Go Ireland? The Real Meaning of the Marriage Victory

Apparently, rainbows broke out all over Ireland as people voted “yes” to letting queers tie the knot. It was hailed as a remarkable victory for LGBT people, not just because it was the first successful attempt to hold a popular vote on same-sex marriage across an entire country, but also because the measure won widespread support throughout Ireland from the big liberal city of Dublin to the tiniest villages boasting little more than a church and a pub.

As in the US, I’m not sure how important a marriage win is for our community at large. Because it’s possible that support for same-sex marriage is less a departure from Ireland’s entrenched conservative, Catholic values than a reflection of them. A successful trip to City Hall largely boils down to giving the happy couple the right to declare monogamy, protect inheritance, and pay less tax. What could be more traditional than that?

In fact, that’s how the global marriage equality movement has characterized itself, largely making its case by mothballing the freak flag, banishing liberation in favor of equality, and carefully removing the sex from homosexual. Most of the photos illustrating the marriage issue portray us as hand-holding milquetoasts, content with chaste kisses and changing the nappies of somebody else’s kids. Our unions are spiritual. Our new rights as abstract as citizenship.

A Dyke Abroad

So far, this right to bear boutonnieres hasn’t made much difference to queer lives in the flesh, in the street. We’re still getting bashed outside our own bars and bullied in the locker rooms. Queer kids are getting kicked out of their own homes. Pervasive social change is still a distant promise.

Nevertheless, some members of Ireland’s Labour Party are interpreting the victory there as a sign it’s time to improve the country’s strict anti-abortion laws. First on the agenda is repealing the 1983 constitutional amendment giving the “unborn” an explicit right to life. Second is broadening the 2013 law that allows abortion only when a woman’s on the verge of death or suicide.

Currently, unless they have the means to get abortions abroad, Irish women are forced to bear unwanted children, even in cases of rape or when the fetus won’t survive past birth. If you have an illegal abortion, you face up to 14 years in jail. Even women who qualify for an abortion under the 2013 law can’t always get them. Every year it seems there are cases of suicidal girls forced to carry a kid to term. Last year, a brain-dead woman was actually kept alive as a human incubator in an attempt to save a fetus.

Women just don’t count for much, there or anywhere. We lack dignity both in life and death. Which is the biggest problem when you try to look to marriage equality as a predictor of the abortion fight. Men (and women) are winning rights in the first case. The second is all about females. And what are we but our bodies and our flesh? Especially when it comes to abortion and there’s no denying that at some point a penis came into contact with a vagina, or at least a sperm met up with an egg, and the result is growing there in a female belly.

If somebody insists on finding a queer comparison, a canary to sing about the end of Patriarchy, a better predictor would be the fate of trans and genderqueer people. What happens to our girly boys and masculine girls when they dare step outside or into that rigid box of gender? The way we challenge expectations of bodies and control intersects more closely to issues of abortion and reproductive freedom than the question of marriage equality ever could.

And the state of the trans Irish nation doesn’t give us much encouragement for an abortion fight. At the moment, trans people can legally change their names, but still not their genders. The Gender Recognition Bill currently in the works contains regressive medical certification requirements and age restrictions.

A report published last year by the Transgender Equality Network Ireland showed that trans and genderqueer people paid a high price for moving beyond traditional roles. The verbal harassment is endless. One person said, “Every day [I’m] called a ‘tranny,’ ‘lezzer,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘it’s a man,’ 10 to 20 times a day every day in Dublin.”

Trans people are attacked in bathrooms, on the street. In one of the worst cases of late, an 18-year-old was beaten, chased, and raped for being a trans man. Like other trans victims and the average woman — gay, straight, bi, trans — he didn’t trust the police enough to report it. United in humiliation and fear, we have more in common than we think. Éirinn go Brách.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.