In May, the people of Ireland will decide if all people in Ireland have an equal right to marrying and the protection of marriage afforded by the Constitution. The wording for the marriage equality referendum states that: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.
Work is well advanced on the Children and Family Relationships Bill, which aims to consolidate and reform the law relating to guardianship, custody and access to children and adoption. This Bill should be passed in February, well before the referendum.
At present, lesbian and gay couples do not have the right to marry. This referendum is about protecting the civil rights of all Irish citizens and removing the barriers to allow same-sex couples to marry.
It is important that all Irish citizens vote in this referendum so that the true views of Irish society are reflected.
Mary O’Brien meets some couples whose lives will be hugely impacted by the outcome of the referendum. These are their stories.
Tessa & Liz (pictured above)
Tessa Perry (37) and Liz Clark (33) have been together for nine years. Their son, Luka Perry Clark, is age two. The family lives in the small village of Baltimore in West Cork, where they feel very much at home.
Tessa and Liz are both very involved in the local community. Tessa is now head chef at the Glebe and Liz is a musician in the community, writing songs with older patients in hospitals as part of the Arts for Health programme; she also mentors teenagers through a positive mental health initiative run by the Skibbereen Family Resource Centre. “As a gay couple, we have been met with nothing but respect in the local community,” says Tessa.
As a musician in her mid-20s, Tessa took a trip to New York, where she fell in love with the city and with Liz.
“New York was so vibrant and full of life, so diverse and so friendly, I felt that anything was possible,” says Tessa passionately.
“I met Liz, a native of Colorado, at an open mic night she was hosting in Brooklyn; I fell in love straight away. She hardly noticed me! She was like New York — electric and unpredictable.”
After a few music tours and a lot of letters and emails, Tessa and Liz finally got together on a tour in England and haven’t looked back since.
In 2007, the couple got ‘married’ at the Glebe in Baltimore — Tessa’s family home — in front of 70 friends and family. “A friend officiated the ceremony, we exchanged vows and had a great party. The Hothouse Flowers were our wedding band so most of the village ended up at our party and everyone was welcome,” says Tessa.
At that time, Tessa and Liz were still dividing their time between the United States and Ireland. “It was the only way our relationship could work,” explains Tessa. “Because our ‘marriage’ was not recognised by either country, we had
to juggle visas and pretend not to know each other when entering each country, in case they suspected we would outstay our welcome. It became very expensive, very unsettling and very taxing on our relationship. There were times when we would have to spend months apart.”
In 2010, Tessa and Liz were able to enter a civil partnership, which allowed Liz to become an Irish resident, so the couple tied the knot again!
In 2011, after a lot of research and with the help of a sperm donor, Tessa and Liz decided to have a child together.
“You know, it wasn’t a difficult decision,” says Tessa. “I think if you ask any couple who are in love and want a family, it’s an obvious next step. It’s a lot harder to conceive and yes the legal implications really hit home when Luka was born, but it was in no way going
to stop us. We have been very lucky. Both of our families support us completely and the community of Baltimore has been amazingly supportive. The week that we came home from the hospital with Luka, the locals went out of their way to show support, bringing gifts and personal cards. Now we are just another family in the village. We honestly don’t even think of our differences. We have the same experiences as any other family.
“When we got pregnant we had no idea of the difficulties ahead. Firstly Liz ‘s name couldn’t go on the birth cert. This creates a whole slew of problems — next of kin, travel, any legal document that requires Luka’s parents’ names. Nowhere does it say that Liz is Luka’s parent, other than the documents we got drafted up by our solicitor (more unwarranted expense) to state that Liz is in fact Luka’s parent and legal guardian. In a court these documents may or may not stand. There is also the very small but real chance that the donor, even though we signed a contract, could come and claim that Luka is his son and he wants to contest guardianship; Liz again would have no legal stake in the argument.”
In 2013, gay marriage became legal in New York City, so while visiting there last year, Tessa and Liz decided to get married again in an attempt to state their intentions and protect their family.
The Children and Family Relationships Bill, due to be passed in Ireland in February, is an important Bill for Tessa, Liz and Luca.
“I personally think this is an important bill to pass for all families and especially all children,” says Tessa. “At the crux of our situation is our wee boy; we can jump through hoops to ensure that the state sees us as a couple legally but when it comes to it, Luka deserves two loving parents. He needs to be protected, like any child, from uncertainty and loopholes in the law that might damage him.
“I hope that the general public sees the Family Bill and marriage equality referendum as two separate discussions and supports both.
“I know that not all same sex couples have it as easy as us and there is still a long way to go to get rid of the stigma attached to being gay, but I think Ireland is ready to vote for the rights of same sex couples. A ‘yes’ vote will make a huge difference in people’s lives.”
Niamh & Yvonne
Niamh Hughes (41) and Yvonne Nolan (37) have been in a committed relationship for over 14 years. The couple have a little boy, Conor, who is five-months-old.
Niamh and Yvonne went down the long and difficult IVF road together to become parents. However, as the law stands in Ireland now, Niamh is Conor’s biological mother and Yvonne has absolutely no legal rights as his parent.
Like many other couples, Niamh and Yvonne discussed the issue of having a family for some time beforehand, but with the legal issues surrounding a same-sex couple having a child, theirs was a far more careful and laborious decision.
“It’s heart-wrenching that Conor has no legal rights to Yvonne as a parent,” says Niamh. “From serious issues like if we were separated, or if I died, or if Conor had to go to hospital — to the more mundane things like signing a school note; it is so hard and frightening that Yvonne has no standing as Conor’s parent.”
All he sees and feels are two loving parents, who care for his emotional and physical needs.
“We’re both very close to our own parents, who are good role models and we’re extremely lucky that both our families are and always have been extremely supportive, so if anything did happen to me, I know they would stand by Yvonne,” says Niamh
The marriage equality referendum in May offers Niamh and Yvonne the chance to get married and enjoy the same civil rights as everyone else and the Children and Family Relationships Bill they hope will ensure that their family is protected legally.
“The bottom line at the moment is that, as a gay couple, we are not protected by Irish law now the same as everyone else in the country,” says Niamh.
“This referendum is a civil rights issue.
“I can understand that a ‘No’ vote might be borne out of fear and unfamiliarity. But if you do know someone who is gay (or if you don’t — consider how you would feel if a member of your family came out as being gay), ask yourself “should this person have the same civil rights as me?
“This is not a referendum for the gay people of Ireland. It is an opportunity for the people of Ireland to say ‘I do’ believe that Ireland is a tolerant and forward thinking country and ‘I do’ believe in equality for all Irish citizens.”
John & John
John Goode (57) and John Brennan (50) have been together for 17 years. They have a home and business in Beara.
Goode and Brennan first met in Cork in 1998. They share a great passion for the arts and have created a large sculpture garden at their house. The couple annually hosts the Irish Ceramic Awards, writers’ competition and sculpture awards and a charity day at the house in aid of animal welfare. They also run two galleries together.
A dentist by trade, John Goode now co-runs the galleries on the Beara Peninsula and in Kenmare. He has published two books on Irish Ceramics.
In the past, Goode was part of the GHN – Gay Health Network – and worked with the EU regarding Gay Health Issues. He has been involved with gay rights and equality groups for over 20 years.
John Brennan is an artist with his studio at the gallery in Beara. Inspired by the landscape and sea, Brennan’s work has been exhibited throughout Ireland including the Royal Hibernian Academy. His work is included in many public and private collections. Brennan established his gallery in West Cork to exhibit the type of artwork he strongly supports from established and emerging artists. He has previously run galleries in Dublin.
In general, Goode and Brennan have had no problems living as a gay couple in the place they love — West Cork. “We have had some verbal and written attacks. Not many of these but even one is too many,” says John Goode.
Goode and Brennan have dismissed these incidents and have not allowed them to diminish their quality of life. “We have a great network of friends in West Cork and Kerry with people who hold the same generous views as ourselves,” says Goode.
As fortunate as they feel to be living in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland, Goode and Brennan are always aware that they live in a country where they do not share equal rights with other citizens and they both feel that this inequity allows for further discrimination.
“We pay the same taxes and charges that any other family pay in this country without the same rights — we feel we deserve the same rights that other citizens and couples have in Ireland.
“The marriage equality is an important step in the 20-year route of gay law reform to full Constitutional equality for lesbian and gay people in Ireland. If accepted, then we as a gay couple and our families will finally be accepted as equal citizens in Irish law.”