Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015: Second Stage 25 March 2015

I warmly welcome the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015, which sets out the wording of the amendment that will be put to the people in a referendum on 22 May 2015. If passed, the amendment will allow two people to enter into civil marriage without distinction as to their sex. For me this is a simple question – one of equality, fairness and civil rights. It is very important that we distinguish what is hoped will be a new right to civil marriage from that of religious marriage. Civil marriage will be a relationship between two people, irrespective of their sexual orientation that is sanctioned and licensed by the State. In the same way as religious institutions are not obliged to remarry divorced couples, they will not be forced to marry same-sex couples, should civil marriage be extended to lesbians and gay men.

I was married in the Catholic Church and I have no sense whatsoever that my marriage to my husband will be in any manner, shape or form altered or undermined by the extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples. I welcome the decision by the Association of Catholic Priests not to take a position on the same-sex marriage referendum on 22 May and its recommendation to priests not to direct parishioners to vote either “Yes” or “No”. I also welcome the Minister’s confirmation that there will be no conscience clause about which my colleagues have spoken eloquently.

This is about ensuring equality and parity of legal treatment. Comparing the census figures for 2006 and 2011 shows a 100% increase in the number of same-sex couples. The 2011 census recorded 230 same-sex couples with children. Indeed we are talking about 7% of the Irish people based on national and international surveys.

I welcome the impact the Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 will have in reforming, modernising and bringing legal clarity to many aspects of Irish family law, particularly to diverse parenting situations and diverse family forms including for the children of same-sex couples. That Bill, which we will continue to debate tomorrow, is very welcome.

I stand here in a very privileged position because I do not see this as a dramatic change. It has no impact on my life or on what I do. Along with many other people I am very supportive of the amendment. I want to be clear and unequivocal in my support. Senator Byrne was right to mention the journey. I do not know when I made a conscious decision that I supported it. For me this is very much about equality, fairness and civil rights.

As many Senators will know, my husband is Dutch and as the Minister outlined, the Dutch Parliament was the first parliament to take such a decision in 2001. I hope the Irish people will be the first to vote “Yes” in a public referendum. As I said, this vote has no impact on my life but I am very conscious that it will have a disproportionate impact on our gay and lesbian friends and that is wrong, because it is about equality. Whatever the decision, we need to ensure that it is about equality.

I want that what I have with my husband is available to my good friend, Senator Zappone, and her partner, Ann Louise Gilligan, who were married in Canada, and that before the eyes of this State all marriages are equal. It is simple. For me it is not dramatic or massive but I know the impact it will have on individual lives.

I cannot imagine what it would have been like if I had not got married in Ireland. Let us say I had got married in the Netherlands and for some reason my marriage was not recognised here. I cannot imagine what that would be like. It makes me realise the privilege I have and that is why I will certainly not only be voting “Yes”, but I will be actively campaigning for a “Yes” vote. Changes to our Constitution have legal importance but they also have an important resonance across our society and it reflects us as a society. I want to ensure we really are an equal society.

In ending I wish to quote from the Minister’s speech earlier when she said, “We will have to decide if marriage should be defined against the prism of the past or a vibrant institution embedded in the modernity of the 21st century.” I hope the people will vote “Yes”. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill to give the people an opportunity to have their say.


Statements on Free Speech, Homophobia and the Role of the State Broadcaster

February 18th, 2014. Senator Jillian Van Turnhout speaking on the issue Free Speech, Homophobia and the Role of the State Broadcaster.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank Senator Zappone for taking the initiative on this debate. Instead of focusing on a single definition of homophobia, we need to acknowledge that homophobia presents itself in a wide spectrum, ranging from violent hate crimes to far more subtle forms of discrimination.

I, too, commend Panti’s address at the Abbey Theatre on 1 February, and my colleague, Senator Mac Conghail, on using our national theatre in the way it was so rightly used for a noble call. She articulated so succinctly the impact of subtle discrimination and homophobia on a person’s psychic and mental well-being, causing them, in her words, to check themselves at the pedestrian crossing. The number of views, and the number of languages in which that video has gone around the world, shows the power that words can have.

It is very important, however, that we do not have debates about important social issues in isolation from each other. Social issues are invariably interrelated – homophobia, self-harm, suicide and suicidal ideation – and, tomorrow, we will have a debate on mental health and well-being. This is particularly true for young people and, in this context, LGBT youths. A report in 2008 was published jointly by BeLonG To, GLEN and the HSE, called Supporting LGBT Lives. That report found that 50% of LGBT youths have thought about suicide and 20% attempted suicide. LGBT young people are seven times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience mental health distress. It has also been established that young people identify their sexuality at age 12, on average, and the average age of coming out is 17. This five year period in which young people come to terms with their sexuality is vital. Living in a society where anti-gay bias exists can lead to many difficulties in this critical adolescent period.

All this demonstrates the extent to which homophobia presents in society and impacts on the individual. The survey found that 80% of LGBT people have been verbally abused because of their identity. This is simply unacceptable. LGBT people must be treated as equal citizens and we must actively work to eradicate homophobia and any type of discrimination from our society. I believe we live in a society that is obsessed by labels. We need to celebrate difference, and this can only be done through robust, open and constructive debate. I was involved in a campaign a few years ago for which the slogan was: “We need to keep labels for jars, not people”.

I, like many of my colleagues, am concerned by the speed and, indeed, indecent haste with which RTE responded to Rory O’Neill’s comments on “The Saturday Night Show”. The decision to issue compensation, an apology and a right to reply to some of those perceived to have been injured may well have been disproportionate in the absence of a legal finding of harm done, especially given that compensation was paid out of taxpayers’ money. I am also uncomfortable about the absence of commentary around the fact the presenter of the show in question prompted Rory O’Neill to identify individuals by name. I think RTE’s decision is worrying on a number of levels. I feel it has negative implications for freedom of expression and also the manner in which debates around marriage equality will be conducted in the future. We all need to accept that robust and sometimes volatile discussion will take place around sensitive issues, and we should embrace this, not censor it.

It is evident, in the aftermath of the comments debacle, that people on panels were tripping over themselves trying not to say the wrong thing. That does not bode well for healthy and open debate. The upcoming referendum on marriage equality will see many different views. We need to ensure freedom of expression remains intact at all times. We need to send a message to young people that discrimination will not be tolerated. Homophobia does exist. There are real consequences for the targets of this abuse.

It is of the utmost importance that our national broadcaster ensures open and fair debate where both sides can communicate their argument in a fair and sensible manner.