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I Was in Dublin for the Marriage Equality Referendum 

I Was in Dublin for the Marriage Equality Referendum

Panti Yes

And I witnessed a nation transformed. 

Photo via Facebook/Panti Bliss-Pantibar

When Ireland became the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage through a popular vote on Saturday, May 23, a flurry of photographs and stories of joy and elation spread across the world. Yet the statistics, which show almost two-thirds of the country voting in support of marriage equality, and even videos of people flocking to the streets in celebration don't quite capture the feeling that permeated the streets of Dublin--one of appreciation and vindication, of disbelief, of love, and, most of all, of hope.

Flying into Dublin on the evening of May 21, I unwittingly joined the ranks of thousands of people returning home to vote. As Irish law demands that votes be cast in person, eligible voters from as far away as San Francisco, Sydney and Hong Kong were willing to pay huge prices for flights back. #HomeToVote quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, buoyed by additional flights and specially organized transportation, like Get The Boat 2 Vote, a ferry from England to Dublin. Boarding my flight in Edinburgh, a young straight woman's explanation to an older American couple that she was going home to vote was met with incredulity. "It's the referendum on marriage equality," she offered simply by means of explanation. It was the topic on everyone's tongues. On the shuttle from the airplane to the terminal in Dublin, a straight couple talked about their families. "I'm not sure about my parents," said the suit-clad man, "but my gran told me she's definitely voting Yes."

Arriving in the Irish capital, it quickly became clear that the cause had drawn together supporters from across society. Street lights were laden with campaign posters, not only those sponsored by activist groups like Yes Equality, but also from Sinn Fean, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour--every political party in government had thrown their influence behind a Yes vote. On Grafton Street, men and women in their eighties handed out TA (Irish for 'YES') stickers. In St. Stephen's Green, young families enjoying the warm weather proudly wore YES pins, as did their infant children.

yes kidsPhoto via Instagram/joshuaholcolmbe

On Friday, May 22, the stickers being handed out now read "I've Voted. Have You?" as advocates on both sides urged their friends and family to get to the polling stations. It was a long day, one of quiet optimism and near-debilitating anxiety. By 10 p.m., when the polls had closed, people came together to drink and to dance as a means to pass the time it would take before learning how the nation's citizens had voted. But the topic was never far beneath the surface.

"I woke up at 2:30 this afternoon and thought I'd missed voting," a girl who'd never voted before confessed at pre-drinks. "I rushed to the station and, of course, didn't even have to wait. I had to ask the people there how to vote though... had no idea what to do." It was a common theme, people voting for the first time. More than 100,000 new voters had registered since November, and social media was filled with tips for those who would be participating for the first time: "No selfies in the polling stations. No pins or stickers at the booths."

The whole city seemed to be out that night. Outside Crush, a popular lesbian party, a burly straight guy confessed to us that he'd just kissed a guy for the first time--already, the infectiously accepting atmosphere was encouraging people to try new things, to let down their guards. When I got into a cab at 4 a.m. on my way home, before even starting the meter, the driver told me he had a good feeling. "Two of my kids are gay," he explained. "You know, I've bought already," referring to a website domain name. Then he added: "Think there'll be high demand after this."

dublin castle

Photo via Instagram/dearbhyran

The country awoke Saturday morning to the unexpected news that a Yes vote was all but assured. Early figures were showing it ahead by a mile and, by 11 a.m., the No side was already conceding to their opponents. At noon, people began gathering in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, where the official announcement would be made. No one knew for sure when the result would be--initial estimates were around 4 p.m., although the massive surge in voters, 60% compared to less than 40% in the last two referenda, pushed that back to after 7 p.m. A large projection screen was set up to show the coverage. The square filled with applause when the likes of Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Health who came out as gay during the campaign, lit up the screen, and jeers for Ronan Mullen, an outspoken independent senator who campaigned strongly for the No side. When Senator David Norris, the openly gay politician who successfully sued the country to decriminalize homosexuality in 1993, arrived at the castle, the cheers were deafening.

With victory in sight, people began to flock to Pantibar and The George, the city's two main gay bars, in the early afternoon. Pantibar, owned by Panti, the Irish drag queen who quickly became the face of the referendum following her now iconic Nobel Call speech at the Abbey Theatre, was the obvious choice for those with foresight enough to arrive early. The bar, located on the corner of Capel Street and Strand Street Great, strained with the efforts to hold in the scores of revellers. People spilled out its doors into the extended smoking area and for those unwilling or too late to brave the line that wrapped itself around the street to get in, the streets themselves became an unofficial extension of the bar. With each constituency to vote Yes, a roar escaped from inside, propelling those outside to rush to the windows and doors, eager to see if it was the final result.


The atmosphere was electric, the air thick with emotion. Lips glistened from freshly planted kisses, shared between lovers, friends, and strangers. Faces shone on the unseasonably hot day, tears made more resplendent for capturing the sun in mixtures of glitter and rainbow colored face paint. For many, it took time for the truth to sink in. But as the figures were announced, as various parts of Dublin showed anywhere from 70-75% of voters in favor of marriage equality, disbelief gave way to laughter as people embraced and congratulated one another. Back at her bar, Panti was greeted like a goddess, people careening and stretching to catch a glimpse of her as she jumped on top of the bar, desperate to grab her hand and share in the moment. Mothers who had come out with their kids to celebrate cried openly, while fathers held grown-up children to their chests. People fought over one another to buy each other drinks. Irish people living abroad who were, for whatever reason, ineligible to vote, had traveled home nonetheless to bear witness to the momentous occasion.

And when the official result was announced, when it became known that 1,201,607, or 62% of voters, had voted Yes, the city erupted. Rainbow flags rained down as the streets flooded with people. The No posters, with all-too-familiar messages -- such as "Don't redefine marriage," "Think of the children," and "Support freedom of conscience" -- had disappeared, torn down throughout the day. Everywhere you looked there was joy. Preteens danced in the streets, stealing sips from hidden bottles of alcohol. The Irish Garda (police) warned drivers to avoid central areas, but the cars and buses that made their way through streets dense with people honked their horns in solidarity, some waving gay flags out their windows.

pantipartyPhoto on left via Twitter/@kehbayhoody

A friend who was in Dublin for the vote, having traveled from London, said that it felt like St. Paddy's Day, Christmas, and Gay Pride all rolled into one. It wasn't just gay people, and it wasn't just young people: The city had turned out to support its LGBT neighbors and families. The working class voters, the middle class, young people and old, they were all out again to celebrate victory.

If anyone went to bed that night before the sun rose on this new Ireland, I didn't meet them. Street parties became house parties, music filling the air, as people reflected on the journey. For those who had dedicated hundreds of hours to canvassing, the margin of victory made it all worth it. One young gay man told of how his 18-year-old straight brother had driven around all day in his truck, picking up his "lad" straight friends to take them to the polling stations. The lesbian who told RTE presenter Miriam O'Callaghan that Yes had "kicked ass" on live television said that her grandmother called her after in tears to congratulate her. The friends, a straight woman and a gay man, who had dropped out of school and moved to Dublin at the age of 17 in order to escape the physical attacks from bigots in Roscommon-South Letrim, marveled at how much their county had changed. Yes, it was the only one of Ireland's 43 constituencies to vote No, but it did so by a margin of only 1,000 votes. "If I could have told my 15-year-old self that this would happen," another Dubliner friend told me, "Well... just think of what this says to 15-year-old gay kids today." Later on, people congregated at places like Mother, a popular gay club that took over the Tivoli Theatre for a special referendum night. Everyone wanted to be out with those they loved on the day that their fellow citizens had made such a historic statement.

Minister Leo Varadkar said that more than a social referendum, this vote marked a "social revolution." That night, it really felt as if the world had changed. Gay people holding hands and kissing in public were cheered on by strangers, the government applauded its people for leading Ireland towards a more progressive future, and families and friends were united in a celebration of the power of love and equality. Despite fears of a divide between city and country, that the more rural parts of the nation would stick to conservatism, 42 of the 43 constituencies voted for equality, some overwhelmingly so.

On that day, every Irish person I came across was proud to be Irish, prouder than they'd ever been before. The pride I felt at simply being there, at being able to call these incredible people my friends, had me in tears as I said good-bye to the gayest weekend I'll likely ever experience.

James McDonald is Assistant Editor at Out magazine and The Advocate. A graduate of the University of St. Andrews and the University of Glasgow, during the five years he lived in Scotland, he spent many a weekend partying in Dublin. He was in Ireland from May 21-24 to experience the marriage equality referendum first-hand. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

That unbelievable moment when love won in Ireland. #YesEquality #IrelandVoteYes #MarRef #PantiBar @pantibliss

A video posted by James McDonald (@jmcdonald47) on

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