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Same-sex couple's lawsuit a test of tolerance in Ireland

Tax case seeks marital recognition

Ann Louise Gilligan (left), and Katherine Zappone at a recent fund-raiser at a Dublin restaurant for the couple's legal case.
Ann Louise Gilligan (left), and Katherine Zappone at a recent fund-raiser at a Dublin restaurant for the couple's legal case. (David Sleator / The Irish Times)

DUBLIN -- In a country that has had its share of revolutionaries, Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan hardly look the part.

They are smartly dressed, well-coiffed, middle-aged members of Ireland's burgeoning middle class. But in trying to get the government to recognize their 2003 marriage in Canada, they are challenging the very notion that Ireland has become a less socially conservative, more tolerant corner of Europe.

Their legal challenge is essentially a tax case: They have asked to be taxed like any other married couple, rather than as individuals. But the societal ramifications go well beyond that. The two are effectively demanding that same-sex marriages, and by extension the more than 77,000 same-sex and heterosexual couples in Ireland living together outside marriage, be afforded, as they put it, ''a partnership status of full equivalence with marriage."

In Ireland, that's revolutionary.

Zappone and Gilligan chuckle at the notion of being rebels. They say their case is about equality, fairness, and human rights.

''And don't forget," Zappone, a Seattle native, said recently while standing in the foyer of a Dublin restaurant and glancing fondly at Gilligan, ''it's about love, too."

Zappone, and Gilligan, a native of Ireland and former nun, met and fell in love in Boston nearly 25 years ago, while both were pursuing doctorates in education and theology at Boston College. In 1986, in a reversal of Boston's immigrant history, they moved to Ireland.

They set up house in Brittas, a village about 25 miles southwest of Dublin, where they ran educational programs for the disadvantaged and, on weekends, hiked together in the Dublin hills. Even as they worked with some of the country's poorest citizens, they moved into Ireland's establishment, making influential friends and allies.

While the women were widely known among friends and colleagues as a couple, their relationship wasn't discussed outside that circle. Homosexuality was illegal here until 1993. More than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, a religion that considers homosexuality intrinsically wrong.

But the Catholic Church's influence in Ireland has waned considerably over the last generation. As Ireland has become one of the most affluent countries in Europe, the Irish consider themselves increasingly tolerant of their increasingly more diverse society.

Still, Ireland is in many ways still very traditional and conservative, especially by European standards. Few expect that it will join Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain anytime soon as countries where same-sex marriage is legal.

Zappone and Gilligan's legal challenge has not exactly ignited a firestorm of debate here about same-sex marriage, or about changing the Irish definition of families. The only polls on the subject were nonscientific, inconclusive, and contradictory: an online poll by RTE, the national broadcaster, suggested that most respondents supported legal recognition for same-sex couples and thought it was inevitable, while a telephone poll by Sky News found 51 percent of respondents opposed recognition.

Ronan Mullen, a columnist for The Irish Examiner and a former spokesman for the Archdiocese of Dublin, said Zappone and Gilligan should get credit for having the courage of their convictions. But Mullen, who opposes same-sex marriage, said they are not the only ones with strong views about marriage.

''They are taking us into a social and ethical minefield, and they should not be surprised or offended if people object," Mullen noted in a column.

Even among Zappone and Gilligan's supporters there is an air of caution. At a recent Dublin luncheon that raised money for the couple's legal case, some of their friends said they worried that more radical groups of supporters could hurt the cause by antagonizing traditional society.

Nora Owen, a former member of the Dail, Ireland's parliament, said she and other supporters have urged activists to refrain from staging campy faux-wedding ceremonies. ''That doesn't help," she said.

If Gilligan and Zappone are mainstream in their approach, they are adamant about challenging the status quo.

Gilligan, a lecturer in philosophy at St. Patrick's College in Dublin and one of the country's foremost authorities on educating the disadvantaged, said there are three distinct tones from those who ask them, ''Why marriage?" She said some people ask in a neutral tone; others say they are in favor of civil partnerships but balk at recognizing their relationship as marriage; and still others, including gay activists, ask why the couple would want to embrace the institution of marriage, which they view as patriarchal.Gilligan and Zappone said they want all people to have the choice of living as a married couple or of having their partnership treated as equal to marriage in the eyes of the law. The current law, ''negates and diminishes who we are and it negates and diminishes our love," said Zappone, a public policy research consultant and member of the government-appointed Human Rights Commission.

Last week, the government said it hoped to introduce proposals about how to recognize cohabiting couples by March. But if Ireland seems ready to join the rest of Europe in recognizing civil partnerships, same-sex marriage is a different proposition.

Politicians are not lining up to champion the women's cause. Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he is in favor of treating gay couples like heterosexual couples in the eyes of the law. But he stops short of endorsing gay marriage, which he said was ''a long way off."

Last April, in announcing it would challenge Zappone and Gilligan's lawsuit, the Irish government said a finding in their favor could have far-reaching implications. The case is expected to be heard sometime in 2006.

The government worries about the case setting a precedent for all couples who fall outside the traditional definition of marriage. The 2002 census found that out of an Irish population of 4 million, there were 77,000 unmarried couples living together, about 1,300 of whom said they were gay. Unmarried couples now account for 8 percent of Ireland's family units, according to the census, and analysts suggest it has grown since.

A recent fund-raiser for the couple's legal case, held at Fire, a fashionable restaurant at Dublin's Mansion House, attracted some 200 people, including some of the country's most accomplished artists, lawyers, and activists.

David Norris, a member of Ireland's Senate who in 1987 became the first and remains the only openly gay person elected to national office, was the MC for the event, praising the women as courageous civil rights pioneers.

''These two women are striking a very significant blow for equality," Norris said.

But if Norris, a loquacious Joycean scholar, and some other supporters are confrontational, Zappone and Gilligan are demonstrably not. In winning over the rest of Ireland, that may be one of their strong suits.

Nell McCafferty, one of Ireland's most outspoken feminists, whose memoir about being a lesbian in a country where homosexuality isn't talked about much was a best-seller last year, said Zappone and Gilligan are traditional.

''They've been together for 25 years and they still flirt with each other. And they still hold hands," McCafferty said. ''Who still does that after 25 years?"

Mary Hayes, one of the country's leading family-law practitioners, compares the fears about same-sex marriage to those once voiced about divorce, when it was first legalized by referendum in 1995. She said the dire predictions about divorce ruining Irish family life haven't come true.

''The sky didn't fall over divorce," Hayes said. ''It won't fall over this, either."

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