Tellus: (tel’us), n. 1. [Latin] earth, soil, and the land; a country; the world. 2. a collection of Willamette University student’s insights, stories, photos and thoughts from their experiences studying abroad.

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The Fight for Equality in a Deeply Catholic Country

On May 22, 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.  There are so many stories to tell about this event.

The date for the voting was announced in January or February. Initial polls showed a 74% approval rating for legalizing same sex marriage. If I remember correctly, these polls were of general public opinion, rather than just those registered to vote. This is because, in Ireland, very few people, especially people my age, are registered to vote. Perhaps it’s a result of the years of colonialism that still impact the culture today, a culture where the government does not serve you and it’s shameful to be involved in government. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many people intend to move to America anyway that they don’t bother to register to vote (Ireland doesn’t have absentee voting). Whatever it is, the fact remained that very few of these approving and tolerant people would actually turn up to vote. It would be a loss of apathy.

The concentrated panic began. Everyone had seen the polls and everyone knew that there would be people who wouldn’t show up just because they were so confident it would pass. There was a huge push to get people registered. Newspapers carried articles reading, ‘whichever way the vote goes, this will be a victory for Democracy,’ because this seemed to be the issue to finally get people involved in the voting process. I knew people who were telling all their friends ‘if you don’t go out and vote, we are no longer friends.’ We went canvassing door to door, hitting the neighborhoods in Galway, like Woodquay and Salthill, spreading information about when was the last day to register and offering up information about the movement.

The Catholic Church was urging people to vote no. Few people my age listened to them. After the scandals at the Vatican and the information still trickling out about the Magdalene Laundries, a lot of people are disillusioned with the Church. The Anglican Church was urging people to vote yes, but it’s only a very small proportion of the population that identifies as that denomination. All the political parties (and yes, even the more conservative ones) were urging people to vote yes. This includes Fine Gael, a conservative party whose sign, in Irish, is shown below. That didn’t seem to sway people much either, given how little most people were involved in politics.

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Then started the nastiness with each side tearing down the signs of the other (with, of course, people only accusing the yes vote on this. Thanks, respectability politics). Some people tried to anonymously blackmail people on the yes side into silence.

We continued on, canvassing through the neighborhoods of Galway, getting abused and applauded in turn. One day, as happens often in Galway, it started hailing. And not just a little bit of soft hail. Large hail, blowing with the strong winds that had just picked up, bruising us, exposed outside strangers’ houses. As everyone frantically ducked to try futilely to find cover and to protect the flyers we were handing out, we suddenly glanced up, and saw the double rainbow filling the sky. I decided then and there that whatever the church said, clearly G-d approved of what we were doing.

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Despite the college students who remained apathetic and the other students who refused to open the door to us because they thought we were inspectors and the homophobes in their various incarnations, the referendum finally passed, with a 62% yes vote. I was in the middle of the street in Cork City when I heard this, and collapsed without delay right in the middle of the street. Roscommon, one of the most rural and conservative counties in Ireland, was the only county which had voted no (51-49).

These events had taken their toll on everyone, especially those who spent their evenings and emotional energy canvassing, effectively coming out of the closet to total strangers each time, not knowing what the response would be. Bi, pan, and ace people had to continue to lie about their identities in order to be affiliated with the campaign, making equal marriage an easier pill to swallow for the straight population. This caused no small amount of frustration for myself and others who were forced to conceal our true sexualities under the guise of being gay or lesbian. I was just lucky that, however the vote turned out, I could always go home to California where (after a long hard fight which was begun by this same ‘no’ vote) I was sure to be able to marry whomever I loved. My friends in Ireland had a lot more riding on it than I did. Even so, when the news came in that it had passed, I knew what my friends in other parts of the country must be feeling, because I had felt it when Prop. 8 was finally repealed. It means so much to me that they now have the same rights as I do, living in California.

It was a long and intense process and after everyone helped each other through it, about a week later the Irish government quietly passed a law allowing trans people to legally change their gender on their birth certificate. The only thing that had prevented them from doing so before was the fact that same sex marriage was illegal. With marriage equality, trans people could legally change their gender while married without creating an illegal same sex marriage.

Ireland is changing so incredibly quickly, and I’m so thankful I was able to be there at such an important time.

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