Unequal: a gay rights protest in Dublin earlier this year

Last Thursday, around 500 people gathered in the freezing cold at the gates of Leinster House to protest against the civil partnership bill which was being debated inside by the tiny clutch of TDs who had bothered to show up. When the debate was being streamed, the apathy displayed by elected representatives, simply by their absence, was astounding, as the wide shots of the Dáil chamber showed a sea of empty seats. Outside, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Senator David Norris joined the crowd, who were there to voice their dissatisfaction at an inadequate piece of legislation that is basically a measure to exclude gay, lesbian and transgendered people from liberties that their fellow heterosexual citizens enjoy.

In many ways, the civil partnership bill is important. It shows some progress. It shows that the Irish government is kind of willing to recognise that gay people should be able to legally register and acknowledge their relationships. But ultimately, it is legislating for discrimination, offering some rights, but denying what the hundreds of thousands of gay people in this country deserve – full marriage rights.

As Rory O'Neill, a key figure in the Irish gay community, put it: "Anyone else can get married. Any race, any creed, any gender... Hell! Any idiot, murderer, rapist, child molester. Any a**hole, racist, queer-basher. Any dumb-f*** soccer hooligan. Any mentally disturbed lunatic. But not the gays! The sky will fall down!" Of course, the sky will not fall. The sky hasn't fallen in the countries where gay marriage has been made legal – South Africa, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Belgium. And the sky will not fall in Ireland. So what's holding us back?

Minister for justice Dermot Ahern's ultra-conservative persuasion is widely known. This is the man who during the 1993 Dáil debates on the legalisation of homosexuality was quoted as saying: "I do not often find myself in agreement with my constituency colleague, deputy McGahon, but on this occasion I am." McGahon had just completed a homophobic rant featuring such choice extracts as: "I regard homosexuals as being in a sad category, but I believe homosexuality to be an abnormality, some type of psycho-sexual problem that has defied explanation over the years. I do not believe that the Irish people desire this normalisation of what is clearly an abnormality... Homosexuality is a departure from normality and while homosexuals deserve our compassion, they do not deserve our tolerance."

Recently Fianna Fáil senator Jim Walsh defended his right to call gay people "fairies". Can you imagine if an Irish senator decided it was perfectly okay to call black people "niggers"? Such is the tolerance of homophobia in our society and at government level.

And then there's the religious objection, even though gay people aren't looking for religious marriage, just civil marriage. The church's hand-wringing over protection of children in gay families is stunning considering its approach to looking after the most vulnerable people in society has involved the systematic rape, mental, physical and sexual abuse of the very people they say they want to protect against the gays. The irony of course, is that for all the chatter about children's rights, the civil partnership bill offers no protection for children, all the more reason to introduce civil marriage, not partnership.

We're living in a society where Uganda is about to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality, following a campaign backed by American evangelical christians; a society where homosexuality is illegal in countless nations, carrying a death sentence in many; a society where the torture of gay people is frighteningly commonplace.

And in Ireland, we have a society where homophobic abuse both verbal and physical is common, occasionally leading to extreme violence and suicide; a society where a teacher can be fired from a school just for being gay; a society where delusional religious commentators are given legitimate media platforms; a society where the TDs we vote into government don't even bother to show up to discuss crucial legislation.

The civil partnership bill is a way of making those pesky gays go away, throwing 'crumbs from the table', as gay rights campaigners LGBT Noise put it, enforcing the attitude that not only are gay relationships unequal to heterosexual ones, but that gay people are unequal to heterosexuals. How dare this government, or any government, legislate to enshrine such discrimination even further. It's time to recognise that if we as Irish citizens are all equal in the eyes of the law, then we all deserve the same rights, no matter what our sexuality.