Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Dialectics of Sex - Ireland's Gay Marriage Referendum and its Fallout

On May 22 last, two referendums and a by-election were held in Ireland.  The referendums were on amendments to the Constitution; the by-election was in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, in the south midlands.

The major referendum was on gay marriage, and when the motion to permit same-sex marriage was put to the voters, it was carried by a 62%/38% majority.  I did not vote.

I disavowed the vote, because the campaign at its conclusion seemed to be almost hysterical in its all-encompassing fervour for the Yes vote, and I realised that voting Yes (the only way I would have voted) would have felt like bowing to a kind of browbeating.  But also the question itself seems very considerably a conservative one.   I find it hard to see the progressive content in a move which opens to gay people the opportunity to sanctify their relationships in the terms of the state and the law.  It's not clear to me why anyone would want to seek the recognition of the state to legitimate their love for another person.

I have to admit that there are problems in my position, and I am not fully comfortable in it.  Once we've admitted the discourse or the realm of rights, gay people must be entitled to equal rights with everyone else - unquestionably.  The constitutional recognition of the right of gay people to marry will bring happiness and benefits - in regard to medical rights, inheritance, taxation and many other areas.  But in the end, this seems to me a version of Marcusean 'repressive tolerance', a recognition of the right of gay people as individuals to be members of the Irish political mainstream, and so to be conservative with everyone else.  It confers what a friend of mine, quoting Nancy Fraser's Hegelian idiom, called recognition without redistribution - it's an improvement in social conditions at the level of discourse and individual rights, but with very little purchase at any other level.

The success of the Yes campaign has also been accompanied by hysteria - public emotion of what seems a synthetic kind.  Liberals have allowed themselves a huge amount of self-congratulation.  The most important liberal intellectual in the country, who these days seems to spend a lot of time out of the country, Fintan O'Toole (a columnist with the Irish Times, partly-resident for some time now at Princeton University) permitted himself a ludicrous paean to Ireland's having surpassed mere tolerance.  Within the terms of the dominant simplistic model of Irish 'modernisation', the Yes vote is a huge victory: it represents, in this view, the most profound rejection of tradition, of the Catholic Church, of old social and political mores, of old modes of political organisation and campaigning.  Opinion polls under discussion on RTE Radio One this evening suggest what is being called a 'gay bounce' in the ratings of the government.  The tourist economy eagerly anticipates the advent of the pink market.  Another friend pointed out to me how the Labour Party produced posters for the campaign which simply advocated a vote 'for equality'.  But the campaign, and now its victory, has swollen rhetorically, seeming to monopolize the field of understandings of 'equality', rudely shouldering aside minor matters such as economic equality, class equality, equality of access to what ought to be public goods such as education, culture and health services.

The euphoria belies the complexity of the situation.  The second referendum concerned a reduction in the permitted age of candidates for the presidency from 35 to 21 years.  This amendment to the constitution was rejected as emphatically as the idea of gay marriage was endorsed.  This, despite the alleged importance of a youth vote to the success of the latter.  In Carlow-Kilkenny, the by-election was won by Fianna Fail, with candidate Bobby Aylward returned to the Dail - Fianna Fail's first by-election victory since its wipe-out in the 2011 general election.

So here we have a properly overdetermined political conjuncture.  In Carlow-Kilkenny, voters said Yes to gay marriage, No to younger people being permitted to run for the presidency, and voted into the Dail a middle-aged veteran backwoods member of the political party which destroyed the economy.  In the light of this three-way complexity, much delight in progress seems possibly unwise.

I am posting here two essays from Jacobin, on the Irish referendum on gay marriage.  The referendum, and its result - the first time any nation-state has endorsed gay union in a general poll - has attracted international attention.  The essays reflect some of the complexity of the questions the referendum brings up.

From Gay Power to Gay Rights 


Ireland’s Break with Tradition



1 comment:

  1. I cannot resist to comment on this post.

    With all respect to the author's opinion, I would insist on the simple idea of importance of equal opportunities for all. I believe the right of gay people to marry will be the norm in the future, just like we take our right to vote almost for granted these days. From looking at law as an instrument of social change, the referendum was quite significant as to legalise something that would be an impossible to imagine twenty years ago. It reflected the apparent change in Irish society and that is what law is about - to regulate social relationships as they develop with time.

    Having said that, I would say this was quite an unexpected outcome. Personally I do not believe that many people, even those who voted yes, are comfortable deep down with the idea of gay couples being socially visible as to walking down the aisle or adopting children. Our society at the individual level is still quite prejudiced and yet, thanks to the public referendum, we witness our Constitutional law running slightly ahead of full social acceptance of new form of social relationships.

    I agree with the author's observation of hysteria around the Yes campaign. I think it was well marketed and strongly based on the genuine concept of fairness set against the 'backward' stereotypes and traditional beliefs 'one man - one woman'. It was almost a shame to speak for No vote in my circles.

    I am trying to think of 'recognition without redistribution' point and the result of youth element of the referendum comes to my mind. It was badly driven by the youth activists. Should they be as aggressive as Yes to Equality campaign, arguing for the importance of opportunity for our young people, citing a few positive examples of the role of progressive youth in Irish history, we could have had another affirmative recognition of equal opportunity in our Constitution.