As many of you may have seen in the news, the Irish people voted on may 22nd, 2015, 62% in favor of a constitutional amendment that will allow people, regardless of sexual orientation to marry freely in the Republic.
This vote is a historic milestone for human rights advancement. For the first time in history, a state allowed the people to vote on equal marriage laws, and the people responded with a resounding yes, according to final polls. Rather than a legislative or judicial action, the people decided that LBGT rights are human rights, and the protections found in constitutional civil marriage should be extended to same sex couples.
The implications of this are massive. For one, it demonstrates that entire communities, across socio-economic lines believe that sexual orientation is not an acceptable reason for discrimination. This is evidenced in the Irish vote by polls stating that the “yes” party comes from a wide variety of income levels, races, ages, and education levels. The old bastions of solid no votes are dwindling as time progresses. It can be assumed that this trend is not unique to Ireland, but rather can be expanded to almost all liberal democracies, as same sex marriage is legal in 19 other nations, and more than 70% of US citizens live in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized. According to other polls, support for same sex marriage continues to rise in the Americas, East Asia, and most of Europe. Support continues to grow across wide segments of varying cultures and mindsets, which would have been unheard of a decade ago.
Another interesting development from the Irish case is the relative weakness of the moral conservatives in what is considered a very moral argument. The Roman Catholic Church continues to lose its moral dominance in much of the world, and even in its Western European stronghold, the Republic of Ireland. Studies show that in the past several decades, regular church attendance had dropped to about 18% in 2011 on the Emerald Isle. Likewise in America, church attendance and even church identification continues to dwindle since the 1980s, especially in mainline protestant churches (Mark Chaves, American Religion 2011).
Whether this is good, bad, or neither, depends on who you ask, but the fact remains that the once powerful religious institution has lost a significant portion of its social and political clout. In Ireland, they say that this affirmative vote demonstrates a better Ireland, where the church is truly separated from the state. The stigma of an intertwined church and state has long made Ireland seem as if they are the “backwater savages” of Western Europe and liberal Democracy. Many people see this as a victory for Ireland and a victory for human rights, a belief I can surely get behind.
As mentioned and analyzed in an earlier blog post, the right to marry/choose is not guaranteed anywhere in internationally accepted human rights documents. Even so, the world continues to change, and more and more people are taking action for themselves or their friends in order to end the second class citizenship that the LBGT community suffers through. It will be years and years until the international community can agree on a protective covenant on the LBGT community, largely due to the mass resistance from other regions of the world, such as the Middle East, Africa, and Permanent Security Council member – Russia. So, we cannot count on the international community at large to help, rather this issue requires a much more bottom up approach, as found in the Irish case.
I believe that the momentum is there for continued civil rights progress for the LBGT community. In regards to same sex marriage, the gears are already in motion, but still other rights remain out of reach, and the road remains perilous. In our home state, Virginia, for example, same-sex marriage laws are in place, but adoption laws, workplace discrimination laws, and others are still sorely in need of review to better protect the vulnerable LBGT community. Moreover, in the last few months, there has been a dramatic increase in the movement for Transgender rights, while young, has certainly made some significant strides in mass media and culture. The road is still full of obstacles, but the time is coming.
In the US, we await the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, which was argued April 28th, 2015, and a decision is expected in late June. In this case, the Justices argued over the institution of marriage, in that, can the justices change a millennia old definition, and who should be in charge of making those decisions on same sex marriage. The most important piece of this case comes down to: must states recognize same-sex marriage licenses, regardless of state constitution bans. If the court agrees with same sex marriage proponents, then all 50 states in the union would be required to uphold and issue same sex marriage licenses.
The future is unclear, but bright for much of the world in the realm of LBGT rights, but still this minority will suffer injustices in the form of discriminatory laws and by individuals who wish harm to the gay community for many years to come. The war is not won, only another battle, but still the historic vote in Ireland demonstrates that times are changing, and provides hope to those who still suffer and fight.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.