By Tomás Heneghan

In less than four weeks Ireland will vote in what is one of the most contentious and controversial referendums since the 1995 Divorce Referendum. The vote on marriage equality has the opportunity to change how this country views and treats its LGBTQ citizens.

Whatever the outcome, a strong message will be sent to the entire nation and to countries around the globe. A “No” vote will tell Ireland’s LGBTQ citizens they are not equal; their love is of a lesser value than heterosexual love. It will, worryingly, send a clear and unequivocal message to the LGBTQ youth of Ireland that they cannot grow up in an equal Ireland.

A “Yes” vote on the other hand will send a resounding message that LGBTQ people, although often bullied and marginalised, are equal and that their love is equal to others. A clear message that homophobia is not acceptable that will be enshrined in the minds of Ireland’s populace.

“To the other queer, Please to not return, you are not welcome in this house! Your lifestyle is a sin and I do not wish to be tainted by association. Do not touch anything, I don’t know where you’ve been or what you have but would not like to risk catching anything.”

A “Yes” vote will ensure messages such as this, left to me by a former student, are never seen as acceptable again.

I grew up knowing very few for things were certain. However I was never in any doubt I would go to university, fall in love and one day get married. I didn’t know I was gay but I knew I would one day walk down an aisle with someone and promise to love them forever.

I was raised by a single father. He did his best with help from extended family, neighbours and friends. He did what all parents do after bringing a child into the world: they ask for help from those around them. A child is never raised by two people. A child is raised by a community and in reality all a child really needs is love, safety and security.

You might say all children need a man and a woman to give “balance” to their lives but when you actually boil that down to its real meaning, there is nothing left to the theory other than sexist gender roles. A man is needed to make sure boys are strong and not emotional. A woman ensures girls know how to be overly emotional ladies, so that in the future they can bake, cook, clean and mind children.

If you believe a child requires a mother and father, past the point of conception, you unwittingly, or otherwise, buy into the above gender stereotypes. These are gender stereotypes which tell boys and men they should not talk about their feelings. These are the damaging labels which lead to high male suicide rates.

Despite the referendum having little, if anything, to do with children, it is crucial to understand the real needs of children rather than those imagined by 1960s cereal commercials.

Over the past number of weeks the “No” campaign have taken a step further than hanging the debate solely on children. Now the posters from “Mothers and Fathers Matter” stretch the referendum issue into further irrelevant areas.

One poster attacks single parents for not providing a second opposite-sex parent for their child. They also attempt to reinstate the idea of illegitimate children with children of single parents being portrayed as of lesser value to society.

A second poster brings the matter of surrogacy into the debate. This is more irrelevant than adoption rights and displays either deliberate ignorance of the referendum topic or a sinister attempt to scaremonger.

The third appears to say nothing more than “Ah sure aren’t civil partnerships good enough for the gays? Civil partnerships go far enough. We really shouldn’t give them the same rights as other people in Ireland.”

These are offences Ireland’s LGBTQ community faces every day. We face insults and slurs for looking a little different. We can hardly walk outside UL’s campus in the evenings without a group of “lads” in a car driving past and screaming “queer” at us. Homophobia exists, even among students.

I’ll be voting “Yes” in less than four weeks from now. I’ll vote for my future, for my children’s and grandchildren’s futures. I’ll vote for the sixteen-year-old me who considered taking his own life when someone found out he was gay. I’ll vote for my friends, for my single parent, and for Ireland.

People keep telling me students will be the driving force behind a “Yes” vote and that we will carry this referendum. I hope those people are right – I pray they are. However I urge all students, regardless of opinion polls, to get out and vote “Yes” for marriage equality on Friday, 22nd May.

Bring your family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues with you. Tell the world you’re voting “Yes” and why they should vote with you. This is not an abstract issue – these are real lives and your vote could change them for the better.