The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities in Ireland have made enormous strides in the past 20 years.
The Labour Party, for which I sit as a member of the Irish lower house of parliament, the Dail, has been at the forefront of many of those great strides forward.
We were the party in 1993, which finally cast the hideous 1861 law against male homosexuality into the dustbin of history. We set in train the earliest laws guaranteeing equality in access to goods and services for LGBT people and we created the laws, which protect LGBT people from discrimination in the workplace.
We are now committed to marriage equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens.
This is the next step, which needs to be taken to ensure that all Irish citizens and others who live on this island can be given the full recognition and protection of the state for their families and their intimate relationships. We already have civil partnership legislation, which we welcomed, and indeed proposed an earlier incarnation of, but civil partnership is not marriage and marriage, constitutionally and colloquially, is afforded special protections and indeed common respect in our laws and our daily lives. Civil partnership indeed protects gay and lesbian couples from the indignity of their relationships not being afforded recognition, particularly in the times which are most anxious and frightening for any of us, such as when we are in hospital or we lose a partner, but equality can never be achieved by parallel institutions.
When Rosa Parks sat down at the front of the bus on a fateful day in 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama, she made a stand for her right to equality before the law and to the equality of treatment for black and white Americans. She was already entitled to travel on the bus. Both white and black passengers used the same bus, but whites sat at the front and blacks at the back. Both black and white passengers got to their destination in the same time, but there was a fundamental humiliation of the black passengers in being forced to sit at the back. This was segregation in action. Equally with gay and lesbian couples, civil partnership, while extending many of the same rights as marriage, does not carry the status that culturally and normatively marriage carries. Therefore, it is a form of segregation.
Now, I do not wish to return to a time when gay and lesbian people had no right to recognition of their relationships before the laws, and this is where I part company with some, both within and outside the gay and lesbian community, who suggested that the civil partnership legislation was not welcome as a step toward equality. I think, at the time of its introduction, we needed to ensure that we took care of those who needed some remedy immediately, but that does not mean either that we have given up fighting for full equality.
In some ways, civil partnerships have actually strengthened the cause of marriage equality, as more and more same-sex couples have tied the knot and these "weddings" have been reported locally in the same manner as straight weddings, giving the LGBT community a visibility that it previously lacked, particularly in rural communities. At the same time, the fact that gay and lesbian couples get civil partnered, while straight couples get married creates a fundamental division and dare I say it, segregation, between people who in most other aspects of their lives are treated with the same esteem and if they are not, have recourse to legal measures to enforce a right to equal treatment.
Marriage is given a status so great that it is enshrined in our constitution as the basis of the family and even though I have many issues with the way this has been abused to push a reactionary social agenda at times, I think I would be remiss to suggest that most people do not believe marriage to be an anchor which binds their families together and gives security and protection, social as much as legal. Civil partnership simply does not have the same status.
Inequality is invidious and it destroys lives and undermines human relationships and strips people of their basic dignity. Parallel institutions, whilst better than no rights, are not the solution. You can only advance as a society when everyone can come with you. We are now battling to change the laws of our land to reflect the real love and desire of lesbian and gay citizens and deliver full equal marriage, which the Irish Labour Party is committed to advancing.
I know that a debate is taking place in Australia on the same issue and I note that our brothers and sisters in the Australian Labor Party are torn as to what to do. I would urge them to look into their hearts. As social democrats and democratic socialists, the most basic values we share in common are a commitment to freedom, community, democracy and equality. We can only ensure that gay and lesbian citizens are truly free, truly a valued part of our communities and truly able to play a full democratic role in our societies when we say that henceforth all will be afforded equality of treatment and in the case of marriage, equality can only be achieved when all couples, opposite sex or same sex can stand their families and friends and enter a fully equal marriage.
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