Why marriage equality should not become yet another expensive (and hysterical) NI drama

Siobhan O’Neill is a health psychologist and professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University. She is currently leading several studies on mental health and suicide in Northern Ireland and teaches on several of Ulster’s undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in psychology. 

The obsession with the “naturalness” or otherwise, of particular sexual practices between consenting adults, may appear bizarre and laughable to onlookers. However such debates about the rights of minority groups and the right to discriminate on the basis of personal beliefs influence how we cope with difference, and our ability to move forward.

The inequality that continues to exist in NI is not only illogical but it is linked to a broader problem of marginalisation and disconnectedness for minority groups and for men. This has in my view, profound implications for our mental health as a population and suicide.

There is now a strong body of evidence pointing to high levels of mental health problems in Northern Ireland and we have some of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe.

The factors precipitating each death are complex and it is impossible to determine the exact proportion of people who take their own lives as a consequence of issues around sexual orientation.

However the research into the experiences of LGBT people in NI do provide some important clues. People who are gay, lesbian or bisexual have seven times the suicide rate of those who self identify as straight.

Half of gay people in NI have considered suicide and a quarter have attempted to take their own life. People who are transgender have shockingly high rates of suicide.

However it is important to point out that suicidal thoughts and behaviours are far from inevitable in such minority groups. Research shows us that the biggest predictor of mental health and suicidal behaviour in LGBT people is their perceptions and experience of stigma and discrimination.

In other words there is nothing pathological about same sex attraction per se; it is in fact discrimination and prejudice that causes negative outcomes.

LGBT people who live in open tolerant societies where they perceive themselves to have a social role are at no higher risk of suicide than anyone else.

The life events that increase suicide risk vary in their nature but they do share certain cognitive characteristics. The emotions of shame, guilt, failure, isolation and disconnection are dominant.

All the main theories of suicide have the importance of social connectedness at their core. Marriage promotes connectedness, not only between the individuals concerned but connectedness to society generally.

By offering a minority population the opportunity to fully participate in the rituals and structures of modern society, marriage equality is an important gesture.

Marriage equality and what it symbolises, has implications for everyone, but particularly men. Men constitute over three quarters of those who die by suicide here, they are less likely to ask for help for mental health problems and all too often die without anyone having known that they were struggling.

In fact, when we look at the age profiles of those who die by suicide we see that they are the same men who have been exposed to the violence of the height of the Troubles.

They are men who exist in a culture which promotes an aggressive and macho stereotype of masculinity and solutions to discord which involve violence against others, or in the case of suicide, violence against the self.

This culture pathologises behaviours considered feminine, which includes attraction to males, admitting weakness, and seeking help for emotional problems.

Some of the “no side” arguments had distinctly misandric undertones, reflecting the damaging and wildly inaccurate stereotype that men are unable to control their sexual urges and are not to be trusted with children.

However, the research shows us that social and economic status have the strongest influence on childrens’ mental health outcomes; the sexual orientation of the parent or parents is actually irrelevant.

Intolerance, discrimination and prejudice remain central concerns for Northern Ireland and we should aim to address them in whatever form they take.

It is simply inconsistent to support mental health and suicide prevention on the one hand, and on the other to allow members of minority groups to be discriminated against.

By pathologising same sex attraction and help-seeking behaviour we are doing men a great disservice and perpetuating a status quo which precipitates mental illness, substance abuse, stigma and male suicide.

The extension of marriage equality to NI should not be allowed to become an expensive drama requiring campaigns and referenda, these will again be used to polarise and highlight our divisions.

We should simply acknowledge that here too, just like our neighbours, we value all our people, we tolerate difference and respect authenticity.

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  • Croiteir

    Yes. It shouldn’t. Forget the dead duck and worry about far more important issues.

  • Gaygael

    yes Crotier – 1 in 4 lgbt people having at least one attempt at suicide in their lifetime is not important.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Excellent article, Siobhan. To place the potential or tested obstacles to good mental health facing NI’s gay men within NI’s widespread mental health problems among all men provides some very useful points to consider. Of course context is everything but here we live in a wider context i.e. the western world where we can see the progress made elsewhere yet we are frustrated by a particular political bloc. This tension is not lost on many of us.

    You are right that we live in a very macho culture where certain expectations are placed on males such as conflict resolution relying on violence or at least agression as opposed to rationale (and this is apparent in our politicians’ behaviours). At the same time we also have a culture of fear and threat that underpins that tendency as well as creating a siege mentality or a ghetto of the mind. We all know that fear is a very powerful emotion and often overwhelms rationale. We disguise our fears with agression and delude ourselves that we’re indeed brave as a result. In a culture where fear is normalised to this extent it impedes critical thinking and reinforces unsupported assumptions. Fear also impedes courage and that is what is required when “coming out”. Some lgbt people can be pleasantly surprised at the positive response to their coming out. But coming out can be a gradual process and some people are out to some but not to others

    Another of our fears is of compromise and flexibility because we see those as weaknesses. Flexibility is required of us if we are to be told our relative or friend is gay. Fear of negative reaction to something so central to an individual’s identity can have long-term debilitating effects. Fear of compromise is fear of mutual respect.

    Fear of change is also another local feature. Anything remotely radical can be seen as a step too far and that’s because we don’t understand the fabric that holds our society together, albeit loosely. And this extends to fear of pluralism or extending the same value to others that we accord to ourselves.

    Fear of sex as not sanctioned by God is another characteristic.

    Fear of imagination is yet another feature particularly when it comes to looking to a realistic future.

    In short NI’s collective mental ill-health (impervious to external reality, inflated sense of victimhood, irrational fear et al.) is a form of prison that many of us are quite contented to inhabit so much so that the happy prisoners want to impose it on the rest of us.

    Opposition to same sex marriage is a manifestation of fear that is dressed up in the language of delusional steadfastness. For NI to make any progress from its paranoid inertia and endless impasses there needs to be profound psychological change. I’m reminded of a saying ascribed to Talleyrand when referring to the restored Bourbons, “they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    How about the important issue of getting your English to primary school level?

  • chrisjones2

    Why are you so afraid of homosexuality – and especially male homsexuality? In what way does it threaten you?

  • HaroldAMaio

    —- Research shows us that the biggest predictor of mental health and suicidal behaviour in LGBT people is their perceptions and experience of stigma and discrimination.
    If you can persuade me your discrimination against me is my “stigma”, you have placed me at a distinct disadvantage: self-derogation. Though I may not be able to escape your discrimination, I can do my best not to internalize it as my “stigma”.

  • Old Mortality

    Is that nicely rounded 1 in 4 ratio based on anything other than survey evidence? Who produced it? Has every homosexual in NI been asked if they have ever attempted suicide? Was any adjustment made for bias reflecting a probable tendency to claim a suicide attempt on the reasonable assumption that the larger the figure, the more public sympathy it is likely to elicit?

  • Turgon

    “All the main theories of suicide have the importance of social connectedness at their core. Marriage promotes connectedness, not only between the individuals concerned but connectedness to society generally.

    By offering a minority population the opportunity to fully participate in the rituals and structures of modern society, marriage equality is an important gesture.”

    This is a non sequitur. It is not the ability to enter into a marriage which reduces suicide: it is being in a marriage. There is evidence from the ONS (google it as I cannot get the link to work) of exactly that especially for men but it is being in a marriage which is protective not the ability to get married.

    This is relevant as the take up for homosexual marriage in those countries where it is provided for is relatively low.

    It is unclear that civil partnership fails to offer the same protection against suicide as homosexual marriage. This is because civil partnership is not the same thing as cohabitation which is more commonly (though clearly not always) a prelude to marriage or the end of the relationship rather than a permanent alternative.

  • Gerry Lynch

    The problems with the “civil partnership should be enough for youse” argument are twofold:

    1. Nearly all the people who advance it think same-sex relationships are, regardless of the legal position, a grave moral evil.

    2. Nearly all the people who advance it regard lesbian/gay/bisexual people as “them” rather than “us”.

    I’m really not interested in being told that second-class institutions should be good enough for me by people who think I’m engaging in evil if I fall in love.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    Gay and other unnatural sexual relationships are just that, why are people trying to portray these things as normal and natural? The problems people face when trying to make these relationships out to be normal is entirely because they are abnormal. If they recognised these things to be abnormal and desisted from them then they wouldn’t have these massive mental health problems.

  • Turgon

    I am not arguing about that.

    I am pointing out that the ability to get married is not what is protective against suicide: rather it is getting married. There is self evidently a difference. Prior to my marriage I was in a higher risk group: young (then) unmarried male. I was able to get married (from age 18). What changed me and similar people from a higher to a lower risk group was not the general ability to get married: it was individually getting married.

    It is also unclear whether civil partnership offers or fails to offer the same protections against suicide as marriage. This is because civil partnerships are not the same thing as cohabitation.

    If you want to reply to my comments it would be beneficial if you replied to them rather than to other extraneous information. If you would rather just post your opinions it is more traditional to post them as stand alone rather than in reply to another’s comments.

    Moving on: On your comments despite your attempt to side track mine I will answer them:-

    You have on this website opposed extension of marriage or actually if I remember civil partnership to polygamous / polyandrous groups and adult consensual biologically related sexual relationships – the latter in quite florid terms and on spurious eugenics grounds along with the suggestion that such relationships might be acceptable if one of the partners was sterilised.

    All those groups (polygamous / polyandrous groups and consensual adult biologically related sexual relationships) can entirely legitimately ask why (as you put it) second class institutions should be deemed good enough by you. That especially as you have made comments suggesting you think some of those relationships are either substandard or (to use your own word) evil.

  • Gerry Lynch

    You might not be arguing about that, but it’s a view you hold and a view you share with the overwhelming majority of opponents of marriage equality. It lies at the root of a point of view that, based solely on the merits of the arguments, has been comprehensively outargued. Hence, anti-equality activists latch on to one red herring after another – group marriage, incest, alleged threats to freedom of speech, surrogacy, willful ignorance of the history of marriage and, when it’s clear that all else is failing, scary-sounding but unspecified threats to children.

    In that context, I’ll take the arguments of a professor of mental health over people who think that man-man or woman-woman love is a wicked act which makes God angry.

  • Turgon

    That is a presumption by you. Your extremely impressive CV (vastly more impressive than mine – brief fit of inappropriate jealousy) does not I believe include mind reading.

    In actual fact I have never given my opinion on homosexual marriage. Nor have I proffered my religious views regarding sexual behaviour and conduct.

    It would be useful in debate if you stuck to what I have said either on this thread or elsewhere rather than what you claim I think.

    The only concrete suggestion I have ever made is to suggest that marriage become a wholly civil concept (I prefer the term civil partnership) for any consenting person and other person(s). In contrast I suggest religious marriage become a purely religious matter (with no state recognition one way or the other) for the relevant faith groups to decide on as they wish.

    This is the position suggested by the (I believe evangelical Christian) chief minister of Guernsey with his proposal of Union Civile. This was welcomed by the local homosexual / bisexual / transgender / questioning group. It does not include groups of more than two persons and does not mention non sexually / romantically linked persons nor adult consensual biologically related persons (sexually active or not) but is a reasonable start.

  • Chingford Man

    Professor O’Neill is clearly supportive of the political campaign in favour of gay marriage. Although I don’t find her arguments convincing, the more important point is that anyone from the same professional background, employed in the public sector, who took the contrary view would be ill-advised to write publicly. Such persons would quickly find themselves under investigation and facing possibly career ending complaints under “diversity” codes of conduct.

    Isn’t it great to live in a “free society” where espousal of “wrong” opinions in essentially political matters could have serious consequences for one’s career.

  • Chingford Man

    There are many people now living in the UK who come from backgrounds where polygamy is practised. At some point there will be a test case to widen the definition of marriage to include more than 2 persons.

    We critics ask people like you to formulate an argument against such a development that isn’t just a derivative of “Because marriage is only for 2 persons and that’s the way it is.” That is essentially the same argument that you reject today from the supporters of traditional marriage.

    The question isn’t a red herring. It is an attempt to see if you are prepared to follow your own logic and open up marriage to everyone who wishes to enter into marriage with more than one person. If sexual orientation shouldn’t be an issue, why should the numbers to a marriage be an issue?

  • Korhomme


    Please define exactly what “natural” is.

  • chrisjones2

    Indeed..why should it and what business of the State’s should it be?

  • Gaygael

    Hî old mortality. I rounded it. It’s a recurring figure from what we have here in Northern Ireland. It is comparable to data elsewhere, amongst lgbt populations elsewhere on these islands if somewhat higher. As is our incidence of suicide ideation and poorer mental health comparable amongst the wider population, but higher again. This is often related to trauma from the troubles, intergenerational trauma, and greater poverty and poorer services.

    If we only asked homosexuals, we might miss trans people. I don’t think it would be possible to reach every lgbt person in Northern Ireland. A certain portion of that population may not choose to publicly identify, in part due to some of the well worn attitudes already typified by this thread.

    And that’s it. Those nasty gays are making up suicide attempts just to elect public sympathy. Seriously? Just like those horrific hate crimes reported the other day are just over egged to elicit sympathy.
    Wind your neck in.

  • chrisjones2

    “Fear of sex as not sanctioned by God ”

    But how do we know what God sanctioned. All we have are books made up hundreds of years after the event by old churchmen (and we know now that many in the church are homosexual)

    So who really made the rules?

  • Gaygael

    Hey honey.
    Every reputable uk and irish body related to psychotherapy, psychology, nursing, medicine, biology, science and profoundly disagrees with you.

    Beyond certainty of your opinion, can you please tell us why you are better qualified than them about whether or not same sex attraction is abnormal?

  • Gaygael

    It’s a straw man to flag polyandrous/polygamous relationships.

    There is no campaign for such. If one evolves it will be made on it’s own merits.

    But as Gerry says, it’s the usual ragtag of what ifs and conjecture.

    That equality for minority groups helps to reduce health inequalities is a given. Dr O’Neil has put this specifically in the context of same sex marriage equality and lgbt populations. We had a serious issue with poor mental health in this place. Recognising same sex relationships as equal under the law (with faith groups free to do as they please) and granting access to marriage is just another plank in redressing this issue.

  • John Calvert

    “Natural,” as in animals. Sorry to burst this favored argument of the bigots but homosexual behavior has been observed in over 450 different species of animals, including chimps, marmots and macaques. You should have a peruse through Professor Baghemil’s tome “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity” which demonstrates through meticulous research that homosexuality is, and has never been, the sole preserve of humans.

  • Chingford Man

    So you can’t/won’t answer my question either.

  • Chingford Man

    At least that’s a straight (pardon the pun) answer.

  • Gaygael

    It’s senseless conjecture and what ifs.
    I see no debate or campaign for multiple person marriage. If it comes I will weigh it up. I may or may not support it.

    This is not the question at hand. Can you back to it?
    Why should your interpretation of faith block two people of the same sex having a marriage recognised by the state?
    Why should you pr interpretation of faith block two people if the same sex having a marriage in a church that wishes to conduct one?

    You and others like you are blocking freedom of religion. It’s shameful.

  • Gaygael

    THe state makes the laws. It currently prohibits same sex couples getting married. It needs to change. And it’s only a mater of time.

  • Gaygael

    It’s not about opinions. Try catching up with the enlightenment.

  • Chingford Man

    Oh, so you won’t/can’t answer my single question, but expect me to answer both of yours?

  • Chingford Man

    Try answering my point. Go on, try.

    PS If I want to be enlightened, the last place I would go is Slugger. I don’t know why Turgon bothers imparting his good sense to you all.

  • chrisjones2

    I always feel that people who keep their DIsqus comments private have an underlying problem. What is yours?

  • chrisjones2

    It cannot even be the work of the Devil because either he too is ‘natural’ or he doesnt exist

  • chrisjones2

    The problems with the “civil partnership should be enough for youse” argument is that it is no business at all of anyone but those getting married

  • chrisjones2

    “the ability to get married is not what is protective against suicide: rather it is getting married”

    ergo the absence of the ability to marry increases the risk to life and health

  • chrisjones2

    “to suggest that marriage become a wholly civil concept ”

    with the state of the Anglican churches within a generation that may happen by natural selection

  • chrisjones2

    Funny…… that question didn’t get an answer

  • Korhomme

    After Sir Rantsalot has considered the mammals, he might turn to the Adélie penguins. So ‘depraved’ was the behaviour that GM Levick observed a century ago that he felt himself obliged to record his findings in Greek. He observed homosexual activity, ‘child abuse’ and, what really upset him, ‘necrophilia’.


    What then is “natural”?

  • Turgon

    No personally not getting married is the problem. Young heterosexual men have long had the ability to get married. That is not what protects them from suicide: it is them personally getting married.

    Homosexual marriage in GB (and elsewhere) has been availed of by a limited percentage of homosexuals. As such they have not obtained the suicide preventions of marriage not because they have not the ability to get married but because they have not individually got married.

    The situations are analogous and expose the idea that homosexual marriage provision itself protects against suicide as a non sequitur.

    Furthermore it is not at all clear that any protections against suicide offered by homosexual marriage would not also be conferred by civil partnership: it being different to cohabitation.

    We are however, arguing at crossed purposes. I have above pointed out that my opinion is that the state should cease to be involved in religious marriage at all and have purely Union Civile between any consenting adult and any other consenting adult(s). Faith groups meanwhile would be welcome to have non civilly relevant marriages between any persons and person)s) they wish. Simply separate the two systems.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Sorry, what logic? Did opening up civil marriage to two people of different religions or two people who were non-Anglicans lead to the introduction of polygamous civil marriage? Nope. If you want to talk logic, you’re comparing apples to oranges, all because you and other antis have lost the substantial argument.

    But, for what it’s worth, there have been tens of millions of people from cultures where polygamy is routine living under British rule since the mid 19th Century. Hence, there has been some recognition of polygamous marriage in British law since at least Victorian times, and the benefits system also recognised it, but not in the way you think: second and subsequent wives in polygamous marriages are penalised by the benefits system. I wrote on all this at length two years ago in the comments thread of the piece Turgon linked to.

    There are indeed many people in Britian whose family origins are in Pakistan and Bangladesh, were polygamy was once widespread. There is no attempt from within those communities to introduce polygamous marriage. There has been no test case. This is because the whole issue is a red herring.

    Interestingly, polygamy is in serious decline in those places where it was once common and which were once in the Empire – both in East Africa, not least because of the spread of Christianity, and what was once “British India”.

  • Carl Mark

    Could you perhaps show examples of campaigns to legalise polygamy have been launched in those countries which have had Gay marriage for many years now.
    Surely you must have some actual proof that Gay marriage opens the floodgates to a marriage free for all!

  • Audrey Hona

    When marrying, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory.

  • cimota

    Tragic that you’re more likely to kill yourself as a result of living in Northern Ireland than working in a Chinese iPhone factory.

  • cimota

    Yes, it’s a shame that in a free society, it’s “frowned upon” to be a hateful bigot.

    It’s more tragic that we need codes of conduct to keep hateful bigots under control. That’s no different than forcing women to wear a hijab just in case a random male can’t control himself and accidentally rapes her.

    I’d love to live in a society that was occupied by humans, rather than frothing monsters held only in check by codes of conduct and the threat of investigation.

  • Chingford Man

    S/he probably doesn’t want people going through their postings, guessing his/her identity and putting it online. Now answer his/her point instead of making personal abuse.

  • Chingford Man

    Oh look, another person who is avoiding answering my question. The logic to which I refer is your own. You believe that marriage should be opened up to couples of the same sex on the basis that they love and are committed to each other.

    I’m asking on what basis you can then deny marriage to someone who comes along in 5-10 years time and, using the reasoning that you have given for gay marriage, asks that his/her less-conventional social structure should be recognised as a marriage.

    If sexual orientation should no longer be significant to the formation of a marriage, why should the numbers of persons seeking to enter into that marriage?

    You’re the one dragging in the red herrings when you say that because no one has brought a test case on the subject up to now then no one is likely to do so in the future. That’s beside the point.

    I’m asking you to accept the logic of your own reasoning. You are the person who is evasive as to the logical end point of your argument.

  • Chingford Man

    Another one who won’t answer a question, so he asks one of his own.

  • chrisjones2

    That wasnt abusive and IO deal with the bpoint

  • chrisjones2

    You are in danger of disappearing up your own fundament

  • Cagey Feck

    Don’t people espouse views against gay marriage all the time? I certainly hear a lot of this stuff recently in the media.

    Writing publically against equal marriage rights might lead to investigations for people in positions of responsibility, just as expressing controversial political opinions of any sort might have the same effect. So long as the person has not discriminated illegally, then I don’t see why any complaints would be career ending.

  • Cagey Feck

    You aren’t arguing against what I think is the point of the article. By my reading, it’s not being unmarried that increases a person’s risk factor, but the social isolation that comes from being singled out by the law as ‘your type aren’t good enough for marriage’, along with all the other casual discrimination that gay people have to put up with.

    That said, I agree with you on the Union Civile.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    But you’re more likely to have a happy and prosperous live in NI than work in a Samsung phone factory and have a middle name of Simon. Go figure!

  • Carl Mark

    so no examples of anything even approaching your wild assertions!
    But I will answer the polyandry thing,
    it is a figment of your imagination, nobody but those desperately thrashing round for a excuse to oppose gay marriage are even thinking it.
    At least you have stopped throwing incest into the “why not them as well” box, but I had to point out to you(and a few others) that asking for paedophile’s and rapists to have the right to marry there victims was not helping your case.
    now this polyandry thing shows how impoverished your argument has become.
    Having read your posts (and others) on this debate, I say lets have a referendum on this if that is the best you can come up with.

  • Chingford Man

    It was a question based on a hypothetical scenario! That doesn’t invalidate the question. Goodness, are you really as obtuse as you appear?

  • Carl Mark

    hypothetical scenario!
    you cannot invalidate something that does not exist.
    We are talking about real people, real lives, give us a reason that is not hypothetical, something real.
    That is if you can or is your argument only based on what isn’t happening instead of what actually is happening?

  • Carl Mark

    So are you saying that these “perceptions” are not a response to the treatment that the LGBT community receives from some sections of society or are you saying that all of (or most) LGBT are paranoid schizophrenic’s?

  • HaroldAMaio

    I am saying that, if someone can persuade you to internalize their prejudice as your “stigma”, they have achieved considerable power over you.
    It is a weapon of considerable significance.

  • Croiteir

    In other words it is make up figures

  • Croiteir

    Funny. I don’t sit here to answer questions in your timescale

  • Croiteir

    Did you read your reply?

  • Croiteir


  • Carl Mark

    I have to agree with that.

  • Granni Trixie

    I so agree. Disappointed infact that In the midst of all the public discourse about SSM there has been little talk about what is a “good” marriage. For some of course it’s as if hetrosexual marriage, even a “bad” one, trumps other kinds.

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely context is relevant here …the equal availability of marriage to gay people surely would change positively the world LGBT have to negotiate hence mitigates against risk of mental health issues?

  • Gaygael

    Ok – so this respected academic has made up her figures – so have many many many others that have had their work peer reviewed.
    Its all a grand conspiracy by the gheys to elicit sympathy.
    Ignoring it wont make it go away. Ask any suicide campaigner in the North. Ask any professional working in emotional health and well being.

    They will all tell you the same story – homophobia and transphobia kill. Its that simple.
    You and others, with your obsession with blocking lgbt equality, feed and give succor to homophobia and transphobia.

  • Croiteir

    Not hers -yours

  • Gaygael

    Here’s a few links for you.


    And if you care to peruse the NI suicide and mental health strategies you will find clear identification of vulnerable groups.

    But hey. That’s all made up too. The gheys have managed to fool respected scientists, academics, their professional bodies, the department of health, Charitable trusts, community and voluntary sector organisations and local health trusts.
    Just to elicit sympathy.