I published this interview with Colm Toibin in April in The Sunday Business Post. Here’s hoping that by this time tomorrow, Toibin gets his wish — the right to marry his partner in Ireland.
Colm Tóibín on same sex marriage: ‘The idea that I’m being excluded is hurtful to me’
03:55, 19 April 2015 by Nadine O’Regan
Colm Tóibín feels wounded, personally attacked and damaged.
The reason for his feelings is simple. Over the past few months, as the debate over the impending gay marriage referendum has gathered momentum, Tóibín has watched with increasing agitation as commentators have argued against granting him the right to marry his partner in his home country.
“When there’s somebody telling me that I can’t share my love with my partner publicly, I call that discrimination,” the renowned Irish novelist told The Sunday Business Post. “It’s very hurtful.”
In a phone call from New York, where he is teaching at Columbia University, the thrice Booker-nominated author of bestselling novels including Brooklyn, The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster, spoke eloquently and with palpable emotion about how Ireland’s response to gay marriage – and by extension to him as a gay man – has affected him.
“This isn’t like other debates,” Tóibín said. “In a debate about the economy or foreign policy, everybody could have a different view and you could argue your point. The problem is, if you’re gay, it’s fundamental to you.
“If someone thinks that I should not have the right to love, it’s very difficult to handle and it’s very difficult to be rational in response.
“I see people such as David Quinn and Breda O’Brien as a fundamental part of our democracy. They’re people who make arguments and if they didn’t Ireland would be the poorer. Having people represent another side of an argument is important.
“But in this case it’s very difficult because it’s so fundamental. I don’t think that in the large cases of discrimination that we know about – for example Catholics in Northern Ireland – that if someone told them that their right to love, and their right for it to be recognised in public, would be added to the other indignities they would be suffering under – well, it’s an extreme thing to do.”
Same-sex civil unions have been recognised in Ireland since 2011, but Tóibín does not believe they should be considered an appropriate compromise or substitution for the institution of marriage.
“In Ireland, ritual is important to us, especially because families are so close. Weddings matter in Ireland and being excluded from them is really sad. If you’re at your brother’s wedding and you realise, ‘I can’t have one of those’, it makes you feel that [people consider that] you’re not really in love with your boyfriend. You can have civil partnership but we [straight people] can have the whole thing.”
Tóibín was particularly distressed recently by an article written by political writer Bruce Arnold, in which Arnold argued against the prospect of gay marriage in Ireland, describing how important his marriage had been to him in his life.
“I’ve known Bruce Arnold a long time and I knew his wife and I have enormous respect for him as a journalist,” Tóibín said. “When I read the piece I was personally hurt by it. I was happy I wouldn’t see him on the street. I would have tried to get by very quickly.
“In the piece he was thinking about his own life, and the way in which his marriage had mattered to him. If I were to argue to him, I would argue about my life. I’ve done my best in Ireland as a writer. People read my books and I have made a contribution to Irish society as a journalist and a writer.
“The idea that I’m being excluded from something that Bruce treasures so much is very hurtful to me. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t say that, since he had all this happiness and it came his way and mattered so much, that surely he would want to give other people that rather than exclude them from it.”
Born and raised in Enniscorthy, Tóibín, who is 59, has struggled in the past with his identity as a gay man, rarely speaking publicly on the subject. In 2009, he defended his decision to this reporter not to answer questions about his sexuality.
“It’s bad enough being bald,” he said. “It’s bad enough being Irish. The labels don’t matter. When you’re working, you’re working to get things out.”
In 1993, Tóibín refused a commission to write about his sexuality for the London Review of Books, fobbing them off at the time by saying that he had “nothing polemical and personal, or even long and serious, to say on the subject”.
But the truth was, back then, he found it hard to get the words out. “Everyone knew I was gay,” he said, when asked about coming out as a gay man. “This would go back to me being 18 or 19, but I didn’t write about it. I didn’t feel comfortable writing about it.”
The subject seeped through into his fiction nonetheless. One of his early novels The Blackwater Lightship (1999) dealt directly with sexuality, telling the story of Helen, her mother Lily and grandmother Dora, who have come together to tend to Helen’s brother Declan, who is dying of Aids in an Ireland of the 1990s.
In The Story of the Night (1997), meanwhile, Tóibín’s gay lead character Richard understands that he will feel his relationship is meaningless unless it is recognised by other people.
Tóibín believes it is important for voters around the country to frame the marriage referendum in personal terms, asking themselves how they would feel if it was their son or daughter who was gay or lesbian and wished to get married.
“If you ask people hard abstract questions, using words like ‘institution of marriage’, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if you say your nephew is gay and he’s 16, the first people would feel is a sense of worry – ‘Will he be all right?’
“It becomes pressing and important that this person you know would have a reasonable expectation of a happy life. The less abstract it is, the more sympathetic people are.”
Tóibín accepts there are voters who will refuse to vote yes in the marriage referendum on religious grounds, but pointed out that Irish people live in a secular state. “I have no argument with Catholic teaching or with Muslims or Jewish people,” he said.
“This is not an argument of religion. It’s an argument to do with our state. Our state is a secular state. Mary McAleese is a practising Catholic, but from the moment she became president of Ireland she welcomed gay people and lesbians into her world. She said, ‘Why are we discriminating against people who are totally innocent?’”
Last week, in an important development for the Yes campaign, the former president publicly urged voters towards a Yes vote, asking them to quell any of their fears about the future of children. “People have been saying it’s about children,” McAleese said. “We believe it to be about Ireland’s gay children and their future and the kind of future we want for Ireland.”
Asked to respond to voters’ concerns over issues such as gay adoption, Tóibín said the rights of the child were of paramount importance in society. “The rights of the child have been established in law,” he said. “If anyone is going to adopt a child there has to be enormous attention paid to who these people are. It’s not as though there’s suddenly going to be a free-for-all and that children who are otherwise happy and cared for are going to be put into a situation where their rights aren’t put first.”
Tóibín still dislikes speaking about his sexuality. He agreed to do this interview – and to speak at Trinity College on May 14 ahead of the referendum – because he wants people to understand what it feels like to be in his position. “It’s important,” he said simply.
Life for Tóibín is moving at a busy clip – his novel Brooklyn has been made into a hotly tipped film starring Saoirse Ronan, set to be released later this year, and he has just published a new critical study: Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop – but he will make sure he is home in Ireland to vote on May 22.
He laughed bashfully when I asked him about his partner, who lives in the States. Will Tóibín marry if he is given the opportunity in Ireland?
“That’s a lovely idea, isn’t it?” Tóibín said. “That’d be lovely. These things are very personal and I think I’d better not make any proposals via The Sunday Business Post. But I’m not ruling anything out. I’d love to say to my partner that we could go back to Ireland and get married in my country.
“I’d love to have that right.”