What the marriage equality referendum meant to me

Dean takes a look at how he felt before and after the marriage equality referendum 2015

Written by Dean O'Reilly


In May of 2015, I was a fifth-year student living in a small village known as Laytown – it’s just outside of Drogheda if you know where that is. If you don’t know where either of those places are, it’s just not Dublin.

During that time, I had spent several months hearing squabble over the right for same-sex couples to get married in Ireland. Before 2015, as many of you are aware, this was not the case. Two men were not allowed to legally wed. Two women were not allowed legally wed. And that was the status quo – marriage equality was nothing more than a dream.  

But, on May 22nd, the little boy sitting in his small room in a small village known as Laytown checked the news to see that marriage equality had passed. Same-sex marriage was now legal. The status quo had been changed. “That’s so great for all of the same-sex couples; they can finally get married. That’s great news for them”, I thought. I was just so happy for all of the LGBTI+ community as they had finally been granted rights that I believed they deserved. It was so great for them. They had waited so long for this moment.

Do you see the pattern here? Nothing about the Marriage Referendum (MarRef) in 2015 felt like it was mine. I had absolutely no connection to the LGBTI+ community; of course, I knew that I was attracted to men. But let’s not talk about that. Who said that? No, not me, I’m not part of the LGBTI+ community. Wow, it’s really great that marriage equality passed for them, isn’t it?

Being underage

One of the things that played into this disconnect with MarRef was that I was unable to vote in the referendum due to my age. I was 16-years-old during the time and to be frank, I really did not care about politics. Anytime I heard anything about any vote I immediately switched off. Sure, if someone asked me my opinion on something I’d give it – but I really just did not care. I think being from outside of Dublin and growing up in an apolitical family played into that apathy. But, when we think about it, what did I have to care about?

I can’t vote in MarRef as an act of support because I’m not eighteen. I’m definitely not gay, so why should I get invested? This is not my fight, it’s not my cause, and even if it was, I can’t do anything about it.

Voting no

In Laytown, I only ever saw Vote No posters. I’m not sure if this is accurate to the distribution of Yes posters versus No posters in the area, but I personally never saw a Yes poster. It was only when I ventured outside of Laytown (Dublin, usually) when I’d get the chance to see any inkling of a Yes. It was as if the decision had already been made. People where I live were going to Vote No.

I never really allowed myself to think about what the result was going to be. I was hoping that it would be a majority Yes, I really wanted that for the LGBTI+ community – for them. But, it was clear to me (from posters) that the majority of people where I lived were going to be voting no.

I walked to school everyday and saw that people thought same-sex couples could never be parents. I strolled by the local church who was advocating for traditional marriage. I heard people in school jeer at same-sex couples and call others ‘gay’ as an insult. I was angry that people would hold these ignorant opinions. It was awful to me that people would think so poorly of LGBTI+ people – of them.

The results

The day of the vote I stayed up all night watching news coverage and seeing opinions roll out. I knew that it was a monumental moment in Irish history. I knew that this would send a beautiful message around the world if MarRef had passed. I was hoping and hoping that it would pass; that the LGBTI+ community could finally close this chapter in their fight and continue with their lives with the rights they should have had to begin with.

I woke up the morning of the results and unlocked my phone to check to see what happened. I opened Snapchat and saw on it’s discover page that Ireland’s referendum had passed by majority. The fight had won. They did it.  

Was it just for them?

When I look back on MarRef – especially considering the position that I’m in and the activities that I’m involved with – it is codd to me that I was so disconnected.  I shudder at the idea that MarRef could have failed. Because, surprisingly, I’m gay. I’m not sure if any of you have been able to pick up on that from my apropos sarcasm, but it’s true. More than that, I’m a proud gay person. I’ve been involved in LGBTI+ activism since I started college over two years ago. I’m the Chairperson of DCU LGBTA and I’m openly gay at Enhancv, where I work.

Part of me is grateful for being disconnected because it saved me the turmoil of going through the referendum. I heard some nasty things being said, but it never felt like it was about me. In that way, I was lucky. Another part of me is just angry. Angry that I never had the chance to talk about my experience; angry at the people that came out against same-sex marriage, angry that I didn’t get to fight my fight.

When I think about MarRef now, I think about the people that were influential in breaking the status quo. The individuals who bravely got out on the streets, marched, went door-to-door, shared their experience, came home to vote and so much more. I’m so grateful that they did that. I’m so glad they did – because I couldn’t.

Looking back

There are many things in my life that I will never be able to thank people for – MarRef passing is in the top ten. I’m a post-marriage equality gay person. I have never lived in an Ireland where I couldn’t get married to the person that I love. I’ve never known an Ireland where being gay is illegal.

These are things that were not given to the LGBTI+ community – my community. These were rights that were hard fought for and hard won. It is the product of courageous work by so many queer people that decided one day that enough is enough and it is time to do something about it.

To those people, to anyone that was a part of MarRef when I couldn’t be – thank you. Thank you for giving me the freedom to be who I want to be. Thank you for creating an Ireland where I can be myself. Thank you for everything.

Today I am so proud to be one of them – one of us.

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