Civil partnership 'only a halfway house' for gay couples hoping to get married


Campaigners say gay marriage would enable complete equality of status

Apart from US president Barack Obama, one of the other big wins in the recent US election was the cause of gay rights, notable in the success of Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person to be elected a member of the US Senate.

The electorate in three states – Maine, Maryland and Washington – also voted to legalise gay marriage, while a fourth state, Minnesota, voted not to implement a constitutional ban, although it still remains illegal there.

Here in the Republic, the Civil Partnership Bill of July 2010 has allowed more than 750 same-sex couples to formalise their relationships and attain something of a legal footing.

While civil partnership has gone some way towards transforming certain public attitudes, some gay rights campaigners argue that gay marriage would enable complete equality of status here in the Republic.

As recently as last month, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said: “The right of same-sex couples to marry is not a gay rights issue, it is a civil rights issue, and one that I support.”

Previously, Gilmore called gay marriage “the civil rights issue of our century”.

But while public and political opinion may be shifting, with several county and city councils across the State passing motions supporting gay marriage, for now civil partnership is the only option available to same-sex couples here who wish to commit to each other formally.

This puts some couples in a strange kind of legal limbo, especially where children are concerned.

Robyn O’Connell (26) and Denise Boyle (31) are planning their civil partnership in Cork next June. They have been together 4½ years, with Boyle proposing during a visit to Paris in May 2011.

The option of getting married abroad in a country that recognises gay marriage was not open to them because of the number of people they expect to invite to their ceremony (more than 200).

Having children

The couple plan to have children, so they are most concerned about this issue. “If we have kids, and if Robyn carries our children, then I have no legal rights,” says Boyle.

“That is the real downfall of civil partnership. God forbid, but if Robyn died and we had a child, then Robyn’s mother and father would have more rights in relation to that child than I do, even though the child could have lived with me for most of his or her life.”

O’Connell says that while she is supportive of civil partnership, it has left her wanting more in terms of equal footing in relation to marriage.

Despite Gilmore’s support for gay marriage, O’Connell does not expect things to change in the immediate future.

“I think with anything like this, slow and steady wins the race,” she says.

“You need to make everyone aware of the issues and doing it gently will get you further sometimes. The Irish do not like change, so we need to do it slowly and properly.”

Boyle says that while she is not overly religious, she has always dreamed of walking down the aisle and hopes one day it will be possible.

“I work in construction,” she says. “I am a woman in a man’s world there and so it never really bothers me what people think.

“But since I was a child, I’ve wanted to get married and walk down an aisle in a church. It is many girls’ fairytale and that is one downfall with civil partnership that we can’t do that.”

Marriage abroad

One Irish couple who availed of gay marriage abroad say they find it frustrating that their marriage is recognised in some countries, but not in the Republic.

Michael Barron (37), executive director of BeLonG To youth organisation, and his husband, singer Jaime Nanci (35), got married in South Africa where gay marriage is legal. At the time, civil partnership had yet to become available here.

“It’s almost like we’re married in some countries and not in others,” says Barron.

“It is bizarre. We returned to Ireland married and yet the State recognises us as civil partners, when we refer to ourselves as husbands and as being married.”

Nanci says he recently had to indicate his next of kin when he was in hospital and there was no option on the computer system for him to select “husband”.

“The nurse in the hospital was embarrassed about it and said she had to put in ‘partner’,” Nanci says.

“We are more than partners. To me that word could mean business partners. I have never described Michael as my partner – he has been my boyfriend, my fiance and now my husband.

“I emailed the hospital just to explain the situation and I got a letter apologising and saying they would change the system.”

Staying hopeful

Barron is hopeful that some day they will be able to have their marriage recognised in the Republic.

“I think it will happen in the not-too-distant future,” he says.

“There are practical gaps around children that need to be addressed and also around recognition that we are equal to everyone else. I think that if in the morning, heterosexuals were only allowed become civil partners, there would be a huge outcry against it.

“To us,” he adds, “civil partnership is only a halfway house.”