Interrogating the Irish Marriage Equality Campaigns: Where are the Voices of Young People?

This article was written as a part of LGBT Week 2015 in honor or Ireland's marriage referendum. Find out more here.

By Bryce Bahler (Editor)

The upcoming marriage equality referendum in Ireland is being heralded as historic, not just for the country itself, but for the global effort to realize equality and human rights for LGBTQ people [1]. Perhaps this is especially so given that the events are unfolding in a historically conservative, largely Catholic country. And while the religious implications of the referendum have been and should been given attention [2], what is particularly interesting to me as child researcher, is the way in which both sides of the debate have situated children and young people in their campaigning. This article aims to investigate the use of, and reference to, children and young people in the referendum discourse and to interrogate this discourse from a children’s rights perspective.


Young People in the “No” Campaign

Despite years of surveying that indicates a victory for the “Yes” campaign [3], doubts remain whether the polls give an accurate picture of how people really intend to vote [4]. One of the reasons put forward as to why the “No” campaign may be stronger than the polls suggest, is due to voters’ concerns about the impact the result will have on children [5]. The “No” side argues that expanding marriage equality to LGBTQ adults would “drastically change” the rights of children [6]. Two arguments often repeated by the “No” side include the necessity for children to be raised by a biological mother and father and the right for children to know their biological parents. Though similar and related, these two issues function differently in the “No” campaign rhetoric.

The argument regarding biological mothers and fathers hinges upon a belief that for children to be healthy and safe they need one parent of each sex. One prominent group in the current campaign is Mothers and Fathers Matter, which explicitly favors a male-female parenting couple and states it is in the best interest of the child [7]. Echoing this sentiment in far more severe language, the far-right, religiously-based Iona Institute claims that allowing gay and lesbian parents to legally marry will lead to increased child abuse [8]. Others have said that children raised without one parent of each sex are more likely to become criminals or get into abusive relationships later in life [9]. What is consistent in all this rhetoric is the belief that some form of serious harm will befall children not raised by their biological mother and father.

In the second argument the “No” campaign focuses less on a specific harm that will come to children, instead painting marriage equality as a violation of children’s rights. With specific reference to the UN’s children’s rights convention, the Iona Institute claims that marriage equality for lesbian and gay parents is a threat to a child’s right to know and be raised by their parent [10]. These arguments utilize language familiar to children’s rights scholars, which likely appeals to some voters, but deserve to be critically evaluated instead of taken on face value.


Young People and the “Yes” Campaign

Like the “No” campaign, the “Yes” campaign also utilizes language and themes prominent in the academic study of children’s rights and childhood, yet they include children in their rhetoric in a decidedly different way. For example, the group Yes Equality appears to mostly deflect attention away from children, saying that issues around adoption and children’s rights, while important, are separate from this marriage campaign [11]. One notable exception is that the children of LGBTQ parents do stand to gain from their parents being given constitutional recognition. Also aligned with the “Yes” campaign is Marriage Equality, a not-for-profit which includes in its mission statement the goal of establishing “legal recognition of children in LGBT families” [12]. They too make a point of noting that the current marriage vote is not about adoption or surrogacy [13].

Perhaps the group on the “Yes” side that most directly tackles children’s issues is BeLonG To YES, a coalition of numerous children and youth organizations [14]. This is a coalition of agencies and groups that work with and claim to represent children and young people. Their strong support for a “Yes” vote is aimed at making life better for LGBTQ children. Here too, the campaign focuses on the rights of LGBTQ children and the benefits they will receive through marriage equality.


Campaign Rhetoric and Children’s Rights

While the limits of this article do not give room to delve deeply into the various theories and components of children’s rights, a brief background will help in interrogating the two campaigns outlined above. The UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child [15] contains numerous articles relating to rights of children, including topics such as access to healthcare and education, provision for basic necessities and protection from harm, and the opportunity to participation in their communities and have their voices heard. Often the UNCRC, and each article therein, is summarized as pertaining to the Provision, Protection, and Participation of children [16]. It is these “three P’s” which will guide our evaluation of the current campaigns.

Through the “three P’s” we see some marked differences in the two campaigns. For example, the language of the “No” campaign seems to be mostly concerned with the protection of children. Directly, the campaigns talk of protecting children’s rights (though, without necessarily saying how voting no will provide this protection) and protection children from harm. Various threats—abuse, lack of proper role models, inability to “know” their biological parents—are presented being in danger should the referendum pass. Yet, while the “No” campaign uses rhetoric of providing for and protecting children generally, they fail to address how children of LGBTQ parents, and LGBTQ young people themselves, are adequately protected or provided for by the status quo. LGBTQ young people are disadvantaged compared with their heterosexual peers and the “No” campaign offers nothing to compensate for this deficiency. Further, there is little in the way of Provision or Participation in the “No” campaign rhetoric.

The “Yes” campaign appears to do slightly better in their use of children in their rhetoric. They include reference to both provisions and protection for children. Their arguments suggest that the children of LGBTQ parents would be better provided for because their parents’ union would constitutionally protected. Provision of basic needs and equal opportunities would ostensibly be easier should LGBTQ parents be treated the same as heterosexual parents. Additionally, LGBTQ young people would be better protected in a society that recognizes gay marriages, they argue.

Sadly, what is largely absent from both campaigns is any reference to children’s participation. While the BeLonG To campaign did give some reference to allowing LGBTQ families to be treated more equally in society, and this could be seen as a precursor to participation, both campaigns failed to demonstrate how their position would increase the participation rights of young people. Further still, it appears neither campaign included the voices of children in their rhetoric.

If the “No” side wishes to promote children’s rights and defend the “best interest” of young people, it is not enough to simply articulate supposed harms that will befall youngsters if marriage equality passes. They must also demonstrate how children are better provided for, and more able to participate in society, as a result of limiting marriage rights to heterosexuals. They have failed to do this and their overtures to children’s rights ring hollow as a result.

The “Yes” campaign could have argued that marriage equality would level that playing field for at least two groups of children. What marriage inequality says to both LGBTQ children and the children (hetero or queer) of LGBTQ parents, is that they are second class citizens, that they are unequal to their peers, and that they don’t deserve to participate equally in civil life. The benefit of this referendum in regards to young people’s participation right is that it would helped minimize (though not fully eliminate) the participation gap between LGBTQ children/children of LGBTQ parents and their heterosexual counterparts. Marriage equality can not only extend legal and civil rights and opportunities, but can work to eliminate stigmas and oppression that keep LGBTQ young people and LGBTQ families from fully participating in society. Their failure in this is not unlike most political discourses where children are often talked about, but are rarely given the chance to talk themselves. Perhaps this is because, as they point out, marriage equality, at least on paper, tends to be about two consenting adults. However, the failure of the “Yes” campaign to fully employ children’s rights issues in their campaign is, in my opinion, a failure to fully consider the impacts of marriage itself.

To make the marriage equality referendum solely about children or children’s rights would be to view the significance of marriage too narrowly. It is, after all, primarily a contract between two non-related consenting adults. However, where marriage impacts young people, and where they are used to argue for one position or another, a children’s rights approach demands that children’s voices be heard in the process. To highlight the importance of marriage for children but to silence children’s voices in the process is to both neglect the rights of the child and reduce them to a pawn in a political campaign.






[6] Ibid.










[16] See for example