One small step for Ireland, one giant leap for LGBT rights

Patrick Sweeney is a One Young World Ambassador from Ireland who is passionate about LGBT rights. He is currently policy and projects officer with GLEN- The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network and was Director of Merchandise and logistics for YesEquality- the campaign for civil marriage equality in Ireland.

Ireland is known for many many things from Guinness to Leprechauns to our beautiful landscape to our generous and fair people. Ireland is now known for one more thing; Marriage Equality. On May 22nd Ireland voted on whether Lesbian and Gay people should have the right to marry, on May 22nd Irish people were asked to be kind and to be fair. On May 22nd, 1,201,607 Irish people voted in favour of marriage equality.

You might ask why this is significant, why Ireland is different than any other country that has introduced Marriage equality, after all wasn’t the Netherlands the first country in the world to introduce civil marriage equality over thirteen years ago? Haven’t several US states and other countries throughout the world followed suit since? All of this is true, however Ireland has become the first country in the world to introduce Marriage Equality by popular vote. We are the first country in the world to ask our electorate to vote on the rights of a minority, to vote on whether LGBT people should be treated as equals and we are the first country in the world to answer with a resounding YES!

Ireland has now become a world leader in the area of equality for LGBT people, although this has not always been the case. Until 1993 homosexuality was considered a criminal offence, I was born into an Ireland where being gay was not only socially unacceptable but was against the law. Thankfully Ireland has changed and changed for the better. Over the space of 22 years Ireland has become a welcoming place for LGBT people. Decriminalisation in 1993 was the first step on the journey to equality for LGBT people in Ireland and was hard fought for by a remarkable group of individuals. This group of individuals not only hoped that change was possible but believed they were the ones who could make that change.

YesEquality­: the campaign for civil marriage equality in Ireland was officially launched on March 9th 2015. It was the starting pistol for a marathon which would last months, envelope a nation and be utterly unforgettable.

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As a campaign we had much to do and not much time. The opposition was cunning and at some points downright devious. They played on the conservative nature of some people; planting fear on what a change in the Irish constitution (Bunreacht Na hEireann) would mean for Irish people and for their families. To the opposition's dismay a change in the constitution would not affect existing married couples, it wouldn’t change existing families. The only difference it would make would be to extend the right to marry to Lesbian and Gay people. Nothing more, nothing less.

As an organization we started from scratch. We went from being a group of around 20 people in an office to being a national network of YesEquality groups. To be an active part of the development of the campaign, seeing it grow from the concept stages to the very real social and political movement it became was truly exceptional. I sometimes think of the age old adage ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ Together we went far and fast. We were a group of individuals brought together by a common goal, obtaining equality for LGBT people in Ireland. We were driven, we were determined, in our eyes we were equal. All we had to do was convince the rest of the country.

So we set about making a plan, our campaign was never about us telling people what to do, in fact it was quite the opposite. At the core of our campaign was people. Our issue is one that affects people and in order to achieve our goal it was people we needed. We needed the support of everyone, our friends, our family, our colleagues, the man on the street­ as a minority group we could never achieve equality alone. We needed the help of the majority.

Since this was a social issue affecting people, LGBT people in particular, we needed to find new and innovative ways of doing things. We used new mediums to reach people, we used social media, we opened a store, we held events. We combined the traditional with the non-­traditional and in doing so we reached both the conservative and the non­-conservative.

Social media was crucial to our campaign we needed to ensure that younger people became involved and of course, young people are to be found on social media. Our social media base grew and grew. To give you an idea of the impact social media played, by the last week of the campaign there were an estimated 1 billion global impressions generated from 467,323 Twitter mentions by 384,002 users.

We opened both an online store and a physical store. We embodied the concept of social entrepreneurship. We understood that in order to achieve the goals we set out, we would need to be self­sufficient so we created a social enterprise in the form of a store. That one store did more than I could’ve hoped for. It not only raised funds for the campaign but it also allowed people to have a safe space to talk about their worries, about what might happen should the referendum fail.

From that store we sold thousands of T-shirts and over 500,000 of the iconic YesEquality badges, each one an emblem of equality. Wearing a badge became something to be proud of both for LGBT people and straight allies. To show you valued equality and valued your LGBT friends and family was something which 500,000 people chose to proudly do in the weeks before polling day. As I often joked with customers and colleagues in the days before the referendum, ‘Equality has never been so trendy’.

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We mobilized in our thousands. Irish people from as far away as Australia made the journey home to vote, we knocked on thousands of doors and had ten’s of thousands of conversations with friends, with family members, with perfect strangers about what equality meant for us. This meant being extremely honest, telling much about oneself, revealing much about one’s real identity and truly embracing what being LGBT meant. I had conversations with people about what marriage equality meant for me. How as a gay person I want to be treated just as equally as every other person and to be allowed have the opportunity to be as happy as everyone else.

Some people challenged us. Some people told us that who and what we were was wrong. One woman put it quite bluntly and said ‘it is disgusting’.

Although those words hurt I knew that that is all they were, words. In other places in the world the situation is gravely different and because of that I cherish what we now have even more so.

YesEquality became a social phenomenon. Every day groups around the country were working hour upon hour to ensure that they knocked on as many doors as possible and spoke to as many people as they could. Meanwhile in YesEquality HQ, the most fantastic people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting pushed the boundaries every single day. Nothing was too much, every idea was considered. If you were to look at the plan months previously you would quite clearly see the end goal. What you wouldn’t see is the multitude of ways and means by which we got there. Even though we constantly re­invented our already re­invented ways of doing things, our message was always clear and stayed true throughout our campaign; We wanted civil marriage equality for lesbian and gay people, we wanted to have the same constitutional protections that other straight couples and their families had.

On May 22nd Irish people went to the polling booths. It was undeniable that we had indeed changed Ireland, although whether we had changed it enough remained to be seen. Never had so many young people got engaged on a political issue, we had hundreds if not thousands of people from the Irish diaspora return to Ireland simply to vote. These people returned to Ireland to have their say in its future, in their future. On May 22nd we waited with bated breath. Everything was done. The beauty of democracy is that fate lies in the hands of the people, luckily our faith in them was well placed.

On the evening of May 23rd it was announced that 1,201,607 Irish people had voted in favour of marriage equality. Not only had they voted yes on marriage equality but they consciously and publicly told their gay and lesbian friends and family members that they stood shoulder to shoulder alongside them in the struggle for equality.

In one day we changed a country and in some small way I hope that we changed the world. I hope that countries where LGBT people do not have as many rights, where their situation is less secure, these countries would look to Ireland now and in the future. I would hope that individuals in such countries would look to Ireland for reassurance but also for guidance. LGBT rights in Ireland have come a long way in a short space of time and that all began with the hope and belief of a small group of people. Groups such as these exist in every city and country throughout the world, each of these groups striving to make small change after small change. Remember, it was such small changes that changed a country forever…