• Yes supporters react at Dublin castle, Ireland, Saturday, May 23, 2015. (AP)Source: AP
"In an attempt to defeat the plebiscite we’ve rewritten the history of the Irish Referendum, making it out to be an awful event that hurt the Irish population deeply. We must stop doing so," writes Simon Copland.
Simon Copland

2 Nov 2016 - 1:59 PM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2016 - 1:59 PM

When Ireland voted for marriage equality in May last year, the scenes were jubilant. There were parties in the streets, with people around the world basking in the glow of the first ever national vote in favour of marriage equality. The impact was felt around the world, furthering momentum for same-sex marriage, in particular in Australia.

This story, however, is very different to the one presented to us today. In the fight against the Australian plebiscite for marriage equality, many have turned on the Irish referendum, working hard to paint the vote as being terrible for queer people. Over the weekend, for example, Just Equal released a video to show the ‘true cost’ of the referendum—a true cost of severe emotional distress.

In an attempt to defeat the plebiscite we’ve rewritten the history of the Irish Referendum, making it out to be an awful event that hurt the Irish population deeply. We must stop doing so.

I do acknowledge, of course, that the Referendum must have been difficult for many in the Irish community. The stories told in the video are genuine, and difficult to hear. But the way Australian campaigners have used these stories has completely rewritten the history of vote, trashing what was an extremely momentous moment.

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This rewriting of history is based on what can only be described as biased research on the impacts of the Irish Referendum. Early this month, anti-plebiscite campaigners released the first ever research on the psychological impacts of the Irish vote, showing, naturally, that the No Campaign resulted in significant distress for Irish queer people. The research, however, was deeply flawed. In particular, the questionnaire focused solely on the No Campaign, priming participants to think only about the negatives of the vote and to ignore the many positives. As Tad Tietze argues: “This is a classic method of getting the results you want, not only by asking questions that only consider one side of an experience and only negative emotions and impacts, but also in pulling the attention of those surveyed only to those negatives.” 

This negative focus peddled by Australian campaigners directly contradicts the real positives of the vote. The book Ireland Says Yes, for example - which goes into the details of the victory - talks about an extremely positive “Yes” campaign based on a philosophy of ‘excitement and stability’. The book describes how Irish campaigners won by going door-to-door across the country, with many seeing the vote as a real opportunity to change Ireland from the ground up. 

That social change has become a reality, with long term benefits for Irish people. Research has shown there has been a massive increase in the number of young people coming out since the referendum, suggesting the vote both boosted the confidence of young queer people and made Ireland a more welcome place for Irish queers. The Referendum also created momentum for other legislative achievements, with world-leading legislation around gender identity passed only months after the marriage victory.

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Of course the Irish example is different from Australia's current situation, primarily as Ireland required a national vote for marriage equality to become a reality, where Australia does not. Yet, in attempts to win the fight against the plebiscite, we are once again ignoring the real positives a vote could have, and throwing away an important historical moment for queer people in the process.

The Irish Referendum was an extremely significant moment in the history of marriage equality, and in the queer movement in general. It is the first time a national population voted in favour of queer rights, a moment that is even more important because of the overwhelming nature of the vote in a country known for its social conservatism. It should be a point of celebration, a moment we look back on with pride. But instead, in Australia we are working hard to negate its legacy, all in an attempt to win a political fight. While that may lead to a short term victory against the plebiscite, in the longer term we will have lost a really important moment for the queer community — a moment that only comes our way every now and then.