At the End of the Rainbow: ‘Yes Equality’ Come Again No More

BY @Jamescsn

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Reflections on the Irish same-sex marriage referendum of May last are as charming as the hoary old one about the Holy Roman Empire in that almost none have actually been reflective. Except, of course, as a parody of what a reflective piece might look like.

Barely a wet twelve hours after polls closed we were invited not to look back in anger, or deploy any of our critical faculties. An admittedly umbrella campaign led by assorted Birgitte Nyborgs (such that it was occasionally given pep talks by a puppet from RTE’s 1980s children’s programming), Yes Equality, had already elevated John Lennon lyrics to political praxis with expressions that we enjoin the scum of the far right in a renewed brotherhood of man. But it was scarcely the first time in the campaign that heterosexuals had ventriloquised us either; and more of that anon.

Sooner than interrogate the referendum process occasioned by Ireland’s overwrought constitution, or even admitting that how we inscribe ‘equality’ in the future  (or what even constitutes it) is contested terrain, most hacks were and are concerned with the replicability of its apparent ‘lesson’.

What kind of excruciating culture warrior would want to repeat it?

What incarnation of centrist ennui, for whom it was a bloodsport only needing the politesse of fair play, would want to run it all again like some statistical regression?

To make matters worse, the High Court (s)quashed predictable attempts by fringe lay litigants to nullify the referendum result in such a way as to lead to a week of wild liberal paeans about kritarchy and the righteousness of the state form.  A boat naming competition at that moment by the Irish Naval Service could very well have led to “Judgey McJudgeFace”; a Michael O’Leary owned racehorse christened “Borgen” might have attracted millions in novelty bets; Fukuyama himself might have unuttered his recantation in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, lachrymose at what we now know was the opening salvo of “Senator Zappone goes to Washington” … via a route elongated enough to qualify her for the second tier of travel expenses.

And at last, after 18 months of concealment and shadow-boxing, we glimpsed what this was all really about. At long last, as legitimacy leeches from institutions of the state every day, We, The Queers, can take a seat on the porch of this burning house and they will call it the work of their better angels.

The conventions I detest about both the politics of ‘The Gay Question’, and most of the writing on it, really are an ever-growing list, and not exclusive to the topic either. As with the broader currents of identitarian appeal in liberal democracies, the tendency is to co-opt or cultivate ‘appropriate’ minorities (or, lately, ‘appropriate women’) as adjunct to the state and as demonstrations of its benevolence in the ultimate. We are invited to believe that the state muddles through life trying to do the right thing, in a manner more redolent of Bridget Jones than say, Adolf Eichmann.

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Witness Labour’s new leader Brendan Howlin (lol) recently emphasising that these ‘soft’ or ‘social’ issues, disaggregated entirely out from a coherent political economy, will be the path his party beats back into the ‘leafy suburbs’ of Dublin. Those leafy suburbs, indeed, that were matched and often out-voted in ‘Yes’ support by less salubrious counterparts in the referendum’s final result. This was in the face of despicable concern-trolling emanating from the coalition’s gaping, moronic ingénue, Labour’s Aodháin O’Riordáin, that the fundament of our water charges movement lay in the forces of reaction ‘duping’ the working class. These pied-pipers of nebulous ‘populism’, and even ‘poujadisme’ according to another over-excited, middle-aged man, existed nowhere except as the reification of Labour’s venomous contempt for instantiated socialism.

To contemplate the dearth of good writing too which permitted matchless liberal hypocrisy to flourish during the referendum, this consisted mostly in the ‘gay’ modality of what writing there was; mirroring a confessional genre deployed for other crosses borne privately (e.g. mental illness) and which is then served up to the middle classes in weekend newspaper supplements. Notionally it’s to prick readers’ consciences, and facilitate their tourism to a place behind a velvet or hospital curtain amidst consumer testing of coffee machines and notes from wine-tasting. But likely as not it prompts them to cross themselves in thanks that they are not such perpetual victims.

Perish the thought that we might be capable of political agency; or that we might think we are not in fact the ones with the problem.

Better explanations for the embarrassing decision to name one ally organisation ‘Straight Up for Equality’ elude me. A further example is how it might always be ‘poor Ursula Halligan’ (who outed herself like some Iphigeneia at Aulis, better to appease the electorate in the final days) but never any similar expression of pity at the intrinsic disorder of emotionally stunted, wife-beating heteronormativity.

Indecent public emotional exposure has been a remarked-on morbid symptom of journalism more generally, of course.

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This is meant as no affront to those who achingly, occasionally even beautifully, reveal their ‘inner self’; but the authenticity of this writing is destabilised constantly by either the commodification or instrumentalisation inherent in most examples of it. It is frequently demeaning. Exploitative. A violation. Almost seeking to be probative of how we bleed too if you prick us. Was it indeducible without seeing the guts? Do you want for an empathetic imagination?

Which is all a roundabout way of appraising the reader of how uncomfortable I feel at resorting to it myself in order to get you to listen to me. Reminiscing on the referendum campaign with my boyfriend at the start of this year, we both were struck by our shared feeling of mortification at being suckered by the process even to the point of genuine enthusiasm for the outcome at the time. Now, that was inauthentic. We resolved that having only met each other a month or so before that, the first flush of being together as a couple in that highly charged political climate could be sooner implicated than any worrisome softening of our cynicism.

Sure enough, a lot of my fear of being singled out for homophobic abuse due to public displays of affection has returned since; while any such fear of his, never being really present in the first place, hasn’t changed either. Our lives haven’t changed. Why would they? Marriage is in origin, and nearly always in practice a propertied institution which one perforce arrives to with property for the purpose of further accumulation and inter-generational transmission of that property. Miscegenation statutes in the United States, commonly invoked as historical precedent during our referendum campaign, tellingly did not need to exist in the antebellum (before 1861). Neither of us will ever attain enough wealth so that marriage assumes its primal significance for us: and certainly how could it change what people shout at us in the street, or why they do so? The country hasn’t changed for the better. The world generally is getting worse even though there are genuinely hopeful sites of resistance organising within it that are yet to be hollowed out by parliamentarianism and its political science. We think this is important to remember.

And the personal is never not political, despite wishing it away. Bunreacht na hÉireann’s Article 41 bespeaks the (bourgeois) family being the basic constituent of a whole rotten edifice which hopes for the family to privatise social goods (yes: cooking, cleaning, child-minding, first aid, garment-mending and washing) which society will not (not cannot) afford to provide:

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Personal stories, it is incanted by our psephologists, are what carried the result of a referendum to amend Article 41 in specific (the instanced passage above remaining intact, forebodingly). Little aware how unguarded they are being; they have admitted the transactional basis of these prostrations. The proliferation of coffee-table anthologies of personal stories about the marriage referendum, rather than being a sign of Ireland getting the training wheels off (or some such other infantilising analogy that is utterly characteristic of the post-colonial dumpster fire this country is), instead leaves one cold at best and more often speechless at what is being papered over, dissolved or sunken in the process. Soothing narratives for the establishment, of amorphous good triumphing over evil are all that lie that way; and it would be more proper to be afraid of where uncritical heralding of a ‘liberation’ might lead.

Over the long duration, I predict that we will instead discern the Irish marriage referendum, in as much as it is portended already in just the 12 months since, as merely a new, hollowly emoting idiom for as much raw sewerage of bourgeois ideology as it claimed to sweep away on just one day in May.

It was not a radical reform (that being a contradiction in terms anyway) and was, and will continue to be used to set the limits of acceptable and unacceptable minority expression and civic participation in a dangerous way. It will be a template forced on all those who are othered for the prospect of their assimilation and disappearance into reactionary ur-category of ‘taxpayer’. What kind of taste does the much-fêted #hometovote leave with minorities whose right to travel is constrained by either the price of the ticket; or the colour of their skin; or their gender, or all three?

History simply will not be kind to the ‘Yes Equality moment’; or at the very least it ought not be. Astonishingly, some still speak of a ‘Yes Equality moment’ seriously as if it were either reproducible or not already a self-executing punchline.

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The cause celébre here being the tortuous assignation of that term to a never-to-be-implemented reform document published last July about Ireland’s asylum seeker detention system, by a preening junior minister whose bailiwick (then) was ‘integration’ and ‘new communities’. Taste the ideology in that bag of Skittles much? The McMahon (named for its judicial chair) report being precipitated because of direct action by asylum seekers, and which the government was only seeking to neuter; largely freezing asylum seekers out of even the deliberations on that report. O’Riordáin might be right – there are definite echoes of Yes Equality in that.

This is just at the domestic level of analysis: the day is surely not long ahead of us before a President of the United States announces s/he is bombing an orientalist caricature in the vindication of the rights of the Human Beings of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There are, just this week, flypasts by RAF fighter jets at Pride parades in one imperial core. The imperial religion pretending to Catholicism’s throne for the moment, New Atheism, has been sure to remind all us uppity homos of the homage we owe those who protect us from the History (capital ‘h’) miring the rest of the world.

I wish to itemise some of the disconcerting portents in the Irish case in due course. Indeed, the biopolitical aspect, and how ‘gay’ marriage has been a route of stealth for reinforcing and recuperating racist immigration regimes; which now have begun to pivot on the imputed testability of a Platonic form of ‘love’ (the self-same ‘love’ that emblazons Coca-Cola bottles), has been covered with tremendous lucidity by Anne Mulhall. I would only add there: did you ever hear the one about Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Services (INIS) asking for screengrabs of the nudes which a couple exchanged over Grindr at the beginning of their relationship, for verification purposes? It’s an inverse Pastor Niemoller speech where first they gave the gays civil rights; and then I spoke up very loudly that this could only be protected if we remain a White Nation.

My ambitions, as you can gather, are more limited than that magisterial article: proffering a tentative baseline to ground a new discussion that is in any way at all more nourishing than the passive-aggressive ‘advice’ delivered during the referendum campaign about ‘start(-ing) a conversation’. The latter being pregnant with the asinine zealotry of mainline liberalism that there is nothing a cup of tea and a decent debate can’t fix in the (faintly Darwinian) ‘marketplace of ideas.’

Pandering might have been (and was) one outcome of this pollyannaish fervour, but more frequently it devolved onto pompous demonstration of intellectual superiority, and tribalistic chest-beating by liberals. Pleas of mine (I was scarcely alone in it either) that the eristic parlour game being made out of my life and others for reasons of pure vanity was far worse than doing nothing, predictably went unheeded. The casuistry inherent in this stuff, so as to be held above the accusation of giving a platform to the hatred of the far-right, is comically lacking in self-awareness.

It is the thesis, in microcosm, that you could have denuded Adolf Hitler’s power by drawing funny cartoons of him, or maybe scrawling phalluses in the margins of Mein Kampf. It is the hidebound belief that the oxygen of public ridicule is antiseptic rather than publicising and emboldening; or simply making it more likely that hate speech will be read by those it will hurt the most.

Any defence of this white-knighting behaviour invariably comes to rest on the insinuation of mine and others’ ingratitude at this outlay of vigorous argumentation on our behalf. Clown noises might accompany the recitation of that Edmund Burke quotation, and I am happy to announce I remain deeply ungrateful.

In this vein, we might segue to the policing of tone, cadence and word that was endemic to the referendum campaign. Again, it is one of those portents that I discern of the referendum’s longue effect on how we will in future discuss, or even postulate the vindication of minority rights in Ireland.

Rather than being an expression of risible optimism, the statement that the marriage referendum ended homophobia in Ireland might actually be true in only the most perverse way. That is: the word itself was abolished from our discourse, by order and as corollary of the same system of law which held forth the false promise of our emancipation.

Our body politic is already injured from the recombination of this ‘abolition’ of homophobia so as to in turn deny the reality of Islamophobia. Mid-throes as we are of Atheist Ireland’s alignment with the vanguard of pan-European neo-Nazism, we can practically see the hamster wheel turning as they re-import the arguments of the referendum’s ‘No’ campaign as to why homophobia was deniable as an incoherent and ‘merely sociological’ (!) concept.

Yes, they will concede, there is a phenomenon of ‘anti-Muslim violence’; but what lurks beneath this meagre concession is that only physical violence counts, and that it is furthermore only sporadic, and will not admit of a structural explanation or, crucially, even being racialised. ‘Islamophobia’ thus is merely a device for demonising Atheists (capital ‘A’) who are critical of Islam. Substitute the words, and break out the violins, and it is all much the same bogus humanitarianism of ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’ that they excoriated the Iona Institute for 12 months hence.

How did we get here? The answer to that owes more to the discursive turns of the liberal-right than the unreconstructed conservatives of Merrion Square, actually. You don’t need me to recount here the blow-by-blow of events that began on RTÉ’s execrable Saturday Night Show in January 2014; the ‘noble call’ orated by Rory O’Neill’s alter-ego drag queen, Panti Bliss, in The Abbey within a fortnight of it either; or even to probe where the pre-emptive disbursal of blood money to litigation-addicted greasy till Catholics, apparently impugned by the chat-show appearance, ultimately wound up. It’s irrelevant to us in all but one remarkable way:  that was the precise moment, 18 months before the final poll was set, when the marriage referendum was won.

Little could have intervened to alter the outcome, nay, the wider public mood, beyond that point, and nothing, in the event, actually did. This really isn’t controversial: any analysis of say, the delicious götterdämmerung suffered by Labour in the 2016 general election will situate it in 2014 too because the chain of causality from that time is just as ineluctable. By April of 2015 I imagined myself figuratively hoarse from being the safest soothsayer shouting into the void; fulminating with mounting exasperation at the stench of defeatism all around, and insisting that unless political polling was being conducted in an extraordinarily botched way (even by its own shabby standards), that a constant twenty percent spread in a simple run-off proposition, persisting solidly over and beyond 18 months, was unassailable.

My point is this: there was space, or the luxury of a solid lead, with which to mount a genuinely radical campaign.  One that afflicted the comfortable far more than it poured oil on their tresses. We could have properly queered it, at least. The tragedy of the marriage referendum abides as much in what a missed opportunity it was, and how it danced more to the beat of the stolid Marian Finucane Show than to the street activism of say, the vast and variegated Right2Water movement.

And I would credit many agents in the latter for rousing political consciousness in working class communities (both urban and rural), and crucially doing so in an autonomous way which was singularly more responsible for the overall national result than anything Yes Equality did. Peruse the index of the windy yet slight Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How The Vote For Marriage Equality Was Won (phew), and you will get a sense of just that. It is an insider’s history, with no entries for ‘class’, ‘austerity’, ‘financial crisis’, ‘neoliberalism’, ‘troika’, ‘Jobstown’, ‘Darndale’, ‘Stoneybatter’, ‘The Liberties’ or anywhere not bounded by even-numbered postcodes. To mention any of these things would disrupt the central conceit that at 7 o’clock on the evening of 23rd May, 2015, Ireland ‘became a nation of equals’.

Mainly though, knowing this now makes much more sinister the dire instruction we took from hangers-on of the political establishment; whether seasoned backroom boys (like Noel Whelan); or doyens of the NGO/Consultancy/PR revolving-door nexus (e.g. Tiernan Brady) as to what we should do so as to secure, I repeat, a nearly inevitable referendum outcome.

Noel Whelan has been given too much attention, i.e. any at all, in consequence his vigorous self-promotion; his typically masculine insertion of himself into a national conversation (they love that phrase, don’t they) where his contribution was not sought. His advice to us, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a man frightened into rending his garments, was that to have an honest opinion, or even a word, just a word, with which to classify the oppression we experience was ‘counter-productive’ (“not helping ourselves”) and ipso facto libellous. He has since been celebrated as among the chief architects of the ‘victory’ which Yes Equality wot won.

Nobody has seen fit to take him to task for the price paid not just by LGBTQ for this but also causally, and inevitably, that exacted from Muslims in Ireland. And tomorrow it will be Travellers told that their ethnicity is a sham; And the day after tomorrow it will be women told to their faces that misogyny has been figmentary since the invention of the washing machine, whenever we do finally a get a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment of 1983.

Identically to racism and sexism, homophobia only exists on the conceptual horizon of liberalism as something to be warded off as uncouth; something above all not to be accused of, or to accuse someone else of: and especially not on the internet! Only a physically violent assault; only a Westboro Baptist Church slogan so on the nose it may as well be rhinoplasty, might be admitted to the canons of “homophobia”. Rancière’s perceptive analysis of the contrived disjuncture between racism of ‘popular passion’, which is vigorously policed so as to shield the racism of the state from scrutiny, maps across perfectly here. The liberal and the conservative, to riff on Marx, are merely two brothers at war vying for illusory distinguishability from the other.

That is where I will finish lingering on the odious figure of The Tallyman, about whom we can wonder with reasonable safety as to where he will stand when the time for picking sides comes:

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Tiernan Brady, on the other hand, and he stands for so many others as well, is much more interesting by dint of being entirely unsophisticated at concealing how he is a pet of the heteronormative regime as both outworking and supporting truss of finance capital. In September of 2015, four months after the referendum, Brady on behalf of GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) landed into the ominous-sounding “Out Leadership Summit”, in the City of London, with newly out and proud Fine Gael Health Minister, Leo Varadkar.

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Before this incarnation though he had been a Fianna Fáil apparatchik who dutifully served former minister for numerous portfolios Mary Coughlan, in a dogsbody role; she who felt sufficient urgency at an adverse equality tribunal outcome to alter a law on social benefits in 2004. As then Minister for Social and Family Affairs, she made it so that a same-sex partner of an eligible pensioner could not claim the free travel allowance on public transport in right of that relationship anymore. She later in the same year expressed that although some piecemeal reform in the area might be contemplated, Ireland would ‘never be ready’ for same-sex matrimony, or the raising of children by gay couples. Brady joined her team later on, in 2007, but mentioning self-loathing seems redundant when he was already a member of Fianna Fáil.

Go forth again to September of last year: Brady, together with the aforementioned member of the Irish government, was in London to export the distilled ‘lesson’ of Ireland’s frankenstein civil rights experiment as if it was Kerrygold Butter. The corporate firms in attendance at the event ‘pride’ themselves on leveraging the best value from their employees’ wage labour by creating a workplace environment which is accepting of their sexual orientation. They might all hope to be named a gay-friendly employer in awards schemata presided over by severally sycophantic, tory-fancying magazines that are laughably termed a ‘gay media’ in the United Kingdom.  A similar navel-gazing exercise here, The GALAS, once announced the Irish Prison Service as its ‘employer of the year’. How quaint really, given that the Irish Prison Service ‘has no policies to protect LGBT prisoners’.

We digress. Brady and Varadkar condemned themselves out of their own mouths, and let a veritable café of cats out of the bag without any help from me:

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It sort of spoils the effect to parse what Tweedledee and Tweedledum are being careful to only say while ensconced abroad with the neighbours, but indulge me an executive summary. We have the political director of an LGBT advocacy organisation admitting to censorship of LGBT voices who speak out about homophobia, and he has the temerity to be proud of this fact. Into the injury he adds the lightly gendered insult of imagining us ‘screaming’ at people. The Irish government minister, as Judy to Punch in this re-staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, applauds the job of self-censorship done by homosexuals to themselves and has the further audacity, as a man who came out only four (4) months before the referendum, to declare that LGBT are their own worst enemy. It succinctly illustrates the exact parameters of what I have poured out thousands of words already trying to convince you is in operation: the engulfing of queer existences by the sham of capitalism with Irish characteristics. Later this year, Brady informed the Irish Times while on home soil of how he is toxifying the ongoing same-sex marriage debate in Australia with his good counsel. I’m sure Aborigines, in turn, might be told they’re not helping themselves either as this new spiritual Irish empire widens its embrace in a way every bit as patronising and suffocating as the old African Missions.

You and I might have hurtful memories of what was said, and done, during the campaign; but what better nail in the coffin than to let Brady tell you what his is (from the latter Irish Times article):

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Good to have it cleared up whom encouragement is due to in of all of this: the homophobes.

That was what Yes Equality told us not to say; but what about that which they told us to say instead? I want to close out by considering the startling reproduction of patriarchal, comely heteronormativity contained in a smattering of official ‘Yes’ campaign literature. The consideration of ‘positive role models’ and telephoning grandparents vaunted by the likes of Brady and Vlad the Impaler to overseas observers, already betrays this trajectory: but I would contend that it still doesn’t prepare you for the brusqueness of the ideology. Consider one such leaflet in which rutting heterosexuals from the GAA and IRFU (notorious for its er, steroidal social conscience), and the beatific figure of an Irish mammy too, implore the reader to do the right thing in the polling booth. Another exists with much the same arrangement except for the insertion of national treasure and semi-fossilised cultivator of Elektra complexes, Gay Byrne. Between the folds, apart from his name, it is as if the gays have been put out of the good room while visitors decide whether or not to buy the house; their very existence too risky to admit to the floating voter.

That’s only the start of the trouble though. Turn over the page on either leaflet, and you are greeted with this stunning antonym of a sleight of hand:

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The Iona Institute might be apt to spit feathers that the discredited rubric of ‘family values’ is properly their province. They wouldn’t be wrong. The term cannot be emptied of its implied programme of enforcement and propagation of ‘normalcy’, to the end of a putative ‘common good’. In any event, the campaign did not seek to invert or up-end the meaning of the phrase: it was straight-up for it (yes).

The language harks, quite deliberately, word for word, to the unaltered text of Article 41 from 1937, and uncritically adopts all the predicates of a Victorian social order based on contractual relations. The basic goodness of this type of marriage is presumed, and there will be no troubling historiography ventured about where it has come from and whether it ought be ‘strengthened’ at all, rather than subverted, and ultimately swept away. Should it want for the raiment of tradition, I am suggesting nothing that was not in the 1847 edition of The Manifesto.

Let me put it another way: if one were to hear the snatch of “is a secure foundation on which society thrives” might you be sooner put in the mind of the Stonewall rioters, or instead Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove?

If the shoe fits, after all. Be rioters comrades; not lovers.

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Oireachtas Retort is a space for original and occasionally incisive commentary on the relentless torment of Irish politics. If you find any of this useful, just click the brown envelope to donate!

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