Irish author Colm Tóibín, considered one of the country’s foremost writers, sat down with Washington Post London Bureau Chief Griff Witte for an interview on May 14 at Trinity College Dublin. Ireland is set to vote May 22 on a referendum that would change the constitution to allow for same-sex marriage.
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Washington Post: Americans readers might be surprised that Ireland could be on the brink of approving a gay marriage referendum. Should people be surprised by that?
Colm Tóibín: No. When I was working for the Sunday Independent, I think it was 1992, they asked me to do the questions for a telephone poll. The answers were very conservative, until the last question. The last question was ‘If your son or daughter were getting married in a same-sex relationship and there was a party, would you go to it?’ And the vast majority said ‘Yes.’ And I realized then, that's called soft support. In other words, while they might disapprove, they weren't angry about it, they wouldn't ostracize. And once you have that sort of wavering mixture, you can actually watch time working with it. The more and more people were known to be gay, the more and more people who knew them and liked them, and loved them indeed, wanted them to be happy. So slowly, you could almost chart it person by person, family by family, moving in the direction of yes.
And I suppose the other reason is that there is no great opposition to this. It's not as if the church has come all out with money and a big campaign. I mean, the church is opposed, but in a very quiet, decent way. So it's been a very successful campaign in that we have been able to make our case to our own nation. And win or lose it, at least we are all out in the open now. The debate is clear. There is nobody invisible. There is nobody afraid. There is nobody feeling that the best place for me would be the closet. And we could win.
WP: Do you think you will win?
CT: I do because I think the opinion polls are too consistently far ahead. If it was a 5 percent thing you would worry, because it could swing. But when it's 15 to 20 percent, and that's been consistent, unless they are wildly out. But it doesn't feel like that.
WP: What would it mean to you personally if this passes?
CT: Look, I'm 60 at the end of this month. And I had no sense, age 15, 16, even in my 20s, that anything was going to happen here to give us any sort of equality. Decriminalization didn't come til 1993. But there was a terrible Supreme Court judgment in 1983. It was 3-2. But it was a very strong judgment from the chief justice against us. It was quite crudely worded. So I'm talking all those years watching, realizing, this is still an unmentionable thing to be gay in Ireland.
WP: The homophobic attitudes that allowed criminalization to persist until 1993, that must have affected you.
CT: Yeah. I was having best-selling books, I was invited everywhere, I was representing the country in various ways. And as long as you don't rock the boat with your sexuality, you're fine. But that core part of you has to be kept a secret. That's very damaging.
WP: Your decisions to move overseas as a younger man, were those influenced by homophobia?
CT: Yeah. The idea to move to Spain at age 20, really, when Spain is so open. … It turned out to be equally conservative in certain ways, but it felt much more open. Certainly being in New York. I was teaching at Stanford. The American university tends to be a pretty good cauldron for various ideas about liberty and anti-discrimination. The whole idea that you could not be in any way diminished because of your race, your gender, that's a big deal on a campus.
WP: How different is it now for a young person who is gay in Ireland than it was 30 to 40 years ago?
CT: I think you can say to someone age 15 or 16 that it will get better. We do have civil partnership. It's not as if people are going to be arrested if we lose this. So I think you could say to a kid now, ‘Look all the legislation is in place, the anti-discrimination, the anti-hate speech, all that is in place.’ What's more in place than anything is a growing tolerance.
WP: Do you think Ireland's image around the world will change if this is a yes?
CT: Oh yeah. People often say, even still, that must be hard with all those bishops and all that, you know, all that sort of rampant Catholicism. If this comes, because it's a national plebiscite, it will be a big eye-opener for everybody.
WP: So if a referendum like this can pass here, there is hope everywhere?
CT: Yes, but there is also hope for the country itself. In other words, people have the imagination to change. We are capable of changing.