Note: There is no right way to write this post, so what follows is definitely the wrong way. Here goes!
On Friday I voted Yes in the referendum on extending marriage rights to people who wish to marry people of the same sex. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of mentioning marriage at all in a constitution. In fact, I think the state should get its nose out of marriage altogether. I would be all for getting rid of civil marriage, ending the advantages married people have over single people in tax and social welfare, and taking all sex/gender/marital status categories out of government documents, processes and procedures. People can make whatever commitment ceremonies they like in the privacy of their own churches or homes or beaches or hot-air balloons, but I don’t see why the government needs to be involved at all – you should be able to register next-of-kin and/or relationships of care (for children or for the ill) if necessary, but I have no idea what a legislatively sanctioned marriage is for, other than to disadvantage the unmarried. However, I believe that Yes was absolutely the right vote to make. I believe it because I believe in equality. If I can marry a woman, why shouldn’t I be able to marry a man? I believe it because I believe that recognising difference and minorities is good for both the minorities and for people in general. I believe it because I believe it will be good for the gay community. It will be a comfort and a confirmation of their value to society as a whole.
One moment during the campaign that particularly struck me was the day Fine Gael launched their referendum campaign. There was a photo of Jerry Buttimer, a gay TD, holding up a 3-D “YES” for the camera. Enda Kenny was standing beside him, also reaching forward, holding onto Jerry’s wrist. I found that little picture moving. A public figure, a rural, 64-year-old, heterosexual, married man with children, was willing to touch, to make skin contact with, a known homosexual. He was almost holding his hand. I know it’s crazy. I know this should provoke no reaction in me at all. I know plenty of straight men who are OK with gay men, but I guess the “backs to the wall” jokes in school had a lasting impact. I genuinely grew up believing I was untouchable as far as straight men are concerned. I never really thought about this until I saw this photo. If you need a reason why this referendum is necessary, then that’s it. There is a part of me that believes I am lesser than a straight man, that I am a perverted, mutated version of a real man, and that I should be honoured when a straight man is willing to treat me as an equal, and if we don’t want future gays to grow up with the same beliefs, then this referendum was essential.
Another moment that struck me during the campaign was on Twitter. There is an @ireland account on Twitter. It is passed around week-by-week to different Irish tweeters. Usually, no one really pays it any attention. The week before the referendum, it was run by a young man, the son of one of the main “No to marriage equality” campaigners who was working as an intern in the Iona Institute, a Catholic campaigning organisation for the promotion of “family values”. I read his tweets. He was engaged and intelligent. He had a sense of humour. He was entirely wrong. He had a cheerful resignation to the fact that everyone disagreed with him.
I could totally have been him.
As a teenager, in my parents’ religious community, we were taught that the “world” was against us, that everywhere we went there would be “Judases” who would betray us and test our beliefs, that carrying the cross and being crucified was part of being a good Christian, that the suffering we endure for our beliefs was a holy thing. We were taught that people in the “world” would be “scandalised” by the “cross” but that we should carry it anyway. Jesus didn’t fight against the injustice of his crucifixion. We should be the same. I was like that Iona Institute intern. I was cheerful about the fact that the “world” was against us. But Jesus taught us to go and announce His Good News. And so I did. I stood on Paul Street, singing about Jesus, trying to recruit new members for our community. I went from door-to-door in Ballincollig, inviting people to come and listen to the good news. I nagged priests who taught in my school, asking them to come to our community (it’s a Catholic group, but a fairly niche one, and we were always short of priests). I came home from a pilgrimage to Italy with a big leather cross around my neck and wore it to school for weeks. I was unafraid to spread the Good News. And so, I understood this intern.
Eventually, of course, I grew to realise that my fondness for willies was in conflict with the Good News, and gradually became less enamoured of the community. My life started to boil down to a straightforward choice, the choice between Jesus and Cock. I chose Cock.
I left the community when I was 17, or as they would term it, I “went into crisis”. But my upbringing and my family gave me a different perspective on the religious arguments in the referendum debate. I knew as well as anyone else that it wasn’t a referendum on religious marriage, but on civil marriage, but I also understood why religious people still believed religion should play a part in the debate. Christianity isn’t a private thing. One of Jesus’s instructions was that Christians should spread the Good News. You can’t be a good Catholic in secret. We are asked to “bear witness”. Also, the fear for Catholics, or at least Catholics from my background was that voting yes for marriage equality meant that you were encouraging people, that you were saying it’s OK to be gay, that you were saying it’s OK to have gay sex, that it’s OK to live in a same-sex household. And it’s not. All sex should be open to life. The Catholicism I grew up in was very much based around the marriage and sex teachings of the church. We were taught that families are sacred, and that the family has three altars – the altar at the sacrament of the Eucharist in church, where our souls are nourished by Jesus, the altar of the kitchen table, where the family is nourished by food and by unity and prayer and the altar of the marriage bed, where the family is created. All sexual acts must be open to life.
I grew up in a community that didn’t just disapprove of contraception, they would have looked on using the rhythm method as sinful in its intention. The phrase “being open to life” was hammered home to us again and again. The families in the community had seven, eight, ten or even twelve children. We weren’t just against divorce – separation from a spouse was also bad, as this was closed to life. The womb was celebrated as the “factory of life” and there should be no destruction within it. I saw grown men stand on altars and confess about when they started masturbating. I was witness to confessions of adultery, of pre-marital sex, of the use of contraception. All when I was 15 or 16 years old. I entirely understand the mentality of the No campaign. Sexuality is all about denial. Gay people might suffer more than others, but all sexuality was a forum for self-denial. And that’s part of why they didn’t see themselves as homophobes. As my mother told me after I came out, a gay man can still marry a woman and have children and have family. Because that’s what sexuality is for.
I suppose I always understood that the community’s views on sexuality were relatively extreme. But we did learn the Six Precepts of the Church in school, one of which was to obey the marriage laws of the church. I presumed most right-thinking people agreed that masturbation and gay sex and adultery and pre-marital sex and homosexual sex and contraception were wrong. We had a religion teacher in school, a priest, who didn’t have much time for our community, even though I tried to get him to join, who told us about how unfulfilling Martina Navratilova’s life as a lesbian was and about how damaging gay male sex is to the anus.
I struggled during the referendum campaign to understand all the Catholic people who said they were voting Yes. I know it’s a remnant of my upbringing that I can’t shake, but how can a priest think it’s OK to encourage sin and to encourage a flouting a church teaching? How can you accept weird teachings, like that Jesus rose from the dead, or that every Sunday a billion people eat wafer that has been magically transformed into a dead man’s body, or that if you tell a priest your sins and say three Hail Marys then the bad things you did are gone? How can you accept all that and not accept the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality? How can you continue to be a Catholic if you protest against the teachings of the Vatican? Protesting against Catholic teachings is surely the definition of a Protestant.
A bigger struggle for me in the campaign was all the heartwarming stuff. It was the videos of young people ringing their grannies to tell them to vote yes. It was the stories from parents of learning their children were gay and how they came to accept them. It was the narrative of love and acceptance in the campaign that broke me. I couldn’t watch the videos of sweet little old ladies saying they just wanted young Niall to find a nice young man and haven’t times changed and don’t we all deserve a chance at happiness?
That is not my experience. For my family to vote Yes, they would realistically have to leave the community. And that can’t really happen. One of my brothers is a priest in the community and has devoted his whole adult life to the cause, my second brother has married a woman from the community and she has had five lovely babies in a row. None of that would have happened without the community. He has also left his paying job and taken his wife and kids to preach the Good News around the country for the community. My parents went on mission to Zambia and Tanzania for the community. They joined in 1985. They have no support network and no friends outside the community. They can’t do what the little old ladies in the Vote Yes videos are doing. i chose Cock. They chose Jesus.
I find being at home difficult. Children ask questions. And I know I have to help the family in the sexual policing of the children. My niece wandered into my room and asked me about something pink and fluffy “Are you a girl, Uncle Connor?” she asked, mockingly. I panicked and changed the topic. I can’t be seen as a bad moral influence. Another day, we were in the kitchen and she asked why my phone cover was pink (by the way, another reason to have this referendum is the fact that I had to pretend I was buying a phone cover for a female friend in order for the shop assistant to show me any colour other than black). I laughed it off and told her that long ago, blue and green were considered girls’ colours and pink and red were considered manly colours. I could see my mother stiffening up and turning around to interrupt. I had obviously gone too far. I changed the subject. While a future boyfriend/husband of mine (LOL, like I’ll ever have one) could conceivably be introduced to my parents and siblings, I can’t imagine the same applying to the children.
My family love me. But they love Jesus too. And the “Yes campaign” was beautiful and glorious, but it did not reflect my reality. It made me sad. It told me that my parents don’t really love me. Time and again, it attacked my family. And it had to. And it’s good that it did. It’s good for the country. It nearly killed me.
I knew the referendum would be tough. I had no intention of staying at home on the days of the vote and of the count. As I have a vote in Dublin as well as one in Cork, it didn’t matter where I was on the day of the referendum.
On Thursday morning at 5:00 am, I got a phone call from my mother. She was ringing from her bedroom. She couldn’t wake my dad up. He was flailing around and making funny noises, but neither of us could wake him or get any sense out of him. It was terrifying. We rang an ambulance. While my mother got dressed in the bathroom, I sat with my dad, trying to make sure he didn’t fall out of bed. All I could think while I was sitting there waiting for the ambulance was what a bad son I was. I had avoided spending time with them for the past few weeks. I couldn’t stand being in the same room if the referendum was being talked about on the radio or the television. And it always was being discussed.
They went to hospital and he’s absolutely fine now, but obviously I couldn’t go running off to Dublin. I stayed in Cork for the vote and the results. And felt absolutely sickened by the whole thing. I literally was physically sick with the stress of it. While the country exploded with emotion and joy, I sat in my bedroom, watching the results on TV with my headphones in, feeling numb, and feeling exhausted. Everyone else in Ireland seemed to be crying with happiness and I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel anything other than anxiety.
About 50% of the people in my life think I should spend more time at home. That my parents won’t be around forever. That family is important. That family love is real. That it’s my duty. That I’ll regret it if I don’t. About 50% of the people in my life think I should spend less time at home. That I should go away and be fabulously gay and free far away. I’ve had two different psychologists tell me to spend less time with my family, and one who repeatedly recommended that I move abroad for good. I keep walking the line between the two. Because there isn’t a right answer.
At 8:00 last night, my parents were leaving for Mass. The community has a private 2-hour mass every Saturday night. I still remember the mournful feeling when we “lost” the referendum on divorce in 1995, and everyone was depressed at how people were deserting God and deserting their families. I imagine the feeling last night was something similar. I know we didn’t mention the referendum once all day at home. I’d say it must have been the only house in Ireland yesterday where the referendum wasn’t mentioned.
I sat down to watch the Eurovision. As children, the only Saturday night of the year we’d been allowed to stay home from the community was the night of the Eurovision. As my parents pulled out of the driveway and as the Building Bridges theme song played, I started crying for the first time that day.
I’ve been re-watching Gilmore Girls. As well as being one of the funniest and most cleverly written TV shows of all time, I think it’s one of the truest representations of family too. Lorelai (the mother) loves Emily (her mother, the grandmother figure on the show) and Emily loves Lorelai. They both work to make things OK between them and they survive, but it’s never really OK. Some things just never are really OK. And good intentions don’t make a difference. That’s life.