Standing up, being counted in Ireland


On May 24th Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. Photo: Jensen Byrne

I had no idea how much a 'Yes' vote would change how I see myself, when Ireland went to the polls in May this year to decide on civil marriage for LGBTI people.

I am an Irish trans person and a UN Volunteer working on LGBTI Human Rights with UNDP. Relationship recognition and equality of civil rights is one of the aspects of LGBTI human rights that I work on.

Before I left Ireland in March, I knew that I would be unable to vote in the referendum. Ireland currently has no system in place for overseas voters.  As a result I felt a helpless frustration as the debate about my future unfolded online.

Watching people dissect your value and equality as a human being, your capacity to love and the depth of your romantic relationships takes a psychological and emotional toll. For me and my friends this was the first time in our lives that LGBTI identities were so thoroughly discussed in public.

There is something inherently offensive about having your identity debated across media outlets. The concept of having your civil rights validated by popular vote is not a comfortable one. I felt that if I did not cast my vote and there was a 'No' vote, that I would be haunted by my inaction. In the shadow of that date I reached a tipping point inside myself.

I had to go home and vote.

On May 20th I boarded a flight, worried about how I would feel returning if the referendum voted no. This was a tangible fear. But there was also a mild current of hope that I tried not to dwell on. I was afraid that if I did, a defeat would be even more devastating.

Sixteen hours later I arrived in Dublin. Home. And I wasn't the only one. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of overseas citizens returned home to vote. #Hometovote trended on Twitter with over 72k mentions in 24 hours. Citizens travelled from as far afield as Namibia, Thailand and Canada and flights to Ireland sold out. Those returning were joined by the 100,000+  primarily young and first-time voters registered  as part of a drive spearheaded by marriage equality campaigners.

This represents the most successful drive for youth political engagement that Ireland has ever seen. Young voters under 35 represented more than a third of those in favour of a 'Yes' vote but have traditionally been the demographic least inclined to vote. This time they voted in droves.

However, a vital part of a 'Yes' vote would have to be carried by those over 35. It would have to be carried by our parents, grandparents, family and neighbours. We had to convince those on the fence of our common humanity. Visibility, not rhetoric, would win this vote.

LGBTI people and their allies started a 'Call your Granny' movement where people called their elderly relatives and spoke to them about the upcoming vote and what a 'Yes' would mean to them. For many it was the first time they had discussed their sexual orientation or gender identity with a grandparent.

My grandparents all passed when I was young, but my parents are both in their 60’s. My mother, a quiet woman who, while accepting, never spoke about LGBTI issues, broached the topic with friends and acquaintances. She spoke to a friend, my neighbour, who had reservations. She said to her "You never know who your children or grandchildren will be, don't make that assumption now. You might regret it later. Vote with that in mind."

The parents and relatives of thousands of others with LGBTI children did the same. I believe this made all the difference.
We were seen, we were counted...and in the end we were valued.  

On the morning of May 23rd, the Irish LGBTI population and their allies woke and waited in nervous dread and anticipation for the referendum results. I spent the day in the garden of my friend's house, where ten of us sat in the sunshine listening to the radio.

By the afternoon prominent 'No' campaigners were conceding defeat as ballot box after ballot box showed a prominent 'Yes' vote across the country. At 7:00pm the official results were released. The marriage equality referendum had passed by 62%.  My small Irish state had become the first in the world to extend civil marriage rights to LGBTI people by popular vote. And with those steps, from their home to the polling station, a majority of Irish voters helped to heal some of the hurt many of us growing up LGBTI in Ireland have endured.

I felt a sense of calm. Like a weight I didn't realise I was carrying had been lifted. And Ireland, the country which holds my family, my house and the majority of my friends...finally feels like a place called 'home'.

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