It has been three years since the momentous victory of the marriage equality referendum in the South of Ireland, and four years since The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed in England and Wales. Yet Northern Ireland is still waiting.
The issue, however, is far from being dropped off the agenda. This year saw Belfast’s biggest ever Pride parade, with tens of thousands in attendance; it was so big that the organisers had to reorganise the route! The atmosphere was one of militancy, with ‘F*ck the DUP’ signs, and chants of not being left behind – the time for marriage equality is now.
In December 2017, same-sex couples in Australia finally won equal marriage rights following a postal survey (ie, a referendum). The ‘yes’ vote was just shy of 62%, with a turnout of almost 80%! The ‘yes’ campaign created a sense of unity and gave ordinary people an opportunity to participate in the political process. Understandable, some LGBT+ rights activists were reticent about their rights being put to a public vote. But whilst some used the opportunity to push homophobic views, they were overwhelmingly drowned out by the enthusiasm for a ‘yes’ vote. While the vote wasn’t formally binding, the fact that the overwhelming majority supported equality meant that previously wavering politicians were pressured to conform with the dominant view. Even staunch opponents of marriage equality felt that they could not vote against the legislation, so instead abstained.
This highlights the necessity of pressure from below in order to win. People power has already pushed many our politicians to the support of marriage equality; even a number of UUP leaders marched on Pride this year, clearly fearing being seen as out of touch. It is also important to realise that the DUP is not immune to such pressures. Poll after poll has shown that a majority of their own voters support marriage equality and so their position of undemocratically blocking same-sex marriage can be made untenable if a movement is built which makes them fear for their political future.
The gains made over the last few years, both North and South – with referendum victories in the South, the majority vote for marriage equality in Stormont and so on – show what can be achieved when we stand up and make our demands known. Progress has come about as the direct result of organised, mass campaigns involving ordinary people. If we wish to see equality for LGBT people in the North, we must be prepared to fight a sustained, militant and cross-community campaign.
By Amy Ferguson