Whatever you say, say nothing. The Irish Referendum

no voice

I came to a coffee shop to write about something I have been avoiding writing about. Coming here reminds me of my final year being a student in Zagreb, Croatia. Years ago, when I studied for my undergraduate degree, near the end of the studies I needed to prepare for my final exam. I loved what I studied but by that stage I was ready to end the student era and do something else. I was no longer able to study at home, or at the university. Very diligent student that I was I would just fidget in the chair, unable to learn a single thing. But I had to study a bit more in order to complete this exam. I decided I needed to change the scenery in order to be able to make some progress, so I started going to the National Library in Zagreb and study in that very scholarly environment. It helped.

In the last few weeks something has been emerging from within, something that until recently I was not able to articulate. Then a few sentences that were merely ‘my own’ surfaced and clarified for me what my views actually are. But I was feeling rather uneasy saying anything about it to too many people, and even more so quite terrified writing about it. I knew my view would not be popular, and I think that caused the sense of fear and unease to escalate. And yet, my conscience or something within me has been knocking and demanding I actually write it down. I’ve been quite good in putting into practice the good old Northern Irish saying, “Whatever you say, say nothing”. But the time has come for me to say ‘something’. You can’t be silent forever. I tried writing this at home but I just ended up avoiding it. I think the fear was blocking me from writing and saying anything. That’s why I came to this coffee shop to try and write it here.

I want to write about the Irish Referendum that is coming up on 22nd May. For those of you outside of Ireland, let me explain that in a few weeks time the Irish citizens (which I am not) will vote on the issue of marriage, in other words whether they consider marriage to be between a man and a woman, or if it can be open to any two people regardless of their sex. So they will either vote No to the proposed change of the Irish Constitution (for marriage to remain between a man and a woman) or Yes to the change of the Constitution (for marriage to be between any two people regardless of their gender).

This is an area where I have not been vocal almost at all, not just recently but ever. Why? It’s a very sensitive area. While it addresses a concept of marriage, and people’s different understanding of it, it also mentions a group of people. Because the language used has often been rather unhelpful, to say the least, until Pope Francis managed to redeem some of it, I thought I may not have the right words to express where I was coming from. So I decided I better keep my mouth shut lest I offend someone. Also, it took a while to fully know where I stand and though instinctively I have always leaned towards the traditional side, I didn’t know how to articulate my own position. I wanted to find ‘my own words’, my own voice, before I ‘borrow’ someone else’s words to further clarify and inform my viewpoint. That took time, and frankly it was not a very pleasant process. I would hear people being quite vocal, heated and strong on this issue, and I wasn’t going to utter my few unintelligible words in front of them. No way. My excuse to myself was that we don’t always need to be experts on every issue, and there were plenty of people who have already been very vocal. Also everyone knows where my church stands (I’m a Catholic). It’s just, not everyone knows I’m a Catholic, and not every Catholic thinks the same; so that’s that excuse gone. Basically, I realised that not being able to speak I had no voice in this area. Seeing the posters saying “If you don’t register to vote your voice can’t be heard” didn’t help; I cannot vote anyway. So I listened and remained silent for the most part. Only in certain circumstances I would admit my inability to express my views. My conviction wasn’t strong, so I didn’t really feel like expressing it before those who had strong views (read ‘nearly everyone’). That being said, my view even though not strong, was deep. I just sat with it, and while it was unpleasant waiting for words to emerge, that’s exactly what I did. I waited to hear my own voice to tell me what I actually think. Perhaps this is what listening to your own conscience means. And only a few weeks ago, the first words began to come. To me, words matter. Their meaning, matters. Their usage, matters. I believe in a God who is the Word. Anyway, you get the point: words matter.

So these are my tuppence on the issue, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Because words matter, ‘marriage’ as a word holds a very specific meaning. Not every relationship can be called a marriage. There are some characteristics that are intrinsic to the nature of marriage: it is a commitment for life between one man and one woman, it is fruitful meaning the couple is open to having children (though I think this should include the way they live their lives together too), and it is free meaning that none of them was forced to enter into marriage but they chose it freely. If your view is that it is not essential for marriage to be conducted between one man and one woman, I probably lost you at this stage. You see, I think it is a matter of a worldview and for some of us as we understand what marriage is, the gender of those who are entering into marriage is going to matter, and it won’t be negotiable. Other relationships, such as same-sex relationships, deserve protection of the State, but they cannot be described with the word ‘marriage’. Perhaps they deserve another word, unique to the nature of the relationship they represent.

I believe gay people need to be protected by the state, not just those in a relationship but all. I don’t think it is necessary to change the Irish Constitution in order for that to happen; the state should do that anyway. Civil Partnership already protects the rights of gay couples. Also, every gay person should be treated with dignity, and surely those who are not gay too. Being human I know we fail to affirm each other’s dignity from time to time. I know I do, when I fall out with someone. Yet those instances should not be the norm, and when they do happen there is always a way of correcting it (apology, confession, acting better the next time). I’m not necessarily saying this because I think this contributes hugely to the conversation, but rather because I think we all fail to affirm someone’s dignity from time to time. Not that that’s good, it’s just our reality.

The Yes campaign presents their view as an issue of equality, and the No campaign points out that another important issue in this debate is children’s rights to a mother and a father. We are all equal in dignity as human beings, regardless of our gender, but if you base equality on the relationship status you are bound to exclude some people, gay or straight. What about those of us who are not married, are we not equal?

What is more, from Christian, Catholic point of view marriage is a ‘vocation’. And while some people will see this differently, I do not think that a vocation is a human rights issue. Often in (any given) vocation there is something we need to give up, there is a sacrificial element to it. I don’t know why the text that says that Jesus did not hold equality with God was on my mind in the last few days. I looked it up now, it’s Philippians 2:5-7 and this is what it says:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form.”

I am not sure what to do with this text and I will not try to stretch it to support my view. It is perhaps there for me to stay with it and see what it has to say, to me first, before applying it to any issue. However, the initial reflection that it inspires in me is that equality is not the most Christ-like characteristic to pursue, humility is.

I think it is not easy to reconcile the differences that the Yes and the No side hold, and the fact there is a difference is unpleasant in itself. But at the end of the day no matter what the result of the referendum will be, we will still have to live with each other, with our different views on this and other matters, and I guess my desire is that we could do it together, and not in separate isolated pockets that will polarise our society. In the middle of writing this I had a conversation about this issue with a friend who is gay and who is coming to this from a different point of view. He is a great guy and one of the first with whom I was able to speak openly and in length about where we both were coming from. Why was this so important to me? Because my experience is that respect is often lacking when two very different views are presented, and my friend helped me experience that at least sometimes that is not the case.

To be honest, I was literally scared putting my view on paper and also vocalising it to those who think differently. Even imagining saying “I would be voting No, if I could vote” terrified me. It’s a very limiting kind of fear, and it made me understand a little what those who are gay might feel before they start to come out about it. But I don’t think that kind of fear is good. In the same way that it’s not good to bully someone because they are gay, people should not be afraid to say how they will vote. My experience is not isolated. Here you can listen to the experience of Heather Barwick who says “I was raised by two mothers – here’s why I would vote No”. She was raised with a lot of love, but she was missing her father. She was also bullied for her views.

I guess I decided to put some of my thoughts in writing because it is not good to allow fear to win, whether it’s source is justified or not. What is the worst that can happen? Some (many?) will not agree with me – but I don’t expect them to. Some will. I’m already standing (OK, sitting at the moment) so if I ‘fall’ there’s not much distance to the floor. But I may as well remain standing, and keep walking (living, breathing, whatever you want to call it); this time not in hiding, afraid to say what I think, but in dignity, finding my voice for the first time.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 4th May 2015)
Photo from Internet (this is not the poster I saw, but it’s the only one I could find online)

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15 thoughts on “Whatever you say, say nothing. The Irish Referendum

  1. I can empathize with you, as an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, I have to be careful what I say in public. For many, it is an issue of doctrine, of beliefs held many years. For others, it is an issue of personal rights, of all being equal under the law. My biggest concern, my biggest worry, is the disrespect,the anger, the hatred, this is bringing out from both sides.

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  3. Hi there. I appreciate your post and your courage to post it. You inspired me to speak about this too, in my own way. This was a very scary thing for me to do, too–write an opinion piece. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. Iva, I hope you don’t mind if I respond with some thoughts of my own. I want to first start by recognising and acknowledging that you care about gay people and that you want the best for them, and that your stance on this issue comes from an honest and thoughtful place. I know you to be both kind and compassionate, and although I disagree with you strongly, I still like you! 😉

    My mind has often returned to the verse from Philippians that you quote.

    “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form.”

    What this sparked in you is that maybe ‘equality is not the most Christ-like characteristic to pursue, humility is’, but what jumped out at me was that, according to the text, equality with God was not something for Jesus to pursue; it was already his, a power and a privilege that no other human being had access to, but he chose not to exploit the advantage he held over everyone else. He chose instead to fully embrace human life, and his example was one of invitation to join him, to share in his kingdom inheritance. His teaching was not to preserve power and wealth, but to give it up, to share it with all. And so, in this situation of marriage, who is it that has the power and the privilege? As a straight person, I have access to the legal sanction and protection of my partnership with G, as a recognition that we have formed a new family. While civil partnership was an important step in recognising the validity of same-sex unions, it crucially does not recognise the two people involved as family. I have access to privilege that my gay friends do not. If marriage is a vocation, I am free to follow it, but gay people are not. It is I, the person with privilege, who must be careful not to exploit it, who must instead embrace humility, not preserving and hoarding privilege but giving it away, inviting others to share it. Slaveowners in the American South used the Bible to exhort slaves to humility, and I suspect that you would agree that then and later on during the struggle for civil rights, it would be wrong to tell black Americans to pursue humility at the expense of equality (I don’t, however, think they are mutually exclusive). The powerful, however, should pursue humility at the expense of power; the privileged at the expense of privilege.

    I agree with you that language matters (though I would also point out that it is flexible and ever-changing). It is precisely because of the importance of language, that marriage is currently the only acceptable word for the way in which two people of different families form a new family together based on commitment and love. Civil partnership is not the same benefits with mere differing terminology. It is an ‘othering’ term, and I think this article in the Irish Times eloquently addresses the importance of the distinction.

    Finally, you may find of interest this compassionate and articulate response to Heather Barwick. Personally, I simply do not understand the claim that children have a right to a mother and a father. On what basis I wonder? Please understand that I’m not saying either mothers or fathers don’t matter, but that’s not the same as saying they are a requirement. Maybe I feel that way because it was just my mother and I for the majority of my childhood, and although I love my stepfather, I wouldn’t think of changing those years of closeness with my mother, and I definitely wouldn’t wish for my biological father to have formed part of our family. My mother and I were a family, just the two of us, whole and happy. G and I are a family, whether we have children or not. Children should have a right to be brought up in a loving and secure environment. Ideally, they will have many and diverse people in their lives they can rely on and look up to. The gender (or number) of their primary guardians is the least of my concerns for children’s wellbeing. But regardless, children are already being brought up by single parents, by grandparents or extended family, and by gay parents. Trying to ensure a perceived right to a mother and father is no longer possible if it ever was, and meanwhile, denying gay parents family status merely undermines the security of their children.

    • Thanks Jessica. I was actually very careful when I was using that verse from the Scripture. I think it implies to all of us – gay or straight. Look at the news and the coverage, who is more ‘powerful’ in this debate? It certainly isn’t the No side. I do not think that a relationship between two people of the same sex can be called ‘a marriage’, that is basically my point. It’s not a matter of privilege (being single I certainly don’t have it to exploit it), in my view it is the nature of things. Can gay couples gain rights without redefining marriage? Is there a third way? If there was, then perhaps concerns of both sides could be addressed. I am not as versed in this topic as you are to respond to each of your points – and I’m doing it over the phone! – but my personal problem in this debate is not only with the issue of marriage. It is the lack of respect for people who are holding a different view. If someone is advocating ‘equality’ then it is against the cause of that equality to treat others with the lack of respect. (For me equality means dignity and respect affirms that dignity) Just for the record, this is not about your comment! (which is respectful and well versed) In general observing that lack of respect is one of the reasons that has kept me so silent so long. I know how passionate and compassionate you are about this issue, and I just want to let you know that ‘I hear you’. I just wish there was a third way, where the concerns that both sides express could be addressed. I do think that would also be a ‘God’s way’, cause I believe He is concerned for all, not just with one side of the story. I just don’t know what the ‘third way’ is or whether it exists. I personally did not write about children in my post, but if you are wondering why they are part of the debate you can read this.

  5. Hmmm, this piece resonated with me–not because I hold the same political view regarding same-sex marriage, but because I, too, often remain silent (or at least unexpressed) because I just don’t want to deal with the ensuing argument, the conclusions people jump to. But here in this piece, you have spoken your truth with a measure and thoughtfulness that inspires me. Perhaps one day, like you, I will find the words that just “say” and not “incite.”

    • Thank you. “The conclusions people jump to” – this is what resonated with me in your comment. Of course, there are thankfully exceptions. It is a gift when our words are received as they were meant to be, so I thank you for your comment, I really appreciate it.

  6. Perhaps they deserve another word, unique to the nature of the relationship they represent.

    Yup, you lost me. Because what you say is just plainly wrong. Yes, wrong. Let me use “you” as a way for talking about “your people”. I couldn’t impose in any way of your life, as we live in different countries – but there are similar people to you, here.

    As a bisexual woman, I can assure you that there is no uniqueness in the nature of relationship – it’s just the same. You’re denying me the same rights you have (I want to marry the person I fell in love with, even if this is a woman), because of your faith. While I, not identifying as a Catholic but what you would say “pagan”, leave you alone to live the way you want even when I truthfully disagree. I’m not trying to strip “your kind” of human rights to live according with your religion and force you only to have civil ceremony, nor I try to keep you out of adopting kids because I think your religion’s teachings are harmful. If I chose to be with that person for the rest of my life, I want to have a marriage, not a civil partnership etc. Thank you for the grace of agreeing on being protected by the state, but keep that arrogant attitude away from me (us). We are both humans and we should have the same rights, which we’re denied, regardless of whatever your religion says. Unless you want me trying to push out my religion beliefs on you. Yup, in many countries, we are discriminated (including my own) – but the discrimination will not end until all people have the same rights. And “civil partnership” is a discrimination.

    Perhaps you should listen to “I was raised by mum and dad and it was hell”. I know let’s ban “husband and wife” relationships because it’s a source of pathology.

    Live the way you want and keep out of the life of other people, even if you disagree. Nobody tells you to have a gay marriage – want to spend a life with a man having tens of children, do so. But don’t think you can tell the others how should they live – now you’re doing so. It’s easy – all people need to have equal rights. No more no less.

    • Well, I want my penny back, this was insulting. We clearly have a different opinion on this. I will only say this: I am sorry that my words have upset you. I did my best to express my view respectfully. Take care

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