A very civil service


SAME-SEX MARRIAGE:For Ireland’s gay and lesbian community, civil unions are a step towards sharing the marriage rights enjoyed by their peers. ÁINE KERRtalks to three same-sex couples who are embarking on life-long commitments

AFTER A YEAR that ushered in unprecedented change for Ireland’s gay community, 2012 will offer a licence to celebrate for a number of newly engaged couples. Some will exchange rings and vows in ceremonies that carry all the trappings of a traditional wedding, even though current legislation won’t recognise it as a marriage but a civil union. Some will marry in countries where gay marriage is recognised. Others will exchange rings, but wait to exchange vows, in anticipation of the possibility of a more comprehensive version of the Civil Partnership Act 2011, a version that gives full recognition to marriage and adoption rights.

Regardless of their choice of ceremony in 2012, these three couples have enjoyed a momentous 2011 and are looking toward a life of happiness and togetherness.

Springtime changes

Rossa O’Donovan and Brendan Lawlor have never been to a civil union ceremony. But in March, that will change when they stand opposite each other in the Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green; marking their debut at a civil union and the definitive moment in their 10 years together.

“It’s hugely important because it’s the finalising of the relationship, a statement that we want to keep together . . . and saying this is my partner who I want to be with for life,” says O’Donovan of their plans to stand in front of 80 friends and relatives and make a public statement.

Rather than simply go to a register office for a short and simple ceremony, the Unitarian Church offered a non-judgmental and non-denominational place for genuine celebration, says Lawlor.

Their springtime date marks the culmination of a thought process that started when both took part in the “March for Marriage” in August 2010.

“I found it enlightening and empowering. I had always hoped it would become a reality for us and hoped and always felt that Brendan had to be the one doing the asking,” says O’Donovan. “Since it came in, I was dropping subtle hints . . . maybe sometimes not so subtle.”

For O’Donovan, one of the guiding principles was the urge to be the “next of kin”, to be the go-to person in an emergency. “It’s not a money thing, it’s not a tax thing . . . and while we know it’s a civil partnership which doesn’t have the same rights, it’s plenty for us. We are recognised as being legally together,” says O’Donovan.

When O’Donovan first came out in his late teens, he says he simply wasn’t “streetwise” and found life a “bit daunting”. One local awareness group, Gay Switchboard Dublin, helped with the networking and friendship-building process. The club and pub scene, however, left him disillusioned.

“It was all about the last man standing, because a lot of alcohol would be consumed,” says O’Donovan of the time before he started internet dating and met his partner of today; the first person he met from the online community.

Ten years ago, internet dating was only in its infancy but was slowly gaining traction because the Dublin gay scene was “elitist” and “lookist” says Lawlor. “Online dating, whatever about Dublin, revolutionised gay life in this country . . . people now in the remotest parts of the country can make contact with other people online,” he adds. “The isolation is gone and there’s a change in attitude which is complementary to that.”

After 10 years of dating and months of subtle and not so subtle hints, Lawlor arrived at the “what do you think” question in August while the pair were out celebrating their anniversary. They started planning immediately, but O’Donovan says he was careful not to fall into the “bridezilla thing” of over-obsessing about the most trivial details. “We are doing it the way we want to do it,” he says.

“He decides and I agree,” jokes Lawlor, who is quickly interrupted by O’Donovan who insists a decision ratio of 50:50 exists because they luckily agree on most things.

Rings purchased some years ago in San Francisco as a symbolic gesture will soon be accompanied by wedding bands designed by Carol Clarke of SameSexRings.ie. Many, like O’Donovan and Lawlor, arrive knowing exactly what they want but need someone to extract an image from their imagination and make it real.

In Clarke’s jewellery shop in the Royal Hibernian Way, the walls are adorned with signatures of newly engaged couples. All the time, more and more signatures like those of O’Donovan and Lawlor are being added.

The whirlwind romance

One simple non-negotiable rule was established when Anne Marie Toole (31) and Dil Wickremasinghe (38) first met. The rule was to throw out the “rule book”.

“Anyone else’s rule book wouldn’t be good enough for us . . . we had to create our own rule book for this to happen the way we wanted it to happen,” says Toole. They were, she says with genuine pride, going against “the shoulds” in society.

And with the rule book truly sidelined and resolutely ignored, Wickremasinghe waited just six months to return to the Dublin pier where she first told Toole she loved her. On that icy cold day, when she decided to ask that life-altering question, the couple were still living separately.

Months earlier, both had signed-up to attend a mental health-awareness weekend in Wicklow, and separately insisted at the time of booking that sharing a room with another delegate was not an option. Both, understandably, preferred privacy and peace, and not the company of complete strangers on a weekend-long meeting.

Alas, the hotel was overbooked, and the two were pared off, having never met before.

“In walked Anne Marie and that was the beginning . . . there was an almost immediate connection and a friendship was formed in what was a very caring, nurturing environment,” says Wickremasinghe.

The connection was there from the “get-go”, adds Toole. “I’m a big believer in things coming to you that are meant for you . . . our connection was honesty and mutual interest and curiosity. I walked away from that weekend and knew I had a best friend here . . . I knew I had met someone who was going to make a very big and positive impact in my life. What form, I didn’t know,” she says.

Two days later, they exchanged email addresses and said their goodbyes, before returning to Dublin and doing the “stalky thing” of Googling each other’s names, trying to elicit more information; not knowing if an email would ever come.

But several emails and meetings later, Toole quickly succeeded in bringing “balance” to the life of Wickremasinghe, who had what she describes as a “tough life”. “I feel like I’ve lived many lives already,” says Wickremasinghe.

At a young age, she moved from Italy to Sri Lanka, changed schools, endured family difficulties and left home aged 17. That life of change and strife created a toughness, a hardness, a protective exterior.

Toole is a trained psychotherapist and counsellor, and her new practice has an apt title borne out of their initial months together: Insight Matters.

After leaving a Dublin pier engaged, coming as it did after Toole had dropped “hints like it’s nobody’s business”, the two agreed they wouldn’t exchange vows immediately, given the current status of the civil partnership legislation. Instead, in 2012, they will focus on securing a mortgage and buying a house together, all the while keeping an eye on any improvements in their legislative rights as a gay couple. This leads Wickremasinghe, an entrepreneur and broadcaster with Newstalk, on to one of her most passionate topics. She and Toole want children. The legislation, as it stands, bears no mention of children and adoption rights within a gay family unit.

“When a heterosexual couple gets engaged, they have rights, but not two women or two men . . . We are no less valuable. Equality is equality,” says Wickremasinghe. “The legislation has come very far . . . but really we are still regarded as second-class citizens. We have to get the bill over the finishing line.”

Until then, the two will enjoy a prolonged engagement, and continue to finish each other’s sentences.

Global romance landed in Ireland

Rob Obara (24), a medical student from Canada, had sought advice on “gay-friendly jewellers” from Carol Clarke before purchasing a Celtic love knot to remind him and Tonda Heidtke (28) of their time in Ireland. The pair met four years ago while studying in Victoria, Canada and have since enjoyed something of a global romance, following each other to Australia, back to Canada and on to Ireland. Those foreign adventures were largely driven by Obara’s determination to get into medical college and become a doctor.

First course of action was a year-long public health course in Australia, coming just seven months after meeting Heidtke. After six months of Skype, emails and social networking, the two were reunited in Sydney for six months. But Obara’s application to medical school in Canada was unsuccessful, which made him think of going to Ireland to study medicine. The choice was simple: stay in Canada, stay with Heidtke, work, hope and reapply; or move to Ireland without Heidtke, work, study and plan.

“It was so bitter sweet because Tonda wanted to stay with friends and family in Canada and we felt we couldn’t do long distance for five years . . . It was really hard, but I took up the offer, and I think we were both crushed at the thought of splitting up,” says Obara.

Despite the long distance and long gaps in meetings, they remained in close contact and the relationship evolved. Eventually, Heidtke decided to move to Ireland.

“I felt like choosing my career or my studies over being with Tonda was very selfish of me because we were both so much in love with each other. So, I value what it means for Tonda to leave family and friends and be with me in Ireland,” says Obara, who is now in third year in Trinity College, having been joined by Heidtke in Dublin during the summer.

The summer of 2011 commenced with a proposal while the couple were island-hopping in Greece. The year ended with both finally living in Ireland together, planning a wedding in Iceland, where same-sex marriage is fully recognised.