HRSI Lecture Highlights the Struggle for Marriage Equality in Ireland

February 19, 2013

In 2003, marriage equality advocates Senator Katherine Zappone and Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan began the fight to have their Canadian marriage recognized in Ireland, Gilligan's native land and Zappone's adopted one. The couple gave a lecture “Our Lives Out Loud: In Pursuit of Marriage Equality in Ireland” at CEU on February 18 in celebration of Europe's LGBT History Month.

Both Zappone and Gilligan are educators and they are passionate about social justice and access to education for all. Together they co-founded An Cosan (“The Path”), a nonprofit organization that serves more than 600 people in need, providing early childhood and adult education programs.

“We worked for so many years for justice for others and then we thought: let's look for some justice for ourselves,” said Zappone. Before a trip to Chile, the couple started looking into the process of making wills and that started the discussion about getting their marriage legally recognized so that they would be able to arrange for the transfer of their assets without additional taxes (a benefit that heterosexual Irish couples enjoy).

Zappone and Gilligan met in the early 1980s while studying theology and education at graduate school in Boston. In 1982 they held a ceremony to celebrate their life partnership but fully recognized marriage still isn't a reality. The couple, who moved to Ireland permanently in 1983, ultimately married in 2003 in Canada where the opportunity for same-same marriages was offered broadly beyond just the Canadian citizenry. However, even if their marriage was recognized in other parts of the world, their home country still refused to acknowledge their union.

“It is a case about human rights but also the recognition of being allowed to love the person that you do and live with them all the days of your life,” said Gilligan, director of The Centre for Progressive Change. “It's been very important to us to bring the love dimension into this. We think it's beneficial to talk about love in the public sphere,” added Zappone.

Born and raised in the U.S., Zappone is now an Irish citizen and in 2011 was nominated to be a senator in the upper house of the Irish Parliament (Oireachtas), where she is the first openly lesbian member to serve. This April, Ireland will hold a constitutional convention, during which the issue of same-sex marriage will be discussed and debated among legislators and the public. Polls reflect that the majority of Irish citizens support same-sex marriage, but that was not enough to help the couple win their case for marriage recognition. In fact, they lost the judgment and were not awarded legal costs because the judge didn't consider the case in the public interest.

“We lost and we lost badly but our journey continues,” said Gilligan. “On to the Supreme Court!”

The pursuit has, indeed, been a battle in a country where the school system is still dominated by Catholic doctrine, despite the Church's waning power and popularity. The couple have invited the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, to discuss same-sex marriage, but he has never acknowledged their gestures. “We decided to go to the courts because it was about practicing democracy,” Zappone said. “We wanted to make sure that our fundamental rights were protected as other citizens' rights are.”

Irish Ambassador to Hungary Kevin Dowling attended the event at CEU and called the couple “true models in illustrating bravery” in their pursuit of marriage equality. He added, “By doing it rationally and through the courts you have been persistent in illustrating that until this equality is reached, all of our equality is at risk. The change is driven by the kinds of efforts that you have both made.”

The couple described themselves as “optimists” and are looking forward to policy catching up with public opinion. “We feel very supported by the current and – many would argue – the last government as well. Politicians are opening their minds and hearts to this, but you ultimately need the people with you to make a permanent change,” said Zappone, who is also a commissioner with the Irish Human Rights Commission.

The lecture was presented by CEU's Human RightS Initiative (HRSI) and co-sponsored by the organizers of Budapest's LBGT History Month and the Embassy of the United States, Budapest. Zappone and Gilligan based their talk on their 2008 book “Our Lives Out Loud: In Pursuit of Justice and Equality.”