Today, many people consider the fight for gay rights to be won – in the western world at least. Same sex couples have the right to marry, to adopt children, and to live together in society without stigma. However, it’s worth noting that these significant gains in gay rights are very recent, and do not represent the experience of gay people around the world. In 2001, The Netherlands was the first country to legalise same sex marriage, but as of 2020, only 28 (out of 194) other countries in the world have followed suit.
In many countries worldwide, gay people are still treated as second class citizens. In Russia, a constitutional ban on same sex marriage has been passed by referendum, a reflection of the hostile anti-LGBT environment in Russia as a whole. Even more extreme examples of anti-gay legislation exist in countries such as Nigeria, Uganda and Saudi Arabia, where being gay is a criminal offence, sometimes punishable by death. Even in countries we might consider more progressive, such as Japan, marriage between same sex individuals is still illegal.
Ireland endured generations of sexual and social repression under the Catholic Church until very recently. Following several years of prosperity, as well as an increase in globalisation, Ireland’s values have started to change and we have moved closer to a more equal society. However, equality and change didn’t happen without the courage, commitment and campaigning of many individuals and organisations. Homosexual activity was only decriminalised in 1993 and gay marriage was not recognised prior to the 2015 referendum.
In 2010 Ireland passed a civil partnership bill, pushed ahead by the tireless campaigning of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN). However, while civil partnerships were a step in the right direction they did not afford gay people the same equality as heterosexual couples either in law or, significantly, in our culture. For full equality in law and in society, Marriage Equality and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) joined GLEN to campaign for a public referendum on civil marriage equality.