Ireland made history in May 2015 by becoming the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. Australia may follow suit if the Coalition keeps its commitment to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage by 2017, the yes vote wins, and subsequent legislation passes the parliament.
But as the Irish experience shows, putting a human rights issue to a national vote is a crude means of legalising same-sex marriage. It forces a historically oppressed minority to literally have to plead with the majority for access to marriage in the months prior to the vote. It also provides a platform for those opposed to misinform the public and air anti-gay views.
In the lead-up to the Irish referendum, the “no” campaigners played on the electorate’s fears about the unregulated field of surrogacy. Campaigners claimed that providing constitutional protection for same-sex marriage would lead to a corresponding right of access to surrogacy for male same-sex couples, and this would be detrimental to child welfare.
This scaremongering ignored that surrogacy is mostly used by heterosexual married couples. It also ignored the plethora of evidence that same-sex couples are as capable as their heterosexual counterparts in child-rearing. And research since the 1970s has consistently shown that it is the positive familial processes, not family structures, that determines a child’s well-being and outcomes.
The “no” campaign claimed children should have both a mother and a father and should be raised by people who are genetically related to them. This was not only untrue and insulting of same-sex parents, but the “no” campaigners managed to offend adoptive parents and single-parent families along the way.
Opponents castigated progressive legislation introduced prior to the referendum to regulate adoption and parental rights for same-sex couples. The legislation had been in the works since January 2014 and had been scrutinised by experts prior to its passage through parliament to ensure that it complied with international best practice. But it was claimed the legislation had been “rushed through” when enacted in April 2015.
Again, homophobia reared its head – this time dressed up as a concern for democratic process.
Irish politicians had the option of legislating same-sex marriage without a referendum, just as Australian politicians currently can. The reason it was put to a popular vote in Ireland is because same-sex marriage is a political hot potato. None of Ireland’s political parties were keen to champion its introduction for fear of a backlash.
Referenda are extremely risky ventures. Placing the rights of a minority group in the hands of the majority seems almost ludicrous. A sizeable number of the electorate could simply vote against same-sex marriage without being properly informed in the way elected politicians would usually be when legislating.
The well-co-ordinated Irish “yes” campaign literally had its members knocking on doors throughout the country. Gay and lesbian people were reduced to “begging” for Irish society’s approval of their most intimate relationships. Nonetheless, nothing could be left to chance in a country where, as recently as 2011, 84% of the population still identified as Catholic.
Despite favourable opinion polls, there was great uncertainty about the possible outcome until voting day. The previous referendum, the Children’s Referendum in November 2012, saw a mere 33.49% of the Irish electorate cast their votes.
Referenda on controversial social issues in Ireland can also have unexpected outcomes. The first divorce referendum failed in 1986 and the second divorce referendum in 1995 was only successful by a tiny margin of 51% to 49%.
Concern about voter turnout proved unfounded: more than 60% of the people cast a vote, among the highest in Ireland’s history. Young and working-class voters came out in force to show solidarity with the gay community.
The final result saw 1,201,607 votes to allow constitutional protection for same-sex marriage, with 734,300 votes against. The “yes” campaign had a very comfortable margin of 62.07% to 37.93%.
But while ultimately effective, Ireland’s referendum was crude and uncertain. Homophobia masqueraded as concern for children’s welfare and anti-gay views were widely shared for many months before the referendum.
One can only imagine the effect the misinformation and scaremongering had on gay citizens, let along the profound sense of rejection they would have felt if the majority had voted against the proposal.
If Australia decides to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, it should take note of the Irish experience – and not just the successful result there.