On Marriage and Equality

Marchers carry a rainbow flag in Madison, Wisconsin after the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. Photo by Callen Harty.

Marchers carry a rainbow flag in Madison, Wisconsin after the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. Photo by Callen Harty.

It was the late 1970s and I was struggling with my identity. I knew I was gay but I didn’t know how I could be gay. The Stonewall Rebellion, considered the watershed event of the modern gay rights movement, was not even a decade past. It had only been about five years since homosexuality was removed from the diagnostic manuals as a disease. I knew no one who was gay or lesbian. There were no role models. There were no married couples to look up to as role models. There was no instruction manual. I floundered about searching for information, secretly reading a few paragraphs here and there in books in the public library without checking them out because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was reading. I came across books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask which made being gay seem like a horrible disease. I was led to believe that my life was destined to be one of utter loneliness.

I finally came out in the spring of 1979 and was accepted by those who meant the most to me. Shortly after I joined the campus gay group at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, which had been formed around the same time, and became one of its most active members. I also finally found some mentors, particularly my friend Randy who helped me become more confident in myself. I served on the Speakers Bureau and was willing to be out and open because I knew even then that the only way the discrimination against us would ever end would be when all of us were out and everyone else realized they had queer friends, family members, co-workers, and others in their lives. It can be easy to hate a group of people when you know nothing about them, fear them, and don’t understand them. It can be difficult to hate a group when one of their members is someone you know and love and their behavior doesn’t match the stories you have been told and the image you have developed about the group.

When I went into classrooms to talk it struck me as odd that the thing that seemed to disturb the students the most was not the idea of gay sex, but the idea of gay love. They could understand sexual experimentation and sexual relations–though they didn’t understand the preference part of that–but they could not wrap their heads around the idea of two men or two women loving each other. They often asked what we most wanted and when I inevitably answered “to find someone I can love, with whom I can spend the rest of my life” there would be looks of utter confusion.

I never answered that I wanted to get married because that concept was not even a possibility, not even a thought, in 1979, at least not in the world in which I lived. It didn’t occur to me that any gay person would ever be able to do that. At best, I hoped to find someone to love and to be able to live in happiness and peace with them. We were fighting to decriminalize sexual relations, to end discrimination, to get society to understand that we were not “less than” but “equal to”. If someone had asked about same-sex marriage I would not have known how to answer because it was so far removed from reality.

I did eventually find that someone to love and live with in happiness and peace and even without the blessing of marriage we have lasted longer than most married couples. As time went by the concept of same-sex marriage was introduced but seemed all along like a far distant dream, a wish unfulfilled. When the people in my home state started to debate the issue and I saw the absolute hatred unleashed from my own fellow citizens I knew that it would be many, many years if it ever happened. When Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage I could not believe it. When other states followed suit it blew me away. When it was passed by a legislature I was stunned. Still there were many places where I could not marry Brian, including our state of Wisconsin.

But something magical happened and it wasn’t just queer people fighting for the right to marry. Other citizens saw that the world didn’t end when men married men in Massachusetts and elsewhere. They saw marriage equality come to fruition in other countries. They saw the military become integrated and the world didn’t fall apart then either. They saw the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. They saw the writing on the wall. They saw, most of all, their brothers and daughters, fellow church members, co-workers, dear friends, and others in their lives come out, proclaim themselves proudly, and saw that yes, if those people can be gay then we need to rethink what it means to be gay and we need to reexamine all the things we have been told over the years about the way those gay people are. They concluded that allowing their loved ones to love and commit to the person they cared most deeply about in the world was nothing but fair and just. In a short time public support for same-sex marriage shifted until today when nearly two-thirds of our citizens support it.

So now, today, the Supreme Court of the United States has heard the voices of the electorate, they have listened to the stories of gay and lesbian partners, and they have affirmed that we–that I–have the right to marry my partner of almost 25 years.

I cannot even describe how I feel at this moment. I cannot stop tearing up. Brian and I would be together with or without marriage, but without it we stay together as second class citizens. We remain together as unequal participants in a country where all people are said to be created equal. We would be considered as “less than”.

We are not “less than”. We are “equal to”. We are full citizens in this country. In about a year, when we reach our 25th anniversary as a couple, we will commit to each other in marriage and we will live in happiness and peace as we have for a quarter century already. The difference will be that our union will be blessed not just by us and our loved ones but by the state and country in which we live.

We will also not stop fighting, because we understand that marriage equality for gays and lesbians is just one piece of a larger puzzle. There are still about half of the states where we can be fired simply for being gay. There are reactionary politicians like Wisconsin’s own Scott Walker who will now push for a Constitutional amendment to undo the progress that has been made. There will be a backlash and continued violence against queer people from those who still choose hate over love.

We also understand that we have never just fought for our queer brothers and sisters. Until all people are equal in this land of ours–African-Americans, immigrants, and all who are oppressed in any way–we will use our lives to work toward that utopian vision of all men and women being created and treated equally under the law and in reality. We have much work to do. Today I revel in this one victory, but I understand it is just that–one victory–and there is a long road yet to travel to reach the point where we are all truly equal. That day will come, but only when we all see each other as fully human and treat each other with the respect and dignity that every human being deserves.

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An Open Letter to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin

Madison, Wisconsin mayor Paul Soglin. Photo by Callen Harty.

Madison, Wisconsin mayor Paul Soglin. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Mayor Soglin,

Let me start with a simple question: Who are you? What happened to the Paul Soglin I thought I knew?

You just vetoed a unanimously passed amendment that would have added Madison’s homeless population as a protected class in the city in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. According to Channel 27 you stated that more study was needed on the cost to the Department of Civil Rights. You also noted “the impact on existing protected classes by the dilution of the impact on protecting a class where the nature of the classification is not always continuous.”  I call bullshit. Adding a protected class does not diminish any of the other protected classes (and I am in one of those). Please do not pit groups against each other to achieve your ends (whatever they may be). Did you recently veto a similar bill that made atheists a protected class? I would contend that atheism is not always a continuous state either. Just as a homeless person may find a job and housing and come out their circumstances an atheist could convert to any of the world’s religions at any moment. A homeless person being relieved of their circumstances would take them out of the need for protection, but those who stay homeless still need the protection the amendment would have offered.

What is your deal? What is your issue with homeless citizens? A couple years ago you suggested that you’d like to see all of them shipped out of the city. To become someone else’s problem? What kind of resolution is that?

You need to get your humanity back.

A short while back you tried (and it wasn’t  the first time) to have an ordinance passed that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for homeless people to sleep around the City/County Building and also to face possible arrest for loitering in or around the building. A couple days ago you started snapping pictures of the people around the building and then called 911 when one of them took umbrage over it. Why are you so afraid of these people? Seriously. What is your deal? What happened to the liberal Paul Soglin (or the radical Paul Soglin who helped lead anti-war protests back in the Viet Nam days)? Did you spend so long as a financial adviser to wealthy clients that you forgot that there are poor people in the world who need help?

I can tell you this. Fining people who have no money is ridiculous. Passing laws to prevent people with no homes from sleeping in one particular place will not solve the underlying issue that they have no homes! Moving them out of downtown or out of the city does not solve the problem. It only removes them from public view or shifts the problem to another municipality or government entity.

We need to examine the underlying economic issues that lead to homelessness and try to solve those issues. Until that happens we need to treat all of our fellow citizens with compassion and understanding. Perhaps you have never been without a home. Perhaps you have never been unemployed. Perhaps you have never been hungry. Well, bully for you. But there are countless people across this entire country–a country that is filled with enough wealth to feed and house everyone–who have nowhere to rest their heads at night. You are an elected representative and in a representative government you are elected to represent all of the people, not just an elite class that is made uncomfortable by the sight of their fellow citizens using the grounds of the City/County Building as a temporary shelter because they have nowhere else to go.

Where is your compassion? Instead of snapping photos of what you consider “littering” around the City/County Building you need to sit down and talk with the people who are staying there. You need to hear their stories. You need to connect with their–and your–humanity and get off of your crusade against them. Please, look into your heart and see if you can find the young activist who cared about everyone and bring that part of your nature back to this issue. Find the compassion you lost and become as human as your brothers and sisters who sleep outside in the city you say you care so much about.

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The Dennis Hastert Truth in Sentencing Act

Capitol in Fog. Photo by Callen Harty.

Capitol in Fog. Photo by Callen Harty.

From Matthew 23:  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Tonight I am proposing a new truth in sentencing law that is aimed at hypocrites–not the Pharisees of the Bible but our contemporary Pharisees, the religious and political leaders who rail against our modern sins while hiding their own sins from public view. Our modern hypocrites are the people who rail against same-sex marriage because of the sanctity of traditional marriage, yet are divorced multiple times themselves. They are the ones who kill abortion doctors because they believe the doctors are killing babies and killing is just plain wrong. They are the men and women who call for stricter laws on drug usage while doing drugs every day. They are the people like Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House in history, a man who, according to the Washington Post on June 1, was quoted in 2003 as saying this about child molesters: “But it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives, and to help law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done.”

My proposal, The Dennis Hastert Truth in Sentencing Act, would automatically sentence wrongdoers to whatever sentence they have declared is appropriate for the sins they were hiding behind their hypocritical facades. So Hastert, who it now appears may have molested as many as three teenage boys while he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Illinois, would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if he were found to be guilty of the crimes. Unfortunately, due to the statute of limitations, he is not likely to face trial for anything but the current federal charges related to his hush money case and any “past mistakes” that he made with high school boys will get a free ride. But if he could be tried and found guilty, that would be the sentence.

He would not be the only one. According to a February 21 Daily Kos article Bill Maher called out Jeb Bush for smoking and dealing pot in college, while later as a politician saying that drug dealers should get mandatory jail sentences and no treatment. Bush would now be an ex-convict running for President. The list of politicians who represent a government actively pursuing a “war on drugs” who have admitted to using illegal drugs could run several pages. Besides Jeb Bush it includes Bill Clinton (who didn’t inhale; yeah, right), Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clarence Thomas, and Jesse Ventura, just to name a few.

In 2002 Jim Bob Duggar stated during his campaign for Senate that incest should be punishable by death. He was quoted as saying that it should be a capital crime. I wonder if he is willing to pull the switch on the electric chair, or perhaps being a good Christian man, would prefer stoning his son to death now that it has been revealed that Josh Duggar molested several of his sisters (and a neighbor).

There are many politicians who virulently oppose LGBT rights but who end up getting caught in compromising situations with members of the same sex. Larry Craig of Idaho opposed same-sex marriage and opposed extending hate crimes to include gay citizens. He also was vocal in his displeasure with Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, saying–and, believe it or not, this is a direct quote–“The American people already know that Bill Clinton is a bad boy – a naughty boy. I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state, who in the majority think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.”  The quote is from an interview with Meet the Press, January 24, 1999, as quoted by WikiQuotes. Craig was caught trying to pick up men for sex in a public restroom in an airport in Minneapolis, effectively ending his political career by getting caught being a naughty boy. While he may not have proposed legal punishment for LGBT citizens he certainly worked at making lives more difficult.

These hypocrites are revealed on an almost daily basis in this country. I can think of several more religious and political leaders, as well as celebrities, just off the top of my head, who have been caught doing things they should not have been doing. We are all frail. We can all succumb to temptation or do something that we might not want to share with our neighbors. I don’t fault anyone for making a human mistake. What I find objectionable is the hypocrisy–those who loudly profess how others are heathens, immoral, or flawed when they themselves are engaged in the same conduct they so loudly condemn. They deserve their own condemnation and, if they propose a punishment for a crime that they themselves are guilty of, then I believe they should perhaps suffer the very fate that they so publicly endorsed.

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Ryan vs. Huebsch

Demonstration Area. Ground Floor Rotunda. Photo by Callen Harty.

Demonstration Area. Ground Floor Rotunda. Photo by Callen Harty.

More than four years ago thousands upon thousands of protesters descended upon Wisconsin’s Capitol to protest Scott Walker’s attack on public employee unions, among other things that were in his “budget repair bill”. Please note that despite media insistence it was never just about Act 10. There were many horrible things in that bill. After a time the Department of Administration pretty much maneuvered security in the building to keep out any more than a handful of protesters at one time. They then started harassing those who were there by trying to set up specific areas of protest in the building.

One group, led by Jeremy Ryan of Defending Wisconsin, decided to hold signs on the first floor of the building (which is actually the floor above the ground floor). Ryan received multiple citations and some of the other members of the group received several also. Like almost all of the arrests that came about as a result of the protests against Walker and his Republican allies the citations were clearly illegal. The Capitol police were making up rules as they went along, the Department of Administration was changing their rules on an almost weekly basis, and none of the small government Republicans in office said a word about the trampling of their citizens’ Constitutional rights of assembly and speech.

These citizens sued the state and the trial was finally held today.

The attorneys for the state seemed as incompetent as the Capitol police. One has to wonder if they even have the stomach for these cases in which they clearly know that the Constitution has been violated. How can lawyers for the Attorney General’s office, which is sworn to uphold the Constitution, even sleep at night when they are defending the state in a case such as this? How can they justify taking it on? And how can the Attorney General let a case like this continue instead of settling? The plaintiffs were clearly within their Constitutional rights to hold signs in the Capitol. There was no danger to anyone and they were simply stating their political opinions in a building that has historically been seen as the state’s town square.

The sign that Ryan was holding said, “ALEC = GOP Greed”. At the time not that many people knew about the American Legislative Exchange Council. Now it is well-known as an organization that allows big business easy access to legislators who are convinced to introduce their boilerplate legislation into law in their home states. Many Republican legislators in Wisconsin belong and Governor Scott Walker was a long-time member as an Assembly representative. The sign that my niece was holding simply said, “Our nation is a union.” Apparently Walker and his minions felt that these were treasonous words and shouldn’t be displayed in a building that they had taken over and made their own palace. Both were ticketed. My niece’s ticket was for just over $200. Today the judge awarded Ryan $750 for each of his many tickets, my niece $4,000 for hers, and several other plaintiffs several thousand dollars each.

If I thought that today’s decision would help the Republicans in power in Wisconsin learn something I would be overjoyed. But they are used to running roughshod over our laws and citizens and the wishes of the people. My expectation is that they will appeal. If it goes all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court there is a conservative majority that seems to care much less about the Constitution than about power, so the victory today may prove to be short-lived.

The state has already spent a considerable amount of money taking hundreds of citizens to court over illegal arrests like these and cases that have been summarily dismissed by the courts. I had a ticket that was dismissed a couple years ago for videotaping in the gallery of the legislature. Walker and his cohorts claim we are broke. Yet they continue spending taxpayer dollars on cases like this when it is clear to the greenest of lawyers that they have no case. I’d like to see them finally give it up. Then again, I’d also like to win a million dollars. That is probably more likely.

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My Cousin is a Duck, and I Am Loved

Mom and her fuzzy friends. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom and her fuzzy friends. Photo by Callen Harty.

Some days when I visit my mother she thinks I’m her brother or someone else. Most of the time she knows who I am, but not always. Going to visit can be saddening or it can bring me joy–I never know which until I’m there and engaged in conversation. Sometimes you can tell she is not quite sure who you are, so she acts as if she recognizes you so as not to give it away that she doesn’t know. It can make it difficult to tell where her mind is at any given moment.

Last night when I stopped in she seemed to realize it was me, but she didn’t call me by name or anything, so I thought maybe she couldn’t remember. I asked how she was doing and she said she hadn’t been well. She is normally not a complainer in any way, so that surprised me. When I asked what was wrong she couldn’t really define it. When I told my brother about it later he mentioned that about a week ago she said to him that she thought maybe she was dying.

Of course she is dying. She has for years now been on a slow, steady decline, but she has also shown incredible strength and resolve each time we thought she was near the end. She received Last Rites almost a year ago and was kicked off of hospice because she had been doing so well after it looked pretty bad there for a while. She is 90 now and has been bedridden for about a year and a half or more.

This weekend’s visit was mostly good. Mom has several stuffed animals as friends and she acts as if they are family. They lay in bed with her and keep her company and brighten her days for her. They can be there when the rest of us can’t. There are two bright yellow ducks with large orange bills and because this is Wisconsin they have a friend that is a Holstein. Today I took a picture of them watching over her and it drew her attention to them. She asked how they were related to me. I said, “I’m not sure. I think they might be cousins.”

“And him?” she asked, pointing at the Holstein next to them. I said I thought it was a friend.

She asked where they live and I said, “Here, with you.”

She wanted to know about the Holstein. She said, “And him?”

I answered that he was staying here with his two duck friends. She asked, “What about his parents? Are they sick?”

I could only say that I didn’t know and then I thought about how sick my parent has been for so long and how her mind has slowly abandoned her. Dementia can be so cruel. We sat there silently for several minutes. She just stared into space as if pondering some deep philosophical question, but eventually whatever thought it was gave way to her eyes closing and her body settling into sleep again. I sat watching her for a while until I moved a bit and accidentally startled her awake.

“What was that?” she asked. I let her know I had moved suddenly and that I was sorry I woke her. She started laughing, embarrassed that she would be so frightened by a little movement. Her laughter can brighten the darkest day.

I stood up and kissed her on the forehead and said, “I need to get back home and I don’t want to keep bothering you when you’re tired.”

She looked me in the eye and said, as seriously as I’ve ever heard her say anything, “My children are never a bother to me.” She took my hand and we held hands for a couple minutes. Her hands are so thin and frail I was afraid of hurting her.

I bent down and kissed her again. “I’m going to go now. I love you.”

She replied something along the lines of, “I love you as deep as love can be.” It took me by such surprise I wasn’t exactly sure how she had phrased it. I looked in her eyes and I knew she knew who I was at that moment.

It didn’t matter if my cousin might be a stuffed yellow duck, or that earlier she had asked if her own mother was still sleeping. It didn’t matter that on another day she thought I was her brother. All that mattered was that moment. I looked deeply into her eyes and said, “That is the best gift I could have gotten today.”

I kissed her again and left, somewhat reluctantly, but also wanting that to be my last memory for the day. I said I love you again and she repeated the same to me. As I turned around one last time at the door she lifted her hand in a weak wave. I never know if my visit might be the last one. If it proves to be this visit was certainly a gift that I will treasure for the rest of my life. If not, I hope the next one is as good.

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On the Josh Duggar Case

Ripples. Photo by Callen Harty.

Ripples. Photo by Callen Harty.

The Josh Duggar case has once again brought the issue of child sex abuse to the forefront of America’s consciousness. It will likely stay there for a couple weeks until the next hot story comes along and then it will be relegated to the back pages where no one will notice any longer. Eventually it will not even be a story any longer and everyone will soon forget it ever happened.

This happens repeatedly with our star-crossed media. A famous person is accused of having sexually abused young boys or girls and there is an immediate frenzy–not because a child was hurt, but because it was someone rich or famous who perpetrated the abuse. The story becomes about the abuser and not about the victims of it. There are rumors, innuendos, denials, and then the famous person is tried and convicted or–as happens more often–the story just goes away (often due to out-of-court settlements or expensive lawyers who know how to work the system; sometimes, as in the case of Duggar, because the statute of limitations has passed or victims are unwilling to speak).

In the silence after the story dies down thousands of nameless children continue to be abused by people who are not rich and famous. Unless a particularly heinous case comes to light we never hear about these. Often the abuse remains a dark secret and the perpetrator is never caught. Lives are shattered, families destroyed, and the earth keeps spinning into new days with no one noticing.

It is easy to notice when R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter, Roman Polanski, Jerry Sandusky, Will Hayden, Cliff Richard, Stephen Collins and so many others are publicly accused of these crimes. People take notice because of their celebrity–not because a child has been hurt and our natural instincts should be to protect our children.

One in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused by the time they reach eighteen years old and unless they are abused by someone famous the vast majority of these crimes go unreported or unnoticed. Being abused by someone famous is statistically unlikely, if only for the fact that most of us will never know someone famous. Stranger danger is also unlikely; contrary to popular perception, it really doesn’t happen that often. We only think it does because those are the stories that draw media attention similar to famous people getting caught committing heinous crimes. A story about a brother molesting his sister for ten years or a church deacon molesting several boys is generally not considered newsworthy, unless that brother is well-known or unless the details are so lurid that the media believe it will pique the interest of the average consumer.

In reality, not on reality T.V. shows, most child abusers are members of the family or close trusted people and in most cases the perpetrators get away with it. If the abuse is even discovered many families, if not most, will do their best to hide what happened to protect the family. It may not be that conscious; they may just truly not know what to do. They deal with it–if they do at all–by considering it a private matter and trying to handle it without getting authorities involved.

Unfortunately, the Josh Duggar case is not that unusual. The only thing unusual about it is that it happened in a family that much of America feels they know because of their television show. The specifics of the case are not that different than the kinds of abuse cases that happen every day in cities and towns across this country, in rich families and poor ones. As detestable as the media handling of these stories can be, what stories like Josh Duggar’s do is bring light to a subject that is usually avoided in our society. It allows us to talk about the issue for a brief moment in time before the story fades away. Hopefully, in that brief span, some consciousness will be awakened. Maybe a mother or father who has suspicions about possible abuse in the family will sit down and talk with their children. Perhaps some boy or girl will recognize similar circumstances in the news reports and finally tell someone, “That happened to me.” That, at least, would make all the media hype worth it in the long run.

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A Sun-Filled Garden

A couple of young men hold hands near St. Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photo by Callen Harty.

A couple of young men hold hands near St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photo by Callen Harty.

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”–Oscar Wilde

Today the island nation of my ancestors made history by becoming the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote of the people. Few would have thought that the typically Catholic and conservative country of Ireland would become the first country to do this. Not only did the “yes” vote win, but it was overwhelming–62% to 38%–and it was nationwide.  While the largest margins of victory were in the larger metropolitan areas the “yes” votes finished on top in all areas of the country, large cities to small towns, coastal to inland. There were only a few places where the “no” votes finished ahead, and even in those places it finished barely ahead.

I have always had that pride that those in America with Irish ancestry tend to have. We feel a connection to the ancestral homeland and proclaim ourselves as Irishmen even though we are generations removed. My great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother came here during the potato famine years in the 1840s. Still, we feel a connection to the land and a yearning for it as if it were the home where we grew up. Many of us feel called to visit the old sod. I did so and celebrated my 50th birthday there. We wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, sing Irish songs, and boast with pride that we are Irish. Today, maybe more than ever, I am incredibly proud to have that Irish blood coursing through my veins.

Here in the United States the polls show more and more people believing that lesbian and gay Americans should be allowed to marry. We can do so now in a large majority of the states in this country, but it has been through judicial decisions and legislative action, not by votes of the entire population. Despite the polls showing approval of same-sex marriage at all-time highs I am not sure that I would trust my fellow Americans to vote on the issue.

From all accounts the debate in Ireland was much more civil than we might expect here. There were a few nasty signs and billboards and in the waning weeks the opponents tried to steer the discussion to a plebiscite on the safety of children, as if allowing a loving couple to marry would somehow be dangerous to Ireland’s children. But the people of the Emerald Isle were not fooled by the rhetoric of the right. They were not coerced by their Catholic bishops as they have been in the past. Instead they heard the words of their lesbian and gay compatriots and decided that their fellow citizens should be treated as equals under the eyes of the law. They decided that love is greater than hate and they voted to enshrine that in the country’s Constitution.

Gra anois agus go deo. Erin go bragh.

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