I was born on the 9th of May. This is normally an unremarkable time of year; close to exam season so the parks are empty and libraries full, but too distant from summer holidays to elicit any real sense of excitement. My twin sister and I had stopped holding parties in our early teens, and our birthday traditions grew quieter as we grew older. Cake with school friends, nice dinner with the family, a movie and then bed — back to counting down the days to something more exciting.
May 2015 was different. My home country, Ireland, was on the precipice of a monumental referendum: we were about to become the first country in the world to hold a public vote on the issue of same-sex marriage. I wasn’t living in Ireland at the time, having moved to England for university the previous October; most of the information I received surrounding the referendum was through the filter of social media. Old school friends were sharing links to marches and speaker events, changing profile pictures to show banners for the “Yes/Tá” campaign, and generally urging people to get out and vote.
The posts that really caught my attention were those including some variant of “if I were gay…”. For me, it wasn’t a hypothetical; most of these friends didn’t know I was gay. I was only out to my sister, my best friend, and my (secret) girlfriend when I left school. Rumours were swirling that other people in my year were gay, but I was never brave enough to interact with them. My family certainly didn’t know, except for my sister, who I told because I’m fairly certain she harbours telepathic abilities and keeping any secret that large from her would have been doomed to fail. LGBT+ issues had never been discussed with my family, and the topic was shrouded with shame, which I had internalised. My sister, who is endlessly kind and empathetic, was incredibly supportive when I told her. She was a lifeline when I was grappling with my identity in a country which would rather ignore the queer community altogether.
I had only started to explore this new identity the previous term. I was so shy that I would usually stand at the edge of a group, quietly sipping my drink while attempting to follow heated discussions on gender theory and identity politics, absorbing words and ideas that I’d never even heard of before. The learning curve was steep, but I loved it.
Occasionally, someone clearly feeling sorry for me (too cynical? Perhaps they were just being kind) would nod in my direction and ask where I was from. When I said “Ireland,” suddenly everyone’s attention was on me. This was unusual; Irish news and politics rarely made its way to Britain. Our whole country’s population is about half that of London’s, and despite our deeply entangled histories, most English people I met had little or no knowledge of Ireland. They were a large part of our story; we were a small part of theirs. This referendum was different, though. It was receiving global news coverage, and in the weeks up to the vote, it was featured in British news outlets nearly every day. Everybody was asking my opinion, how I felt it would play out, and what was being done back home to ensure a victory for the “Yes” campaign.
I felt helpless across the water. I couldn’t attend the marches, or hand out leaflets, or do any of the things I felt like I should be doing. I couldn’t even vote. (The Irish diaspora is so large that apparently postal votes would be unmanageable, not to mention the thorny issue of Northern Irish citizens.) My exams were scheduled for a week after the referendum on May 22. My workload was so large and my revision schedule so crammed I was barely taking an hour off to acknowledge my birthday over a Skype call with my family. Taking a whole day off to return to vote felt unfathomable.
This sounds like a weak excuse. In some ways, it was. Surely a vote of this significance warrants missing a few hours of study? The flight home was a little under an hour, and Irish people from around the world were making much greater journeys (at much greater expense) to ensure they were “Home to Vote.” It’s easy to blame my circumstances. My university, Cambridge, has a notorious exam culture, and I was completely embedded in it during my first year. Taking a whole day off in the week running up to my exams was a sure path to failure. I believed in this narrative very strongly, although in hindsight I know that I was being more than a tad dramatic. On some level, I was too afraid to go back. What if the referendum didn’t succeed? What if it did? My reaction to either case would be tears of some sort, and I was fearful that if I were to have a visceral reaction to the vote that I would accidentally out myself. No, it was easier to stay away, to continue studying, and somehow convince myself that it was just like another day in May. Quiet and unremarkable.
For many queer Irish people, the referendum provided an unusual opportunity to gauge their family’s reaction to LGBT+ issues. Stereotypically for a small Catholic country that is somewhat culturally monolithic, these topics of discourse were somewhat taboo. The culture of shame was so intense that I had never heard anyone in my family utter the word “gay,” let alone talk about LGBT+ rights. The referendum provided a platform for LGBT+ stories, which were being shared online at an unprecedented rate. These stories also caught the attention of more traditional news outlets, allowing them to reach audiences that would otherwise never have discussed LGBT+ issues. These stories were woven into regular, everyday conversations. This may seem crass — the question of the rights of a minority being used as fodder for discussions over dinner — but, for Ireland, it was a sign of changing times. As I was in England, and frantically studying for exams, I hadn’t had much opportunity to talk to my family about the vote. The first real chance I had was that Skype call on my 19th birthday.
My grandparents and mother were crowded around my grandfather’s laptop. They had lit candles on a cake and sang happy birthday, and the first hour went by catching up on the small details of life. Already away from my books for too long, I was about to make excuses to go back to studying when my grandmother mentioned the referendum.
“You know, we’ll see your sister in a few weeks. She’s coming back for the vote.”
My sister, at a different university, finished her exams two days before the referendum and was able to join the thousands of Irish people returning from abroad to vote. Following the financial crash of 2008, a quarter of a million Irish people left Ireland. Nearly three-quarters of those people were in their twenties. “#HomeToVote” was tweeted over 70,000 times in the run-up to the election. Young Irish people were keen to have their voices heard.
“Yeah, I know. I’d love to go back, but exams are just so close.” I felt so uncomfortable even at the mention of the referendum; I was irrationally afraid something small would give me away. I was pretty certain that my mother would vote yes, but my up in a very different Ireland and I didn’t know what kind of cultural hangovers still gripped them.
“I was thinking of buying a rainbow flag, you know. To stick in the window to show my support.” I was shocked. My grandmother, in her 70s, was the very demographic that Yes campaigners feared the most. I couldn’t manage anything more than a meek “oh, really?” in response.
“Sure, you have to show your support, like. There are enough old codgers in this neighbourhood that will probably vote no I need to make sure people know I’ve got nothing to do with them. You can’t help who you love, you know. The posters that the No campaign have up are a disgrace. I tore one down from a lamppost outside our house just the other day. I want nothing to do with them. You’re lucky you aren’t here to see them. The Yes campaign is wonderful, though. It’s all above love. Hopefully that’ll win some of the old bats around here over.”
Her words were burned into my mind that day. My grandmother has always been a political person, and reads two broadsheet newspapers cover-to-cover every day. The idea of her tearing down political posters she didn’t agree with didn’t surprise me, only which posters. She talked more about how she got into arguments with people at her church (including the priest) about the referendum, and her refusing to offer lifts to her elderly neighbours that she knew were voting no. I didn’t bring up the moral conundrums that her actions invoked. I could barely contain myself, the relief was so overwhelming. My mother and grandfather, political in much quieter ways, could only nod their agreement while she was recounting the history of LGBT+ rights in Ireland. I had no idea she knew so much about the topic, she probably knew much more than I did.
Eventually, the draw of my books was too strong, and I had to end the call. I was nearly delirious by the end of it. When my family hung up, the relief was so palpable that I burst into tears. I was shaking with laughter at the same time. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so jubilant that I didn’t even care that I was losing what were once precious study hours over it. This secret, which I once thought was terrible and shameful, didn’t need to be a secret after all. My family would actually be okay with it. Selfishly, I felt that no matter what the results of the vote were, that was enough. My 19th birthday changed from being a somewhat unremarkable day in May to a turning point in my relationship with my family, even if my family were ignorant of its significance themselves.
The results of the referendum are now history. Just over 62% of the country voted “yes,” with a turnout of 61%. All but one constituency had shown their support. There was another referendum held that day, about lowering the age of candidacy for the presidency, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say hardly anybody cared. Ban Ki-moon, then United Nations Secretary General, announced the result as “truly historic,” saying that vote sent “an important message to the world: All people are entitled to enjoy their human rights no matter who they are or whom they love.” Other world leaders were quick to share their congratulations. Ireland, so rarely featured in global news, was in the limelight. For once, it was for an excellent reason.
Of course, there were detractors. Conservative leaders across the world commented on Ireland’s “falling moral standard.” I won’t dwell on those reactions here. At the time, I honestly laughed at them. We had won! It didn’t matter that there were over 700,000 people that voted no, we had won. The Secretary of State for the Vatican said that the result was “a defeat for humanity.” Ireland, once a staunchly Catholic nation, had voted in a way that the church didn’t want. The implications of that are worth another essay. But, to me, it didn’t matter what they said. We had won.
I watched Dublin erupt in rainbows as the results were announced. There was no focusing on books during that time; I was too overjoyed. I hadn’t let myself get hopeful that this would happen, but that nearly made the excitement as the results were released even greater. I again, out of sheer joy. Friends from university were sending me messages of congratulations, and one friend even brought cake to my room to celebrate with me. But, however excited I was, it still didn’t match the intense relief I felt during that Skype call with my family on my birthday. The referendum result was a historic feat, but what happened that day was much more of a private victory.
I didn’t actually come out to my family for another year after the referendum, until just after my 20th birthday. I didn’t feel like I needed to, for a variety of reasons. For me, it was enough to sustain me knowing that they would support me. And they do. Ireland has gone on to do other hugely significant things since-the abortion referendum early this year was another unprecedented success. The Ireland I grew up in is already nearly unrecognisable from Ireland today.
Each birthday, I still remember that Skype call. I haven’t told my family how much it meant to me, but I think I’d like to keep it private. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a birthday quite like it again. 🎈
edited by rachel.