Una Mullally: In praise of Ann Louise Gilligan

With Katherine Zappone she was the spark that lit Ireland’s marriage equality movement

Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone: Their 2006 legal case began a conversation about love, and what it meant to have that love recognised. Photograph: David Sleator

Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone: Their 2006 legal case began a conversation about love, and what it meant to have that love recognised. Photograph: David Sleator

 

On May 23rd, 2015, the day of the marriage equality referendum results, I kept bumping into Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone: on Dame Street with my mum on the way into Dublin Castle; in the courtyard, among the maelstrom of TV cameras where Zappone proposed to her wife on live television. A few hours later, I was in my girlfriend’s apartment on Parliament Street, which had become a de facto drop-in centre and meeting point, a rolling party with a rotating cast. I was opening a bottle when, through the window, I spotted Katherine and Ann Louise outside below. I ran downstairs with two glasses of champagne and handed them over. They danced down the street, right down the middle of it, hand in hand, quite literally stopping traffic. After all they had put themselves through for their marriage to be recognised, their fight succeeded in creating a generation-defining moment. They changed the world, so never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can.

An astonishing woman

Gilligan passed away last week, the week Ireland officially elected its first-ever openly gay Taoiseach, during Pride month, with rainbow flags billowing above the banks of the Liffey. I am devastated for her wife and their friends. Gilligan was an astonishing woman. She could command a room in the softest tones. Senator Lynn Ruane, who credits Gilligan and Zappone’s visionary and altruistic work in education by founding An Cosán as having a profound impact on her life, put it best when she wrote: “She was a woman of pure goodness, and she spent her life sharing that goodness with all she met.”

The spark

Besides the massive contribution Gilligan made to education, she along with Zappone were the spark that lit the marriage equality movement in Ireland, a spark that continues to light the way for broader social change. By taking a case to have their Canadian marriage recognised in Ireland, they inspired a movement. They lost in the High Court, but the genie was out of the bottle. The idea of marriage rights existing for same-sex couples in Ireland could not be undreamed. In the LGBT community, Gilligan and Zappone became a shorthand: KAL. The organisational support that formed around their case became the KAL Advocacy Initiative, and in turn that became Marriage Equality, which was the organisational driver of advocating for marriage rights for LGBT people. Marriage Equality also became an integral part of Yes Equality which organised, fought, and won the marriage referendum campaign. The structures that were put in place, that evolved as the movement took hold, and that led to the referendum win, originated with Gilligan and Zappone and those who organised around them.

Róisín Meets: Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan

Impact

When the nation was introduced to these two women, you cannot underestimate the impact their visibility had. Growing up, I saw gay people represented in the media as the subject of scandal or exotic curiosity. Mostly, this focus was on men. Bar a few exceptions, positive conversations out loud in the media about gay women in Ireland didn’t happen often. You could count on one hand the number of well-known openly gay women in public life in Ireland. Gay people were also nearly always dealt with as single entities. We rarely saw their partners.

Yet in 2006, here was this loving couple, standing outside the courts, tactile on television news and beaming in newspaper photographs. You could feel the change about to start. What was remarkable was how they carried themselves as a couple throughout their court cases and their advocacy. They put their personal, professional and financial lives on the line, and although there must have been some extraordinarily tough days, they always presented themselves with strength, grace and good humour, gentle and brilliantly intelligent.

Led with love

But above all else, they led with love. Their case began a conversation about love, and what it meant to have that love recognised. In the courts, in the media, in political arenas, when Gilligan and Zappone spoke about love, something in the national atmosphere shifted. In hindsight, we talk about the successful tactics of the marriage referendum, how it was about having conversations, being visible, sharing experiences, talking about our personal lives, winning hearts and minds. The message of love Gilligan and Zappone had led by example. When the time came to campaign, LGBT people all around the country led with love too, telling their own stories to their fellow citizens, asking: is our love not equal? The book they wrote together is called Our Lives Out Loud. They loved out loud too. Love was at the centre of every interview, every campaigning piece, every talk. It was not a tactic, it was a truth.

There is something tremendously unfair about the reality that after all the work these two women did for us, they cannot continue to enjoy their life together as a married couple. Gilligan’s legacy lives on. And still leads with love.

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