This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
On Friday, the Marriage Equality Referendum will ask the Irish public whether they think gay people should be afforded the right to marry like their straight friends. It looks like the "Yes" campaign will win, which is not bad for a country that finally decriminalized homosexuality in 1993—a mere 26 years after the UK and 200 years after France. But Friday will also herald the end of a long and emotionally charged battle that will leave many people feeling exhausted and frustrated.
The "equality debate" has opened a Pandora's box of polarization, with campaigns for and against becoming more and more frenzied as the referendum date looms. The referendum was brought forward—with a dash of political expediency—by the ailing center-right Labour/Fine Gael coalition, and has been the centerpiece of Irish political discourse for the last few weeks.
Far from the easy pass expected by many of the country's liberals, the referendum campaign has been a nasty battle between those in favor of equal rights and Ireland's hidden army of Catholic social conservatives. Unfortunately for gay people, their personal lives are now up for public savagery. For some, the problem lies in the referendum itself which many gay activists have described as "like coming out all over again."
I spoke to Jill Moriarty, a gay woman from a rural village in Kerry in southwest Ireland. She told me how the referendum was making her feel shit about herself and her neighbors. "It's brought up a lot of stuff for me. Even though the Yes vote seems likely, I still feel a sense of rejection from Kerry—all of these negative points, the way in which gay people are spoken about extensively," she said.
Jill feels this referendum is politicizing what is essentially a human rights issue. "This shouldn't be a political issue, it's a human rights issue. Human rights are called human rights for a reason, I don't want to vote on them," she said.
Nevertheless, if gay marriage is to be legalized, the referendum has to happen. Ireland has a special clause—designed by the well-meaning founders of the Republic—that mandates any changes to the constitution be decided by popular vote. Marriage is currently defined in the constitution as a union between a man and woman, so to amend this, the Irish public have to vote.
It's not just the gay-bashing side of the debate that has got nasty. The Yes side lost some face after a ten-year-old girl sitting on a No campaign truck was egged by a passerby on a bicycle, causing her to go into anaphylactic shock. That played into the idea that the Yes campaign is an unruly mob of heathen bullies.
Other aspects of the campaign have left some feeling frustrated. The sophisticated urbanites in the capital could hardly be further removed from those clinging to old Catholic ideals. When Prime Minister Enda Kenny went to Ireland's best-known gay bar, it was a symbol of how far at least some of Ireland has come. But to some it showed how distant even the leader of Fine Gael, one of the country's biggest conservative parties, is from the country's bible bashers.
The No campaign, meanwhile, is pretty much a carbon copy of Ireland's 1995 divorce referendum opposition campaign, with voters being told to "Vote No to protect families and children" and that "Children need a mother and a father."
I've talked to plenty of Catholic conservatives in rural Ireland who have told me about how gay people are all pedophiles. It seems a weird concern when they're still accepting moral guidance from the pedophilia-scandal tainted Catholic Church.
You've also got an army of right-wing Christians who have materialized, funded by the dollars of US evangelicals. They have popped up in every regional town, telling people that they're going to hell if they allow gays to marry, and bashing us over the head with the word "abomination."
Irish broadcasters are having a hard time desperately trying to keep everything "balanced." A previous Broadcasting Authority of Ireland ruling basically means that for every person taking to the airwaves to argue for equal recognition, we need someone telling us how the gay people don't deserve the same rights as the rest of us.
In December, this led to a journalist being unable to discuss his book about marriage equality on the radio unless someone against gay marriage was there to present the "other side." Concerns about impartiality also led a school to cancel an anti-homophobic bullying workshop because people who think homophobic bullying is totally fine weren't there to present their side of the argument.
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Caught in the middle of all this, many in the gay community feel exposed and isolated.
"My private life has always been just that—private—like it is for everyone, but now, with the referendum I have to look at whether I'm accepted by a group of people I never thought about before," Jill told me. "It's making me question things, whereas before I was just happy living my life. This is a referendum of a majority making a minority justify the kind of life they've been living. I always felt equal, but this referendum is making me feel like I'm not equal. It's making me think some people don't see me as equal. To be honest I feel slightly vulnerable," she said.
If the polls are correct, Ireland looks set to be the first country to pass gay marriage by popular vote. But any pride felt by liberal Ireland may be tempered by questions over whether it's best to discuss human rights through poster campaigns and screaming telly debates.
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