.@UN chief Ban Ki-moon hails result of Irish referendum on marriage equality #IrelandsaidYES #MarRef pic.twitter.com/DvfcMMlSbw— UN Free & Equal (@free_equal) May 24, 2015
Of all the commentary I've read now that the Irish have voted overwhelmingly for LGBT equality, Fintan O'Toole's in The Irish Times today stands out. It's one of those essays that manage to be so on point that it's difficult for me to select any one piece of it to suggest to you why you'd be well-advised to read the entire statement. The thematic focus of O'Toole's reflections: in yesterday's referendum results, Ireland has left tolerance behind:
Tolerance is what "we" extend, in our gracious goodness, to "them". It's about saying "You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us".
The resounding Yes is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind. It’s saying that there’s no "them" anymore. LGBT people are us — our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbours and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.
And there's also this:
It looks like LGBT people finally coming out of the closet. But actually it’s more than that: it’s Ireland coming out to itself. We had a furtive, anxious hidden self of optimism and decency, a self long clouded by hypocrisy and abstraction and held in check by fear. On Friday, this Ireland stopped being afraid of itself. The No campaign was all about fear — the fear that change could have only one vehicle (the handcart) and one destination (hell). And this time, it didn’t work. Paranoia and pessimism lost out big time to the confident, hopeful, self-belief that Irish people have hidden from themselves for too long.
O'Toole concludes that, through its willingness to make an unambiguous statement about human rights regarding what many (liberal as well as conservative) people want to regard as a "marginal" issue, Irish democracy has proven its strength in a way that may well inspire other nations to take similar steps:
Finally, it looks like a defeat for religious conservatives. But nobody has been defeated. Nobody has been diminished. Irish people comprehensively rejected the notion that our republic is a zero sum game, that what is given to one must be taken from another. Everybody gains from equality — even those who didn’t think they wanted it. Over time, those who are in a minority on this issue will come to appreciate the value of living in a pluralist democracy in which minorities are respected.
By pushing forward on what only recently seemed a marginal issue, the LGBT community has given all of Irish democracy one of its greatest days. It has given our battered republic a new sense of engagement, a new confidence, an expanded sense of possibility.
As he says at the start of his essay,
It looks extraordinary – little Ireland becoming the first country in the world to support same sex marriage by direct popular vote. But actually it's about the ordinary. Ireland has redefined what it means to be an ordinary human being.
We've made it clear to the world that there is a new normal — that "ordinary" is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life.
As Mark Silk notes, it's possible (it's entirely plausible) to read the results of the Irish referendum as all about "Catholicism, understood as a religious culture rather than as a set of official doctrines." Irish Catholicism has been centered on a strong notion of family that values inclusivity in a way the middle-class nuclear family concept of American culture, and of much of American Christianity, does not value inclusivity or solidarity with, well, everyone.
And so this assertion of authentic Catholic values — the assertion of the value of family that includes everyone — by the Irish people in their referendum may well prove a model that inspires other cultures to do something similar. Those other cultures may include Australia, which has lagged behind when it comes to the question of including and affirming LGBT people, as many commentators are now noting in the wake of the Irish referendum. They may also include the U.S., as Mark Silk concludes:
The Irish vote will resonate around the world, and perhaps even ring a bell with the two Irish Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy, who represent the swing votes on next month’s decision to determine whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to be married in the United States. For the vote is not just about which way the winds of public opinion are blowing. It’s also about the spirituality of marriage equality.
I think he's right about that.
(My sincere thanks to Chris Morley for the link to Fintan O'Toole's commentary, and for so many valuable reports in the comments section of this blog.)