Firstly, I cannot write about marriage equality. I can only write about why we need it. Really you don’t need to read any further: we don’t have equality and we need it.
Since the Good Friday Agreement the LGBT community have seen the age of consent for LGBT couples equalised in 2000, and Civil-Partnership legislation in 2005. Bills passed by the UK Parliament in Westminster. One of the first civil partnerships following the UK-wide legislation was held in Belfast. 2017 Belfast Pride was attended by thousands of marchers and supporters and saw the PSNI march with the community for the first time in a show of solidarity. This support is important, vital for changing how people within the LGBT community feel about themselves and their families. When you can, show that you value these citizens as you do any others.
However, we cannot allow our gratitude to become complacency. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act in 2000 (age of consent) was not passed by our newly devolved government. In 2005 Belfast hosted the first civil partnership by a misinterpretation of the Act, not by any desire by authorities to show our acceptance of the LGBT community in Northern Ireland. In 2012 when the ban on adoption by same-sex couples was challenged by judicial review, the decision to lift it was appealed by Edwin Poots, delaying its implementation. Same-sex couples in Northern Ireland had to wait eleven years longer than those in England and Wales to be eligible to apply to adopt. We are immensely out of step with the rest of the UK and it has to be asked of the mostly Unionist opposition, what kind of message does that send about our commitment to the Union?
In the face of the commitment to equality that the document which created the institutions in Northern Ireland made, the largest opposition to it has been its Executive. Now the DUP, along with some other support from the Unionist Community, continue to hide behind the mask for bigotry that is the Petition of Concern. They continue to obstruct same sex couples from having their love, their commitment and the protections granted by marriage even recognised by their country.
I could detail the uses of the Petition of Concern and how they are an abuse of the Good Friday Agreement and its commitment to tolerance. I could detail the legislative path, both past and future from decriminalisation in 1982 to marriage equality. I could discuss the potential impact of the Confidence and Supply deal between the DUP and the Conservatives on the attempts to obtain marriage equality through Direct Rule or indeed, any of the other possible methods. But you can Google those and find them out anywhere if you want to, but unless you’re mounting a legal challenge they’re not the most important things about the issue.
Marriage Equality is not a treaty to be agreed by two bureaucratic powers. It’s not a budget or a system of government. It has nothing to do with the outcome of any election. It has to do with how we treat our citizens. The Good Friday Agreement laid out Northern Ireland’s brand of democracy, but how I see it, it has the same priorities as any other, in descending order: security and peace; rights and protections for citizens; and standard of living. Marriage is a right and a protection, or rather, a set of rights and protections. Every citizen deserves it if they want it.
Aside from the legal differences between civilly partnered/unregistered couples and married couples the creation of a separate category of union for same-sex couples serves to isolate and alienate the LGBT community. Why create a legal union between a couple like marriage but not as full in the protections it offers, if not to isolate? The entire creation of a second class union shows the government sees the LGBT community as second class citizens. The psychological impact of openly defining a group of people as lesser is immeasurable and deeply, deeply damaging.
It would never be acceptable to have a second-class marriage for another group. Imagine a different (and lesser) union for inter-racial couples. This is equivalent. Many welcomed civil partnerships; my parents made the decision to hold out for full marriage equality. We are expected to feel grateful for a legal system that deliberately belittles the commitment same-sex couples make to each other. The entire institution stops short of full equality of LGBT people. We will have more. It is a matter of when.
As the child of a same-sex couple, this legislative differentiation only encourages a feeling of inadequacy. As children we believe what is told to us and explain it to ourselves later. Being told same sex couples aren’t allowed to marry implies there is a reason why. There isn’t. But it’s hard to shake that feeling. It needs to be understood just how intense this effect is. I have felt that there is no other family like mine. There is. That there is no way to win marriage equality. There is. That there is no one who believes my family deserves these rights. There is. The problem is: I turn eighteen soon, I only became sure of these convictions in the last three years. Why have I spent fifteen years not being sure of my own family’s legitimacy? And why will I have spent my entire childhood with neither recognition nor protection for my family from my government?
Right now Northern Irish politics has lost its compassion. We’ve lost sight of the purpose of government to improve the lives of citizens. Whether it be culture, or living standards, health or education, or citizens’ rights. Compassion has lost to competition between the two parties. Marriage equality has the support of the people: 70% according to some polls; but it’s drowning in red lines over an Irish Language Act, in blame games, in superficial, populist commitments to the issue instead of genuine action to make it happen, or worse, no commitment at all.
Truth is I am tired of talking about this. I am tired of responding to arguments against marriage equality that I know only a small minority believe in. I am tired of commitments to marriage equality that aren’t backed up with any movement in the negotiation rooms. I am tired of an issue that is about my family life being politicised. What is more personal than my family? I have two parents that do all the things parents should do. I don’t need anything more, and so nobody else has the right to tell me I do. I don’t need told that I’m more likely to be neglected or abused because I know I’m not. I don’t need to be told that a union between my parents is an attempt to redefine marriage because that’s entirely illogical, marriage is between two people and their family, it obviously does not change the marriage of anyone else on the planet. All there is, is a set of legal protections. My family deserves them.
There’s no juicy insight into the life of a ‘rainbow family’. There’s no crucial and twisted secret about the LGBT agenda by which a lack of equality is protecting the heterosexual masses. Marriage means if the worst happens we‘re protected by the law. But more importantly marriage means that I’m legitimised, that my family is validated, and every other family in the same situation receives the same. This is too simple to still be talking about.
The collapse of the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions affects every area of politics in some way. The need for marriage equality has existed since far before the collapse. Without a devolved government it is just taking longer. The political parties need to step up and reform the government, there is no solution to any of the political problems we face without it. Marriage equality is overcomplicated by the media, and particularly by the DUP who are fighting so hard for its repression. It affects no one but those in the LGBT community who choose to exercise the right. It moves us closer to an equal society. It has public support. It has assembly support. For unionists it will improve parity with the rest of the UK; for nationalists with the Republic of Ireland.
It’s not going away.
Let’s move on.
Darragh is 17 years old. He is a musician and has been involved in the marriage equality campaign. He is a sixth form pupil at Methodist College Belfast.