Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage

As most readers will undoubtedly know, Ireland voted on Friday last week on whether to amend the country’s Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937) to include in the article on the family the following sentence:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

As was widely reported, two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the amendment, thereby placing an obligation on the government and parliament (Oireachtas) to introduce legislation legalising and protecting same-sex marriage, alongside the continuing protection for heterosexual marriage.

The relatively decisive support given to gay marriage by the Irish voters is noteworthy, not least because the country has come a long way quickly. When I was an undergraduate student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s such a profound change would have seemed a very long way off, if indeed it seemed achievable in any timescale at all. However, TCD was probably the main hotbed for the emerging issue. One of its academic staff was David Norris, one of the few people at the time to have been brave enough to declare themselves gay and to bring the issue to the public’s attention. Back then the public was probably overwhelmingly hostile, but inside TCD David Norris was given the opportunity to make his case and to do so publicly.

Over the years that followed others in TCD, and other universities also, became vocal advocates for change. These included two academics destined to become Presidents of the state – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

It should not be thought that universities are dedicated exclusively to progressive liberal values, nor should it be assumed that every novel idea championed by an academic should one day reflect the outlook of our national community. But it is right that higher education institutions should host and nurture opinions not at the time fashionable in wider society, and to protect those who wish to express unpopular views. In this case the big and welcome change last week carried through by Irish voters was made possible by the courage and persistence of academics, and by the university culture that gave them space to play their role. May this always be possible.

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4 Comments on “Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage”


  1. This is totally Ridiculous ! Insane ! It should Immediately be banned all over the world.


  2. This is a really exciting time in Ireland with a progressive shift in attitudes and I welcome debate and further discussion on equality. It is interesting to hear your experience of student life in mid-1970s.

    As a member of the LGBT+ Staff Network at Robert Gordon University I personally feel that further discussion and debate with both Academic and Professional Support Staff around equality is required. Despite living in a progressive nation like Scotland there are individuals that don’t even know what LGBT+ stands for and some staff that don’t understand why such a group needs to exist.

    The local city council recently held an event focused around IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia) which encouraged networking from local LGBT+ individuals, support networks and straight-allies. Yes even as a gay man there is still a lot to learn about the wider LGBT community. Events like this and as National Pride events are hosted around the world to celebrate LGBT+ Pride in the community, these events are needed as much now as ever to continue to inform and educate.

    On a separate note it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the career development of LGBT staff. There are members of the RGU staff network interested in Leadership and Role Model development who are already taking active LGBT roles within the University and could benefit from such training and personal development.

  3. Charley Says:

    Well. Back in the olden days of gay liberation, the aim was not for gay marriage, but to destroy the institution of marriage and the repressive patriarchal heterofascist system it represented. Now that many gay people seem willing to collaborate with that system, they have become safe, and the system is willing to accept them.

    Universities are as much bastions of conformity as anywhere else. It is just a certain sort of conformity which is expected. How comfortable would an opponent of same sex marriage be in that conformity? A traditionalist Catholic?


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