The Power of Stories

May 4, 2015 | Opinions


In Ireland, we have an expression for when we meet someone: “What’s the story?” I’ve always liked this. It’s as if the Irish have always known that what we’re told by other people about their lives is a story, which may or may not match up with reality. Reality has always been subjective, after all.

Stories have power. Stories have more power when they’re retold over and over. It doesn’t just apply to fiction, however. Stories that are told to convince others of a particular point of view are called propaganda, and propaganda is insidious stuff. Thankfully, the worst of it falls apart under scrutiny. I bring this up now because of the Irish referendum on marriage that’ll be voted for or against on May 22nd.

(Background: The Irish constitution was largely written by the Catholic Church back in the day, and it’s full of mindless waffle about what marriage is, what family means, and all kinds of other silliness that should have been left to the government. What this boils down to is that things like who can get married can’t be changed by the government; it HAS to be put to a popular vote, because it means changing the constitution to allow it. Hence, we have to have a referendum and convince at least half of a conservative country that gay marriage is a good thing.)

Let’s talk about the No Vote posters.

Stories, tropes, idioms, stereotypes… The No side is getting desperate, or they wouldn’t pull out stuff like this poster here. The referendum isn’t about kids. It’s only about whether two men or two women can get married, just as a man and a woman can. They want you to believe a particular narrative, that having two men or two women instead of a man and a woman as parents is somehow worse for kids. Ask yourself this, though – do you see them campaigning against single parents? Have they made any mention of kids raised by a mother and grandmother, or a father and brother? Have they done any advocacy for children in foster care, who have neither a mother or a father?


Kids having a mother and a father only mattered to the No side when gay people wanted to get married.

They have another that does some inane scaremongering about surrogacy. “She needs her mother for life, not just for nine months!” What I really love about that is that it’s mostly heterosexual couples with fertility issues that use surrogacy. It’s also doubly insulting to single fathers, whether separated, divorced, or widowed, who do their best to raise their kids right. They’re telling you a story with a particularly sexist bent, where men cannot parent as well as women. Again, they’re not advocating for anything to do with single parents – no support, advice, anything. They’re not advocating for surrogate rights.

They don’t care that heterosexual couples use surrogacy – they didn’t care about it at all until it could be used as a talking point to deny gay people the right to get married.

The last poster says “We already have civil partnerships. Don’t Redefine Marriage.”

The story of marriage is a long, stupid and messy one. They’d have you believe that it’s always been a man and a woman, everywhere, across the world. It hasn’t. They’d have you believe that it’s always religious, a sanctified ritualistic joining of families. It’s not. But even if it was – why should that be a reason not to rewrite the story now, in the 21st century?

There is one overarching narrative going on here, if you look closely enough.

The No Vote campaigners, and anyone who would vote with them, are telling themselves a convenient little story about gay people. It’s a story where gay people don’t really exist. They don’t have relationships – not real relationships, at least. They don’t have kids, because you need a man and a woman to make babies. Gay people are invisible, because they’ve always been invisible. Nobody saw them. Nobody acknowledged them.

“Gay people are not like us.”

It’s the same bigotry writ large on posters all over Ireland. The No vote side cannot accept that gay people really are just like them, with kids and relationships and complicated lives. Letting them get married would be an admission of equality that no homophobe could allow to pass. It doesn’t really matter that marriage could make those lives a little easier, and a little more secure. So they’ll throw any plausible story at the Irish public in the hope that it will never come to pass, all while knowing that the real reason for their resistance is their repulsion at the fact that gay people are just like them.

Hopefully, the story of the referendum will end on a happy note on May 22nd. I know Ireland is ready for this, we’ve come so far in the last few decades. We could be the first country whose citizens declared, with one voice, that love is love regardless of biology.