Five months after gay marriage was approved by the Irish public in a landmark referendum, the office of Irish president Michael Higgins formally signed the country’s new marriage equality law into effect on Thursday (29 October).
On that same day, on the other side of Europe, gay rights activists gathering in Athens from across the continent fretted that the high-profile victory could lead some to draw the wrong conclusions.
Activists generally oppose referendums, because when the majority is allowed to decide on the rights of a minority it rarely works out well for the minority. (Photo: Mortimer62)
The activists were meeting at the annual conference of the International Gay and Lesbian Association of Europe (ILGA).
The Irish victory loomed large over the occasion. It marked the first time a country approved gay marriage through a popular vote, was a major turning point in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights. With the US Supreme Court legalising gay marriage in America just one month later, many gay people thought, “we’ve finally made it”.
All countries in Cold-War-defined Western Europe, barring Italy and Greece, now have some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.
The North Atlantic now has same-sex marriage on all of its shores, barring the rocky cliffs of Northern Ireland. Malta, often thought of as being an island outpost of the Vatican, shocked observers earlier this year when it not only enacted gay marriage, but also instituted the world’s first legal recognition of transgender rights.
But don’t put down the placards just yet, the ILGA leadership told the activists in Athens.
“I get very often the comment, ‘now that you’re starting to get marriage all over, surely you’re nearly done,'” said Evelyn Paradis, secretary-general of the ILGA.
“No. The LGBTI equality agenda has never been all about marriage. Marriage is not the be all and end all.”
She noted that for a lot of people, employment discrimination is actually a much more important issue than marriage, and there is still much work to be done on that front, particularly for transgender people.
Even on the marriage front, it should not be assumed that what happened in Ireland will inevitably be replicated in the rest of Europe. There is still no gay marriage in the countries of Central Europe, including Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
Swiss citizens may even vote to enact a constitutional ban on gay marriage in a referendum in February, becoming the first Western European country to do so. Such bans already exist in a handful of Eastern EU member states including Poland and Bulgaria. Russia’s abuse of its LGBTI population, whether by the government or by its citizens, has become notorious.
The ferocious resistance and street protests by a large segment of the French public to last year’s passage of gay marriage law in France showed that even in the West, the public still needs convincing regardless of the legislation on the books.
Be wary of referendums
So what lessons can be drawn from the Irish experience?
The referendum loomed large over this year’s ILGA summit. Gráinne Healy, the chairwoman of Marriage Equality Ireland, who led the yes campaign, was greeted like a rock star as she gave her keynote speech.
Some in the audience were moved to tears as she described the jubilation felt after 62 percent of Irish voters said yes to marriage equality. But it was an awkward jubilation, she noted, because she disagreed with the very premise of the vote.
“Let’s be clear, it was always the preferred option that marriage equality would be legislated for if at all possible,” said Healy. “None of us campaigned to hold a referendum in the early days, referendums on the rights of a minority should never happen.”
It is a conundrum for the gay rights movement as it moves on to a post-Ireland chapter.
Now the movement’s most high-profile victory, perhaps the moment activists felt the most proud, was the result of a referendum in Ireland. But activists oppose such referendums on principle, because when the majority is allowed to decide on the rights of a minority it rarely works out well for the minority.
In the United States, almost all of the referendums held on the issue in the past 15 years have voted against gay marriage, including ‘proposition 8’ in California in 2008, which annulled the state’s legislatively-enacted gay marriage.
Up next: Slovenia
Gay rights activists will again have to confront the referendum issue in December, when Slovenian voters will decide on whether to undo a gay marriage law passed by the government last year.
Before enacting the law, the Slovenian government had changed the constitution to expressly forbid referendums being called on issues of human rights, after a previous gay marriage law was undone by a referendum in 2012.
But the country’s constitutional court ruled last week that gay rights cannot necessarily be considered human rights, at least not until the court has considered the question. A referendum will go ahead in December.
Slovenian gay rights activist and academic Roman Kuhar told the ILGA conference that although they will fight hard to convince voters, he is not optimistic.
“I guess we will have the same story again that happened in 2012 – a long painful period of lies, a situation where there’s no dialogue possible,” said Kuhar.
“They will recruit very disciplined and well-established networks of people who oppose this kind of legislation. They’re very active on social media, and they have an even better network than Facebook – the church. The local priests are well organised and every Sunday they are telling people to go out for the referendum. And referendums in Slovenia are on Sunday mornings.”
At the same time, the activists in the room had to acknowledge that the Irish gay marriage outcome felt a lot nicer than the French gay marriage law enacted in 2014, which was imposed by French President Francois Hollande from the top down with no public involvement. It left a question of legitimacy hanging over the decision, even though it had been passed by democratically-elected representatives of the people.
In Ireland, there is no doubt over whether gay marriage enjoys public support.
Later in the day, gay rights activists from around Europe met in a workshop to discuss what lessons can be learned from the Irish example.
Healy told the attendants how her campaign convinced the public, and Gabi Calleja, an activist from Malta, described how her campaign convinced politicians. And while the activists appreciated the Irish example, they mostly felt that a referendum would not yield the same positive result in other countries such as Malta.
Sam Mueller, a campaigner with the Green Liberal party in Switzerland, noted that the Swiss referendum question in February will be couched in a question about tax reform, and many people probably won’t even realise that their vote would have the effect of banning gay marriage.
“The fear is that people will think about the tax issue and not the marriage issue,” he said. “So we will need to create videos like they did in Ireland to inform people about what their decision will mean to LGBTI people. We need to show them that it’s about their neighbour or their friend.”
Miha Lobnik, another activist from Slovenia, said there is not enough time between the court’s decision last week and the referendum in December to conduct a campaign such as they had in Ireland.
“A referendum is not won like a football game, where two teams compete and the better one wins. It’s about who brings more supporters to the stadium. That’s why it’s very hard for us in countries with small LGBTI groups. It’s an excellent example that we have from Ireland, but we need more time for that”, said Lobnik
European Commission comes out
The European Commission has been hesitant to get involved in the gay marriage debate because the EU has no power over civil marriage laws.
But next February the Commission is going to launch the first EU ‘awareness campaign’ to try to convince the European public that gay people should have equal rights.
The Commission is expected to soon release a new eurobarometer poll surveying Europeans’ feeling about LGBTI people. The results, seen by this website, showed that a majority of Europeans support equal rights and gay marriage, but there is a big difference between member states. Gay activists still have a lot of work to do to change minds in Eastern Europe.
“For us it was a shock, we knew the situation was bad in some countries, but when suddenly you quantify the monster behind you, it becomes very scary,” said Juan Gonzalez Mellizo, who works in the non-discrimination unit at the European Commission.
There is a stark East-West divide. For instance, while 91 percent of people in the Netherlands support gay marriage, only 17 percent in Bulgaria do.
The highest proportions of people who said they would be comfortable working with gay and lesbian colleagues were found at EU’s Western extremes, with Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden all responding around 90 percent positive.
It was the lowest in the EU’s Eastern extremes, with only 21 percent in Slovakia saying they would be comfortable and 27 percent in Romania. Only 7 percent of people in Bulgaria said they would accept their child being gay.
Gonzalez Mellizo said the intention of the Commission’s awareness campaign is to turn the situation around by the time another survey is taken in two years. The campaign will target the countries where acceptance is the lowest, and it will focus in on the populations that are most likely to have their minds changed – youth and the ‘movable middle’.
Just like the Ireland referendum marks a turning point in the LGBTI rights movement in Europe, the awareness campaign marks a turning point in EU involvement on this issue.
The previous Commission under Jose Manuel Barroso was more cautious on the issue of gay rights, saying it was a matter for member states. But the new Commission vice-president, Dutchman Frans Timmermans, says he feels passionately about gay rights, and while speaking at the ILGA annual gala in Brussels earlier this year, he hinted that the Commission could even pursue the issue of gay marriage and adoption rights based on EU guarantees of free movement.
The European courts could find that a gay couple married in one EU country who are unable to move to another member state because it wouldn’t recognise their marriage is being presented with an unreasonable hurdle.
Such a Commission challenge is unlikely any time soon, however. In the mean time, the EU executive hopes that just focusing attention on the issue will be enough to change minds enough to spark action at national level, as was seen in Ireland. In effect, they want to emulate the Irish ‘yes’ campaign on a European scale.
“This is the coming out of the Commission,” said Gonzalez Mellizo. “In the past years we were doing a lot, but quietly. We are changing from being supporters to being activists.”
But the Commission is stressing that it needs the help of other activists to make what happened in Ireland happen across Europe. The LGBTI rights movement across Europe is now strategising on how to pivot their strategy in a post-Ireland world.
NB: ILGA sponsors EUobserver’s Focus section on Equality and LGBTI rights, but has no editorial influence over this or other articles