(Sing if you’re) Glad to be Voting Yes to Marriage Equality

I’ve been listening to this song a lot in the last week, pretty much any time a ‘No’ campaigner makes one of those comments that feels like a punch in the chest. Loudly singing along not only provides an outlet for unproductive rage, it’s also a valuable reminder of the historical context in which this campaign is taking place.

This is an exhilarating time to be an LGBT person in Ireland. After decades of exclusion, for the first time ever we have the opportunity to reach out to our families and communities, to share our pride in who we are and, together, to stand for a better future and a warmer, more accepting Ireland.

Unfortunately, a month out from the marriage referendum, I think the joy is fading from the ‘Yes’ campaign. I’m not surprised. As May 22nd draws closer, our opponents voices are getting harsher. And as ‘No’ campaigners ask ever more insidious questions as to whether we are abnormal, anti-social, or threatening to children, we are forbidden to defend ourselves with a simple truth: that those who oppose equality for LGBT people are homophobic.

Fifteen months ago, by threatening legal action against RTÉ and Rory O’Neill, members of Ireland’s extreme conservative establishment sent a clear warning to LGBT people and their allies: you are not entitled to the phrase homophobia, you are not entitled to your anger, you are not entitled to speak, or live, your truth. This has been endlessly reiterated since, most recently in the attack that’s been launched against Joe Caslin’s mural on George’s Street. The message, again, is clear: gay people should stay quiet and stop taking up space.

The worst thing is, I think they’ve gotten away with it. As LGBT campaigners we have allowed ourselves to be intimidated, we are running a campaign whose first goal is not to step on anyone’s toes. Terrified by the prospect of losing the support of the “soft middle”, the campaign has become about smiling nicely, saying unthreatening things about love, not being too flamboyant and not, under any circumstances, expressing anger against what Mary McAleese calls “the architecture of homophobia”.

To paraphrase Panti herself, instead of striving to be the being the best gays possible, we’re checking ourselves, trying not to “give the gay away”. And to me, that feels oppressive. What’s more, it loses sight of the concept that has, for nearly half a century, been at the heart of queer politics — Pride.

Right now, all the talk seems to be about what will happen if we lose the soft middle and, as a result, the referendum. But why not turn that on its head? If we convince ordinary, decent voters with an inspiring vision of the society we’re trying to create, we’re looking at a huge victory, a loud and clear statement that — just two decades after homosexuality was decriminalised — shame no longer has a place in our families, our communities, our politics or our society.

There has, rightly, been a lot of focus on today’s young LGBT people and on future generations of children who deserve to know love and acceptance. However, we also speak for another silent demographic, the generations of gay people for whom leaving the closet was never an option, the people driven from the country by violence, hatred and criminalisation, and the hundreds of gay men who should be with us today but fell victim to the AIDS epidemic, often stigmatised by their communities and left to die in isolation.

For me, and for many young gay people, that past is almost unimaginable, but its legacy continues. Just as future generations deserve our hope and our support, past generations deserve our anger and our pride. This is a fight, between silence and speech, between hatred and love, between shame and pride and, in the most severe cases, between life and death.

We have one month left. Let’s make it a party.

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Votes for Women

I read this article in the Guardian this morning, arguing that despite her virulent intolerance, Michele Bachmann’s candidacy might still be good for women. It got me thinking about today’s Presidential election and the by-election in my constituency, Dublin West. Women are grossly disadvantaged in Irish politics, both in the houses of government and on ballot papers. Fact. That has significant negative impacts on the political system; it facilitates group-think, perpetuates Ireland’s old-boy politics, undermines progress on issues which primarily affect women and harms the body politic overall. Accordingly, I feel a responsibility to support female candidates and, even if only through increasing their vote-share, to tell parties that it’s worth their while to nominate female candidates.

I don’t just vote for women as a symbolic gesture, I think greater female representation will bring a substantive change, even in the big centrist and conservative parties. Voting for women puts people in the Dáil who know the experience of pregnancy, who know the fear that comes with walking alone at night, who have experienced the petty exclusions – not being invited for pints or a golf game and the severe exclusions – not having their family lives facilitated by their employers and not being paid as much as their male counterparts. If you’ve experienced these things it’s very difficult to shut them out of your consciousness, or to allow discussion of those issues to be shut out of the political system. A critical mass of female voices will change our political culture.

However, we’re currently faced with the infuriating dilemma of voting for women or policy (that is, in constituencies where any women make it on to the ballot). In the Dublin West by-election, for instance, there are two women Ruth Coppinger (Socialist) and Eithne Loftus (FG). As I’ve said, I want more women in office but I definitely don’t want more Fine Gaelers or Socialists (in the current climate, I’m generally quite socialist-friendly). Yet I have to decide between candidates who don’t represent my ideals, and candidates who don’t fully understand my experience, or certainly haven’t behaved in a manner that suggests they do.

So, what’s the responsible way to vote? Lest I be attacked, I do think that all other things being equal, policy should be the primary decider. So in this election I’d give priority to Labour and the wonderful Green candidate, although they’re both male. That said, in the General Election the order in which I ranked those parties was reversed, because policy and gender happily coalesce in Joan Burton (and as the constituency kindly confirmed, she was clearly the strongest candidate in the field.) If I agree with two candidates gender will tip the balance.

Further down the ballot when there’s a close call I prioritise based on gender. In that middle section of candidates I don’t agree with but don’t despise, a female Socialist comes ahead of a male independent, for instance. And down in the darkness of the double digit preferences where the centre right candidates go to die, a female Fine Gaeler will come ahead of a male Fianna Fáiler. Or, in the presidential race, Dana comes ahead of Gay Mitchell.

Women won’t necessarily get elected that way. But each vote, each transfer, is a statement of belief in the capability of female politicians. Because as I touched on here, in the course of this Presidential campaign Dana has been called stupid an awful lot more than the male candidates, undeservedly as far as I’m concerned. As for Mary Davis, I’ve heard far more about the fact that she wears red clothes than I have about her amazing work for those with intellectual disabilities.

For the last twenty one years two exceptional women have held the office of the President, and I cannot overestimate the impact they have had on me as a woman and an Irish citizen. But they are exceptions to the rule. They prove that to succeed as a woman you can’t simply be good, you have to be exceptional, you have to eclipse the field. The two female candidates in this election don’t have the vision, gravitas or intellectual force of the Marys McAleese and Robinson. That’s why they won’t win. But if you look at Paddy Power this morning they’re both at 300/1. The next candidate, Gay Mitchell, is at 66/1. As the votes are counted tomorrow they will almost certainly be the first two eliminated. Is it exclusively because they’re women? No. Is that a factor? Absolutely.

As I say, one voter giving a slightly higher preference doesn’t change the course of a national election. But each additional vote, each additional transfer is a statement of belief in female candidates. When we back the woman rather than the winner it strikes at the mockery and the insults and the dismissal with which female candidates are so often met. And maybe that’ll change something.