chatting won’t win any votes’ and without further ado he helped us get it all started for the first week until everything was running smoothly. I don’t know why this affected me so much; of course the man I’m talking about lives in Ireland, of course, like all of us he had an interest in the outcome but for sure I would say he never imagined he would be canvassing his own ‘territory’ with a whole team of LGTB people. Not that he minded- he was happy out, but life brings us all to some odd situations and for him I bet that was one. For me having him along was like having a cross between a body guard and a safety blanket with me. And yes that is a compliment-I’m not accustomed to needing either but the personal nature of this campaign meant I was in a more vulnerable state of mind than I have been in any other.

There was another humbling lesson for me in this campaign about how actually believing you can win is of crucial importance. I know it sounds cheesy, but I don’t mean it that way, the Galway campaign showed me the kind of subconscious fatalism that I may have gone about other campaigns with. I had to face up to an attitude (that I didn’t know I had) that has sometimes let me tell myself whatever I was involved in,  that I was one of a group of valiant people doing the right thing against insurmountable odds and so we could be comfortable enough with losing or being defeated. There was no such feeling with this campaign and a lot of that was because the majority of people involved were going to be directly personally affected by the outcome. On three different evenings my canvassing partners were gay men who were engaged to be married to their partners. Yes they cared about marriage equality. To coin that horrid financial expression – whether we wanted to get married or not, most of us had skin in the game. I do realise that obviously the result of the referendum affects everyone but for some of us the stakes were higher than for others.

As the dust settled, I started to realise too that although I had gone about the campaign trying to ensure that this and future generations would not suffer the undoubted ill effects of a no vote, in all my cynicism and world weariness I had underestimated the positive effect of a yes vote. I found myself on the brink of spectacularly happy tears on the streets in public when on my first day in Dublin I saw not one but two same sex couples holding hands as they went around the city. This was not a coincidence. I am sure of that, something has been freed and somehow loosened and yes we have a gazillion other things wrong in Ireland but even in one short month I can see that we have achieved something important positive and valuable. The only way I can explain it is that it has become a little bit easier for me to breathe here.

I couldn’t write this post honestly without saying that along with relief and personal validation, I have been feeling a fair degree of anger in the last few weeks. I’m angry that we were put through a process of having to plead with the general public for our equal claim on the rights our state facilitates and supports without question for others. I was angry that in the place of say redress and maybe a state apology for all those who this state has hurt with its puritan catholo-capitalist policing of our personal lives that a seeming trinket such as access to marriage might now become a fig leaf behind  which any further grievances might be concealed. I was angry that me and others who I encouraged to come along canvassing had to listen to the hurtful and sometimes outrageous things that the general public said to us when canvassing (it’s never nice to be told you are disgusting several times an evening). I was angry that these points of view were supported and left unchallenged by our national media outlets.

Taking the risk of sounding like someone with serious anger issues; I am angry too that a neo liberal government which has done and is doing such things as deciding that single parents should be forced into the workforce when their children are only 7 years old should be allowed even for a second to think of itself as being somehow dedicated to equality.

I found myself seething too at the many heterosexual commentators who spoke up in the days after the result calling on yes campaigners to be gracious and magnanimous in victory- and you know something? From all of those commentators that was very bad advice. I firmly believe that we shouldn’t accommodate or empathize with any odious discriminatory view point about gay people, nor about any other minority either. We don’t need to be conciliatory, what we need to do is to ensure that we create a society where such views become excluded and are not given any resources with which to promote themselves. Of course there are people who will always feel that to ‘jaw jaw’ is better than to war war to steal that phrase but it’s worth remembering that there is no talking to some people. The people who think LGTB people are not to be around children, or are not fit parents or should never have sex or are unnatural and can be corrected should get no hearing. And before the free speech advocates get hot under their collars, don’t worry, they can speak if they want, they can even say things that offend me but I neither have to listen nor participate giving them a platform to do it from.  I for one have heard enough of that stuff during our campaign to last me a life time.

Next up I found myself annoyed that even in a small way my experiences in becoming an adult were becoming kind of commodified as everyone was celebrating. Although it was done a good hearted and affirming way straight people who I know wrote and published and shared things even in our national media that recounted my experiences during the campaign and even my experiences growing up. Of course these were all things that I had made public and so the fault is mine but it felt as weird as anything. There is surely another lesson there for me about what it is like to have your experiences spoken about, to be spoken for rather than being the editor of your own exposure. Some of the things other people published were things that it took me years to learn how to say even to myself about myself. I am not usually remotely touchy about such things but in the heightened post referendum humour I found it very hard to take. Conclusion: being spoken for sucks.

That’s the anger dealt with, thanks everyone for listening, you can bill me later for counselling services.

Now for the hope; am I allowed hope? Since the emergence of the protest movement against the water charges I’ve had a bubble of hope inside me that has been shrinking and expanding according to the events of the day but has nonetheless persisted. It stretched to bursting point, it almost choked me in fact when I saw the tallies from working class communities in Dublin. Did you see them?  80% Yes in Darndale, Coolock 88%, Cherry Orchard 90%, Ballyfermot 85%. And I’m clearly not just talking about marriage equality, I have a growing feeling that working class Ireland, politicised and mobilised as it now seems clear is happening rapidly, might just save the rest of the population from itself (ourselves). It was widely commented on by people smarter than me (Richard Mc Alevey, Kitty Holland etc) that the results sharply contradict the notion of middle class Ireland as being the vanguard of social liberalism. The results from middle class constituencies were far more muted. I’m from Galway West which includes a youthful, artsy, cosmopolitan university city, and we managed to return only a 61.5% Yes vote. Without a doubt there is food for thought there for anyone involved in Irish politics.

I want to finish this excessively lengthy piece by telling you about the exact  moment that I celebrated the result, by actually bursting into tears in the middle of Dublin about ten days ago. I was walking down Duke St when I was hailed from a cafe by an older gay man who after having left Ireland to spend most of his life in Britain, came home to campaign with us in Galway but who I had not seen since about two weeks before the referendum.  We hugged each other and he said vehemently to me ; ‘We did it, we did it, fuck them all Sarah, we did it. They love us, Fuck them’ and that encapsulated exactly how I feel about it. I went off down the street in tears.

Sarah Clancy is an author, campaigner, and the Bogman’s Cannon Irish People’s poetry champion for 2015