ICTU Women's conference debates gay and lesbian marriage

10 Mar 2008

MarriagEquality Co-chair, Gráinne Healy, addressed 240 delegates to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions' Women's Conference in Kerry at the weekend.

Speaking prior to a debate on partnership rights, Grainne Healy made the case for civil marriage for gay and lesbian people. Subsequently attempts were made to amend the motion before the conference, however due to procedural limitations the original motion remained, with an understanding that members would campaign for marriage equality.

The following is the text of Gráinne Healy's address:

100 years ago today, when the women garment workers took to the streets of new york to draw attention to their appalling working conditions and pay, it was the batton charge by the police which drew world attention to their struggle and as you know in the following years labour movements and feminist movements ever since have claimed IWD as a day to both celebrate women's achievements and also draw attention to what still needs to be done to achieve equality between women and men, in work, in the home, before the law and in everyday reality.

Good morning sisters, my name is Gráinne Healy and I am co-Chair of a new initiative that has a simple goal: the provision of equality for gay and lesbian people in Ireland by providing access to civil marriage on the same basis as other men and women who happen to be heterosexual.

MarriagEquality grew out of a small group which began to give support the case of two brave women, Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan - to have their Canadian marriage recognised in Ireland. Katherine and Ann Louise are not only the genesis of the new initiative, they are also its inspiration. Katherine and Ann Louise are married, they were married in Canada in 2004 and unlike other Irish people who get married in Canada, the Irish state has refused to recognise their Canadian marriage because they are two women. Their marriage is not recognised, despite the fact that we have equality legislation which forbids discrimination against lesbian and gay people in both employment and service delivery. Equality legislation that all of us as trades unionists and feminists have fought for over many years and which has nothing to say in the case of Ann Louise and Katherine.

Their bravery, courage and determination to live in an Ireland that treats everyone equal, regardless of sexual orientation, has made them pioneers not only for gay and lesbian people in this country, but for all of us who support equality.

What was previously a voluntary committee established to support a legal case taken by one couple, has developed into a new organisation with professional staff working to build a broad base of support that seeks legislative equality for gay and lesbian people.

As you are aware Katherine and Ann Louise's case was heard in the High Court and there Justice Dunne found that by custom and practice in Ireland marriage was seen to be historically between a man and a woman, while the constitution is silent on the matter as it does not say marriage is between a man or a woman. The Judge felt that the legislature by passing the 2004 Civil Registration Act, which is the only statute which says marriage is between a man and a woman, that the people had spoken on the matter via the oireachtais and that she therefore had to find against the couple's claim to have revenue commissioners treat them as a married couple.

Interestingly the judge did say she thought that there was no doubt that same sex couples were experiencing hardship. The case is now on appeal to the Supreme Court and a date for that hearing has yet to be set.

Drawing on Katherine and Ann Louise's example, MarriagEquality believes that the only way for equality to be achieved is to allow lesbians and gay men the option of marrying in a civil registry office. In doing so, gay and lesbian couples would receive all the same legal rights and benefits that are automatically given to heterosexual couples.

Rather than legislate in a piecemeal way, offering a watered down set of rights through a civil partnership scheme that would create a separate, unequal and legally untested institution, a simple straightforward amendment to the Civil Registration Act 2004 could be introduced to open the institution of civil marriage to gay and lesbian people. In other words if the Oireachtais wanted to they could change the legislation tomorrow - the question for all of us here today is to ask, what can we do to pressurise the Irish government and all politicians to see that Ireland is ready for civil marriage for same sex couples?

Access to civil marriage gives rights and entitlements and duties to married couples which many of you, because you can have them automatically, are not available to lesbian and gay couples who wish to be married. The legal rights include those related to taxation, social welfare, maintenance of children, immigration, rights of families to protection by the state and rights of children to their parents in terms of inheritance. Also next of kin rights - that hospitals and doctors will treat the 20 year partner of a sick lesbian with cancer to the same respect and input to medical decisions as husbands and wives currently have. So many rights flow from marriage, it is vital that marriage be open to gay and lesbian people; the status of 'married' with its constitutional protection and social status, currently unavailable to us, will go some way to ending this unfair exclusion.

We launched a web site : www.marriagequality.com where you will find our position paper 'Making the Case for Marriage Equality' written by Dr Jane Pillinger. This fully outlines the reasons why we believe allowing gay and lesbian people to marry is the only means of ensuring equality in modern Ireland. It is a thorough and comprehensive piece of research and I encourage you all to read it and absorb its contents.

It outlines in detail many of the rights that flow from marriage and how these are denied to gay and lesbian people. It also tackles some of the arguments that are presented against same sex marriage and demonstrates, by way of international comparisons, the manner in which gay and lesbian marriage has been introduced successfully in other countries and jurisdictions (namely Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain in the European Union, and also in South Africa, Canada and the US state of Massachusetts).

It also demonstrates that marriage provides important legal protection for gay and lesbian parents and their children in Ireland. As things stand a child parented by a gay or lesbian couple (and there are many) does not have the right to have his or her parents recognised nor are such children protected in the same way as children of married heterosexuals. Surely this is unfair to the children and against both the spirit and the letter of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Even at this stage, based on the comments of Government representatives, it is clear that their proposed civil partnership bill will not come anywhere near close to providing legislative equality for gay and lesbian people. We must first have equality - which is marriage equality, we can then discuss a menu of options for co-habiting couples and their rights. Civil partnership is not equality and it will mean we are still excluded from full equality in Ireland.

When Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus because she was black and that is what black people were supposed to do at that time, she started a revolution in thinking that ended all forms of inequality before the law for black people. Rosa refused to take the seat at the back which was so kindly marked as 'hers' she refused to accept second class status, cos she could see all the white folk at the front of the bus. She saw what equality looked like and she would accept nothing less.

Marriagequality is about showing everyone, gay or straight, what equality looks like. We want our sisters and brothers who are not gay to step up with us and walk and talk for equality.

MarriagEquality believes that Ireland is ready for civil marriage for gay and lesbian people. Recent research in polls and surveys demonstrates that we live in a more mature and tolerant society. We want gay and lesbian people, our friends, and our families to go directly to our TDs either in their constituency offices, their clinics, or in Leinster House and make them aware that rights are infringed by being denied access to marriage.

Speaking in the Dail last Novemeber during the debate on Civil Unions Fianna Fail TD, Martin Mansergh stated that the issue of gay and lesbian marriage "is not a matter that I can recall being raised with me, face to face, in my constituency from any angle, either for or against."

MarriagEquality wants to ensure that no Oireachtas member ever again stands-up in the Dail or Seanad and utters such words.

That is why a vital part of our work is the "We are not out till we are out to our TDs" campaign. We cannot let our politicians use silence as an excuse for inaction.

I have brought pack for you and you can download how best to use them from the website.

MarriagEquality will help gay and lesbian people, their family and friends with the process of visiting their TDs to raise awareness of the issue. We have created a pack (which is available in the room today) for people to use before they visit their TDs. It provides information on what they might say to their TD and the views they may come across. We will provide whatever support we can to encourage people to visit their public representatives and to ask for civil marriage.

We also know that in many parts of the country - whether it is Dublin, Donegal, or Dingle, gay and lesbian people still suffer discrimination - physical assault, verbal abuse, or even institutional discrimination - simply because of sexual orientation.

For that reason we believe that the Government by legislating for civil marriage for all, will send the clearest message to the Irish public that homophobia is as unacceptable as racism, sexism, sectarianism, or any other form of discrimination.

Ireland has come a long way since the decriminalization of homosexuality in 90's. That memorable change was long overdue. Now it is time for the next step. Civil marriage for gay and lesbian people is not the great leap that some portray it to be. It is the logical extension of rights that we as gay and lesbian people in this country have waited long enough for.

Quite simply, there can be no excuse, we are calling for civil marriage for gay and lesbian people, we deserve equality.