“I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” – these ten simple words spoken by US President Barack Obama recently have reverberated around the world and provided a watershed moment in the evolution of civil rights for lesbians and gay men.
President Obama’s message sent out a very strong signal of inclusion, of value, and of support to lesbian and gay people everywhere and in particular to young gay people.
The New York Times wrote how many people consider same-sex marriage as “the last civil rights movement,” and that the President’s endorsement was a recognition that “the forces of history appear to be changing.” Mr Obama’s support provides “the most powerful evidence to date of how rapidly views are moving on an issue that was politically toxic just five years ago,” it continued.
President Obama spoke of the evolution of his thinking on civil marriage for gay couples. There has been a parallel rapid evolution here and Ireland has made huge progress in evolving towards civil marriage for same-sex couples.
‘Civil partnership was the stepping stone towards same-sex marriage…’
For Ireland to move to marriage now is not a massive legislative leap; it is an incremental step building on the powerful 2011 Civil Partnership legislation. With the singular exception of parenting (where reform is urgently needed), civil partnership provides almost all of the responsibilities and rights of civil marriage.
Ironically, our civil partnership legislation provides more rights than US state-based civil marriage because the latter cannot include federal rights in critical areas such as immigration, tax and health benefits.
In nearly all other countries that now have civil marriage, it was on the basis of civil partnership providing the ‘stepping stone’.
Support for civil marriage has grown, with the latest opinion poll by Red C showing that 73% of Irish voters support civil marriage for same sex-couples. There is already all-party consensus on the issue with Fianna Fáil most recently voting in favour of civil marriage for all. Fine Gael took similar steps at its recent Ard-Fheis.
Equally the introduction of Civil Partnership in April last year has had a transformative effect on social attitudes and the status of gay people in our society. In the nine months from April 2011 to the end of the year, more than 500 couples went to their Registry Offices in all counties and before the Registrar solemnly affirmed their love and commitment to one another. Interestingly, this figure includes people from Ireland and 58 other countries.
These legal commitments are then followed by joyful wedding celebrations where family, friends, colleagues and neighbours give their affirmation of the profound legal commitment the couple have just given to one another.
I would suggest that the people of Ireland have spoken in this open hearted welcoming of civil partnerships, and are saying we are entitled to marry. All those lesbian and gay couples who have publicly celebrated their civil partnerships have brought the day of civil marriages much, much closer.
The right to marry is a fundamental human right
The Government-appointed Colley Group, of which Eoin Collins of GLEN was a member, recommended as far back as 2006 that civil marriage for same-sex couples was the ultimate equality option. Their report makes the powerful point that:
The introduction of civil marriage for same – sex couples would achieve equality of status with opposite sex couples and such recognition that would underpin a wider equality for gay and lesbian people
For example, the introduction of full Constitutional equality would be another great signal and support for young people who are coming out – perhaps feeling isolated and vulnerable to bullying in school – that this State says that they are equally cherished under our Constitution.
The right to marry is a fundamental human right as set out in the UN Charter of Human Rights and other human rights treaties. The fact that our Constitution and its provisions relating to marriage have to date been interpreted by the Courts to exclude same-sex couples from this fundamental human right is deeply regrettable.
Most recently, the High Court in 2006 rejected Senator Katherine Zappone and Anna Louise Gilligan’s case to have their Canadian marriage recognised here. The judge quoted legal precedent that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. The appeal will be held in the Supreme Court later in June.
While such a Constitutional barrier is in force, lesbians and gay men will not have full equality under our Constitution.
In a democratic republic based on equal citizenship, civil marriage should be open to all citizens, including lesbians and gay men.
* Kieran Rose is the Chair of GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network.