We have come so far in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in NI, with a battle still ahead of us
I don’t think I can overstate how yesterday made me, or the rest of the campaigners for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, feel when the vote in the House of Commons was announced. Conor McGinn’s amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill to secure same-sex marriage for Northern Ireland was selected for debate, voted on, and resoundly passed by a margin of 383 votes to 73. We erupted in jubilation as the result was announced, 10 of us huddled together in the community space of local LGBTQ+ organisation The Rainbow Project’s offices, where we had been waiting in anticipation, with hard-beating hearts, for something spectacular to happen – and it did.
I started campaigning for marriage equality in 2011; though I can’t remember exactly the date that I decided that this would be the fight I wanted to take on, as a young gay man living in Northern Ireland, I knew that this would be an important one. I had a difficult coming out, my family initially rejected me and I lived in a country that, for many LGBTQ+ people, was somewhere to escape from, rather than choosing to stay and fight for our rights. I don’t blame them – for many people it can be easier to leave and find a new life elsewhere in someplace more accepting. I wasn’t able to do that, so I decided to do something about it. Eight years later we are closer than we have ever been to victory. It’s been a long campaign that felt like it would never end, but we are finally at a point where we can almost see the end of the road in our fight.
“The feeling on the ground is one of hope, hope that we might finally be able to celebrate our love in the same way that same-sex couples have been able to do in the rest of the UK and Ireland for some time now”
I had worked for the Love Equality campaign as a staff member from 2016 to 2017, engaging in community outreach to try and spread the message of the campaign across Northern Ireland among young people, community groups, the business community, and the general public. What I witnessed was a sea change in opinion from when I came out in 2008. The majority of people I spoke to and engaged with were not only surprised that marriage equality wasn’t the law here, but disgusted at the idea that it hadn’t happened already. People from all walks of life, all ages and community backgrounds, got behind the campaign in a way that I could have only hoped for.
It wasn’t until I got engaged myself, in December of 2017, that I began to really appreciate the enormity and the depth of the significance behind this campaign. That might sound selfish, but I suppose until you are part of the story yourself then there is a safety in that bubble of being part of the campaign, but not impacted directly by it. That changed when I got a Civil Partnership in January of this year, I finally understood what it meant to be treated differently, to not be able to have the same rights and recognised as equals. While my wedding day was the happiest day of my life, and I’m sure the same can be said for my friends who entered into Civil Partnerships, I wonder if they felt the same sting that I did when I signed a Civil Partnership certificate rather than a marriage certificate. It might be a bit of paper, but it’s a start.
The feeling on the ground is one of hope, hope that we might finally be able to celebrate our love in the same way that same-sex couples have been able to do in the rest of the UK and Ireland for some time now. The legislation passed does not guarantee that same-sex marriage will become a reality in Northern Ireland, however it now places a legal duty on the UK government to intervene on the issue and extend the existing legislation in England and Wales to Northern Ireland if the talks at Stormont (NI’s parliament, which collapsed two and a half years ago) fail to reach an agreement by October 21. It is expected now that, despite the possible implications for devolution here, that there will be no Executive formed before the legislation is due to take effect.
That being said, there is every possibility that things will change and the political landscape may shift. Speaking personally, I can only imagine the heartbreak that it would cause for us to get this close, closer than we have ever been on this issue, and have our hopes dashed by political maneuvering. This is not the Northern Ireland I grew up in, and I hope I speak for the community here when I say that today, we are walking a little taller than we were 48 hours ago.