We are Determined to be Equal and Free

Speech to Green Party Convention
Dr Ann Louise Gilligan & Dr Katherine Zappone – April 2008

We are truly appreciative to have the opportunity to address the Green Party, during this historical and hopeful period for Irish society with you in Government, with you in power. Thank you for your invitation. Thank you, especially to Minister Gormley and Minister Ryan, Mary White and Trevor Seargant, for your leadership and to Ciaran Cuffe, for your persistent engagement with issues of direct relevance to our equality and freedom, and to Roderic O’Gorman for your trojan work on these matters. You will understand too that we wish to thank Damian Connon and Donal Geoghan (a former colleague of Katherine’s) for suggesting our names to speak to you this evening.

This evening we want to outline our own personal journey towards the Supreme Court by weaving together story and concept, imagination and love. We will attempt to convey that our free choice to marry one another in a legally binding manner, is not only the natural expression of our life-long being in love, it is also the result of our life-long passion for a society that is equal and free, for everyone.

Initially, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about what we mean by equality and how it relates to the principles of social justice and human freedom. This will allow any subsequent conversation to be rooted in a common language and a shared understanding.

Within the “powerful ideal of equality” in political philosophy, equality is theorised with reference to the foundational notion of the individual’s equal moral worth. In a society organised according to the principles of justice, each individual holds equal moral worth to every other individual. In today’s diverse world – and you as ecologists understand the fundamental principle of diversity for bio-sustainability – in today’s diverse world we are of equal intrinsic worth by virtue of being the human we are. Our equal worth is not dependent exclusively on capacities or characteristics that we hold in common, or, our equal worth is not simply dependent on our sameness; it is dependent also on the reality of diverse ways of being human. So, we are inherently equal to one another, in and through our differences, as well as in and through the common essence we share in our humanity. Put simply, equality will only be realised when we recognise and affirm our differences.

As you all no doubt are aware, our own Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, upholds equality in Article 40.1 when it states:

‘All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law.’

The Constitution also refers expressly to freedom in the Preamble when it outlines that the people seek ‘to promote the common good with observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual be assured.’

This appeal to the centrality of individual liberty, or freedom, requires that all persons be treated with respect and dignity as human beings. Each should be allowed to live the life of his or her own choosing. Amartya Sen – the great contemporary political philosopher and United Nations economist – re-interprets this powerful ideal of freedom by arguing that a society characterised as ‘equal’ must provide people with economic and social freedoms ‘to lead the kinds of lives we have reason to value.’ An equal society means that each of us are free to choose the lives we wish to live. In our case – as in the case of all others whose identity resides within a sexual minority – we ought to be free to live our sexual identity with integrity, and without unwarranted interference by the majority. Just as the majority – namely you who are heterosexual – are free to live your sexual identity with integrity and without interference. When we are talking about the human right to marry, in plain common language, this translates to mean that we have the right to marry the person we choose to love, that we are free to marry the person of our choice.

Are there people here tonight who are free to/or who have been free to marry the person of your choice? Are there people here who are not free? Do any of you have children? Will all of your children – presumably some of you do or will have gay children and some of you do or will have straight children – will all of your children be free to marry the person of their choice?

We did say that we would talk to you about the journey we have taken together that has brought us to this point. So, where does it begin?

It was early September. The year was 1981. The town was Boston. And one fine day on the campus of a university established to educate the Irish immigrants in the United States of America, I saw Katherine Zappone for the very first time. You might say it was providential that we met as Boston College only accepted two candidates into the doctoral programme that we each had applied for. Speaking personally, when I first met Katherine, I was surprised by love and it was very clear, very quickly that it was Katherine with whom I wished to spend the rest of my life. And clearly, the intensity of that feeling was mutual. After one year of getting to know each other and moving into live with each other, we had a ceremony of Life-Partnership. Many of our friends celebrated that extraordinary day in 1982. No family members were present. We didn’t tell them. The city of Boston didn’t know. We didn’t tell them either.

It fills us with hope in the possibility of change that today, in that same Boston, all adults – heterosexual and homosexual – have the right and are exercising the right to choose civil marriage.

Returning to our own story twenty seven years on, we have walked many paths together and we would believe that our actions for social change

in the fields of education, human rights and public policy, and especially in our work with the people of West Tallaght, have been sustained by our relationship of love for each other. It is evident that we have sought social change with and for others over the years. But finally, one day in April of 2001, we decided to seek equality and freedom for ourselves – and for those who share our sexual identity – because enough was enough.

We had lived in an Irish society for 20 years that had laws, and still has laws, had public policies, and still has public policies that negates and diminishes who we are and our lifelong love and partnership. In deciding to take the case, for example, we had to face the possibility that I could lawfully lose my job, because the current equality legislation does not protect me as a lesbian woman from such an act of direct discrimination. We live in an Irish society where the laws and policies treat us and those who share our sexual identity as ‘not normal’, and we live in an Irish society where our lifelong partnership of love is excluded from the definition of family, and all the subsequent rights and responsibilities that come with that.

Getting married for us, then, on that wonderfully sunny autumn day in British Columbia with our families present was an extraordinary, grace-filled moment of declaring our desire for life-long fidelity to each other, within a society and legal order that recognizes our normality, and celebrates our commitment.

It is this that we have brought back to Ireland – a legal recognition of our normality and a legal celebration of our public commitment, with the same rights and responsibilities to others in the married state.

And when we did come back to Ireland, as any other couple might, having been married abroad in Rome or Paris or New York or in our case, Vancouver, and sought the same treatment, rights and responsibilities, as other adult citizens of Ireland do when they return to our land. We were denied what others, every day of the year get, simply because of our sexual identities and because we chose to marry the person we love. It’s as simple as that. Discrimination and fundamental inequality in this country, right now, is as simple and blatant as that.

Any day now, our Government – you! – are going to introduce Heads of Bill for Civil Partnership. Some of you here have led that initiative, and in doing so are fulfilling your promise to ensure that issues related to gay and lesbian partnerships will be part of the programme that this Government delivers on. We acknowledge your commitment and promise-keeping.

We understand that the Bill will contain some protections and benefits for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Co-habiting couples currently do not have these protections and it is a good thing that we will eventually have law that provides these.

We want to say, though, that legislation for civil partnership will NOT contain ‘marriage-like’ benefits for same-sex couples (marriage-like benefits for human-like people as one of our friends recently quipped!) ‘Marriage-like benefits’ is distorted language. Civil partnership for same-sex couples is not marriage and will never be marriage. They will be separate institutions.

We want to say this loud and clear. Civil partnership will not give us equality and it will not give us freedom. Civil partnership – as the only option available for the legal recognition of same-sex couples – will make law that does not ameliorate the discrimination experienced by lesbian and gay men. We will not have the constitutionally-protected right to marry. Lesbians and gay men will be the only human beings without that protected right in the country. And our children will not have constitutionally protected family rights. And some of our children will not be legally acknowledged as our own.

It will not be law that provides us, then, with a ‘step towards equality’ or law that ‘provides us with the next best thing.’ It will be law that establishes a separate – and unequal institution – for second-class citizens. If we have any doubts about this, all we have to do is to cast our eyes across the water and see what has happened in the UK. As most of you know the UK passed a civil partnership act for same-sex couples in 2004, containing the rights and responsibilities as are part of English marriage. However, when two English women who married in Canada (Wilkinson and Kitzenger) sought legal recognition of their marriage in the UK, they were denied it because the judge ruled that civil partnership is there for them, and that marriage is properly reserved for heterosexuals.

Are we correct to assume that you are in agreement with our analysis? We think we must be, and we are inspired by your words “To relegate same-sex couples to some inferior marriage-like institution is to deny them their human rights, their dignity and their rights as citizens of this state.” (from your policy document on “Valuing Families”). Deputy Cuffe is quoted in the media as recently as last Sunday saying that the Green Party wants marriage for same-sex couples.

Separate institutions – with one constitutionally protected and the other not – is a modern form of segregation. As Martin Luther King said about racial segregation over 40 years ago, ‘Segregation is not only sociologically untenable and politically unsound, it is morally wrong.’ It is morally wrong. If segregation exists, we will not be free. We will not be equal. Any of you here – or any of your children or cousins or sisters or brothers or mothers or fathers who share our sexual identity – will not be free, will not be equal.

However, the very good news is that we are living in a New Ireland, freed from the mind clamps imposed by religious teachings filled with prejudice and hate.

We believe that there are parallels to be drawn between the Ireland of the mid-fifties and the Ireland of today. In the mid-fifties, with a vision led by TK Whitaker and others, a new agenda was set. This led Ireland beyond its protectionist, small-minded, insular and restrictive economic policies towards a new, confident and prosperous attitude that Ireland could hold its own as an economic entity on the world stage. Of course this vision was realised and many would say that this remains the foundation of our ongoing success.

Fifty-some years on it is our belief that we are on the cusp of a new confident stance of separation between Church and State in Ireland and wherein the State will lead an ethical agenda to ensure that the human rights of all its citizens and residents will be realised. We believe that there is a change of consciousness in Ireland today, that there is a growing lack of tolerance for intolerance, unfairness and inequality. We believe the fact that you are in Government is a signal of this huge change.

To what would we attribute this change, that there is a new demand from the people, that Ireland catches up and becomes a leader in ethics and human rights, alongside its economic success? There are at least three reasons for this change:

1) We now have a highly educated nation with three-quarters of whom are attending or have attended third level – we have one of the most educated populations in the world – people who can think for themselves;

2) because of the affluence that so many in our poppulation have enjoyed, Irish people – especially young Ireland – have travelled the world and have seen for themselves the freedoms and human rights enjoyed by other countries. On the topic of which we speak, they have witnessed thousands of lesbian and gay people married in the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, South Africa, Massachusetts and Spain, and the sky hasn’t fallen in!

3) because of the virtual reality that is now part of all our lives with blogs and bebos where Irish people today are au courant with the debates as they are happening and are participating in the debates.

Recently we were named as torchbearers for this confident and courageous vision that will not compromise on issues of equality and freedom for lesbian and gay people. But our own response to that is that we are simply representing a voice that for which there is a groundswell throughout our land at this time. Indeed, in the US the lesbian and gay movement, particularly in relation to same-sex marriage and partnership rights, is being lauded as the most effective social movement in the US at this time.

It is vital that political leaders in our state at this time do not mis-read the growth of consciousness among our people about fairness and equal rights. Anything less will sound like patronising discourse. To say that Irish people ‘are not ready for these changes’ is a patronising and out-moded language that rings untrue for an Ireland – urban or rural, young or old – in the 21st century.

This is not simply our view. We know that you are aware of the research findings of a new national poll, conducted by Landsdowne Market Research for the (relatively) newly-launched initiative MarriagEquality. This poll shows an increase in the number of people who believe that gay and lesbian people should be allowed to marry rather than just form civil partnerships, as currently proposed by the government. This poll shows that 58% of people are of the view that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry in a registry office – as compared with 51% in 2006.

The numbers are with us. The ethics are with us. The New Ireland is with us. We do not believe in leaving anyone behind. With ‘incremental steps’ we will still live in a land where we are not free, we are not equal. Lack of movement by lawmakers towards protecting the human right to marry and the family rights of children of same-sex couples continues to maintain the discrimination and inequalities experienced by lesbian and gay men in Irish society.

What to do? You’ve outlined it in your own policies: a bill that would make all terms connected to marriage gender-neutral, thus permitting same-sex marriage. And a belief that, though it might be referred to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, that the Courts would be unlikely to strike down such an expression of the democratic will of the Oireachtas, and if they did, then you would support the appropriate consitutional amendment (policy document “Valuing Families”).

It is only when such leadership is exersised will we be able to say – what Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were able to say – when their segregation finally collapsed:

Free at last, free at last, thank God we are free at last.