The most striking thing following the Irish referendum on gay marriage is how few people are talking about gay marriage. Amid the near-global cheering that greeted the vote in favour of instituting gay marriage, there was barely any commentary on the institution of gay marriage. Sure, there was a handful of on-air marriage proposals in Dublin as the news cameras rolled, and the tailend of a BBC TV report informed us when the first gay marriages in Ireland would take place (Autumn). But given that this referendum was all about opening up a social institution to which gays had apparently been brutally denied entry, the lack of post-referendum talk about actual marriage was remarkable.
Instead of saying ‘We can finally get married’, the most common response to the referendum result from both the leaders of the Yes campaign and their considerable army of supporters in the media and political classes has been: ‘Gays have finally been validated.’ Across the spectrum, from the drag queens who led the Yes lobby to the right-wing politicians who backed them, all the talk was of ‘recognition’, not marriage. Ireland’s deputy PM Joan Burton said the Yes vote was about ‘acceptance in your own country’. Writing in the Irish Examiner, a psychotherapist said ‘the referendum was about more than marriage equality… it was about validation and full acceptance [of gay people]’. (Tellingly, Ireland’s psychotherapy industry played a key role in backing the Yes campaign.) PM Enda Kenny also said the referendum was about more than marriage — it was a question of gay people’s ‘fragile and deeply personal hopes [being] realised’. Or in the words of novelist Joseph O’Connor, the Yes vote was an act of ‘societal empathy’ with a section of the population.
The official Yes campaign went so far as to describe the Yes victory as a boost for the health and wellbeing of all Irish citizens, especially gay ones. A spokesperson said ‘the effect of legal equality goes beyond the letter of the law… it enters our daily lives and our interaction with others’. In ‘embracing’ gay people, Ireland had ‘improv[ed] the health and wellbeing of all our citizens’. In short, the Yes result made people feel good. A writer for the Irish Times described his gay friends’ pre-referendum ‘nagging shadow’, a ‘feeling that [they are] less somehow’, and he claimed the Yes victory finally confirmed for them that they now enjoy society’s ‘support, kindness and respect’. Fintan O’Toole said the Yes victory was about making gays feel ‘fully acknowledged’.
And you thought it was about marriage? How wrong you were. All the commentary on how the referendum was ‘about more than marriage’, how it went ‘beyond the letter of the law’ to touch on something deeper, something psychic, confirms that the campaign for gay marriage is not about achieving social equality — no, it’s about securing parity of esteem, which is very different. The march of gay marriage has a stronger relationship with the new culture of therapy, and the need for recognition, than it does with the more longstanding ideal of legal equality and the need for rights. What is being sought here is not really the right to marry but rather social and cultural validation of one’s lifestyle — ‘societal empathy’ — particularly from the state. What we have witnessed in Ireland is not a new dawn of social equality but the further entrenchment of the value of cultural equality, and this is far from positive.
Ireland’s focus on recognition rather than rights, and the celebration of gay marriage as a means of validating gay people’s sense of worth, echoes the discussion about gay marriage in nations across the West. Time and again, the language used has been that of therapy rather than autonomy. In her excellent 2004 essay ‘The liberal case against gay marriage’, Susan M Shell noted the way that early agitators for gay marriage seemed to be primarily concerned with ‘relieving adult anxiety’, what some of them referred to as their ‘elemental fear’ of not being ‘valued’ (1). Activists spoke of how ‘the lack of legal recognition [for our relationships] rankled more and more’. In the words of the authors of The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage (2007), activists primarily want ‘the sanction of the state for our intimate relationships’. This search for state sanction, for external recognition, has been echoed in the response to the Irish referendum. ‘My country has acknowledged that we exist’, said a gay Irish businessman.