Ahead of National Coming Out Day, we meet the women who drove the Yes campaign in Ireland

John Meagher meets Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, the women who sparked the debate for marriage equality when they fought to have their Canadian union recognised.

LMOST five months after 62% of the population voted in favour of the Marriage Referendum and for Katherine Zappone and her wife Ann Louise Gilligan, its powerful glow has not dimmed.

“It was probably the most significant thing in our lives to date in the context of social change,” says Katherine, who became the first openly lesbian member of the Oireachtas when she was appointed to Seanad Éireann in 2011.

“It was the deepest, most profound, full-of-joy moment because it had been worked so hard for for so long. Seeing that together you can bring along such change was very special.”

The happiness is writ large on her face and that of Ann Louise, whom she married in Canada in 2003. 

The pair were prominent advocates for change, not just in the run up to the referendum, but for many years before. 

Ahead of National Coming Out Day, we meet the women who drove the Yes campaign in Ireland

They had successfully taken their case to the High Court to have their marriage recognised by the Revenue Commissioners in 2006, and thus became arguably the most high-profile gay couple in the country.

Ann Louise, who became a nun shortly after leaving her Dublin school, says she felt a sense of trepidation in the days leading up to that May 22 vote, despite all the polls indicating the vote would be carried comprehensively. 

“I was not convinced all would be well until the moment of transformation,” she says.

“I was surprised because I always believed in the radicality of the Irish people — we’re so creative, so imaginative. Christianity and all its imposition of dogma is an imposition of our spirit, but this was our moment where our Irishness, our radicality, our yes to justice prevailed.”

For the couple, who met and fell in love while studying theology in a Boston university in 1981, and after Ann Louise had left the sisterhood, this most momentous of years felt like an impossible dream in an Ireland where homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1993.

“We had to lead a double life,” Katherine, originally from Seattle, says. 

“Our friends knew about our relationship, but we couldn’t be truly open about who we were in the Ireland of the 1980s, especially because of the nature of our jobs in theology and education. 

"And then, you always wondered if you didn’t get certain employment opportunities because you were a lesbian.”

Ann Louise worked in a senior role at St Patrick’s teacher training college in Drumcondra, Dublin, for 34 years but she, too, had her difficulties as a result of her sexual orientation.

The Ireland they returned to in 1983 was a deeply conservative place were the Catholic Church held sway and where homophobia was tolerated, most notoriously when those who killed a young gay man in a Dublin park because of his sexuality were exonerated by the judge.

“We were still in Boston when Declan Flynn was murdered,” Katherine recalls.

“But the actions of his killers would reverberate in ways they couldn’t imagine.”

The 31-year-old may have lost his life, but his murder essentially gave birth to the Gay Pride movement in Ireland.

“When people are denied [the right] to give an expression to their identity there is a part of who they are that’s suffocated, and that’s not an overstatement,” Ann Louise says.

“To live in a society where that kind of difference and diversity couldn’t speak its name, had to always be silenced, had to always live in fear…

“Can you imagine the damage that that’s done to people in their entire life journey?”

And while this summer was one of celebration, Ann Louise is conscious of those gay people in Ireland who still feel they have to hide their sexuality.

“That’s one of the cautionary notes that I would add to this time, and it is an extraordinary time, but there are people who have lived all their lives and its almost too late,” she says.

“I’m thinking of older people, especially gay men, living in rural Ireland maybe. They are people who never spoke about part of their identity publicly.

“I’m anxious that such people know we’re not all living in some bubble of joy.

“There has to be that deep sympathy and hope that even, however late in the day people will say, ‘I want to speak my truth’.”

Katherine is keen to point out that she and Ann Louise have arguably had a smoother time of it than other gay people.

“Our education, being middle class, the status jobs — all those probably layered us with an easier experience than lesbian and gay people who didn’t have that.”

Outwardly, the pair have a charmed life. They live in a beautiful home in the Dublin mountains — it featured in the RTÉ series Room to Improve — both are extremely well connected and are passionate about their project, An Cosán, the adult learning programme in west Dublin that has won many plaudits over the years.

Ahead of National Coming Out Day, we meet the women who drove the Yes campaign in Ireland

Spend even a short time with them and even the most cynical might be convinced of the notion of soul mates.

They’re still, clearly, besotted by each other and Katherine says Ann Louise’s recent health problems have caused her sleepless nights.

“The thoughts of her not being around,” she says, shuddering.

Memory of their first meeting remains etched in their minds. 

“I remember seeing this really beautiful woman,” says Ann Louise, who was then unsure of her sexuality.

The attraction was mutual according to Katherine and the pair really sensed their connection when they spent some time apart, even before their courtship began.

A year later, they had a life partnership ceremony in Boston presided over by an Episcopalian priest.

There has been pain along the way, however. Katherine is greatly saddened that it was not possible, generally speaking, for her generation of lesbian women to have children.

“I just never thought it was possible,” she says, “but looking back, of course there are regrets. That regret maybe started ten or 15 years ago.

“And, the irony is, Ann Louise is great with kids - she was a teacher of teachers.”

The pain of not having children manifests itself in different ways for her.

“Ann Louise gets deathly ill and I sat in there on my own — there are no kids around me…

“Thinking of that [loss] was another impetus for us to try to bring about this acceptance of children of lesbian and gay children. Gay men still have great difficulty to have children.”

Ann Louise adds: “I would have had children, of course I would, if it had entered my consciousness for three seconds.

“I would have loved children, but I don’t have the regret that Katherine would feel because [by not having children] we were able to have the time to do the social partnership work, such as An Cosán. 

"If you have huge family commitments within the four walls of your house you don’t have the same freedom.”

They are planning to have renewal of vows ceremony in order to, in Ann Louise’s words, “bring the marriage home”.

Their barrister, Katherine recalls with a laugh, told them “there’s nothing like an Irish wedding” and they’re keen to experience for themselves.

But first, more pressing matters call. Her time in the Seanad has given Katherine an appetite for politics and she will stand in next year’s General Election (assuming a snap election isn’t called in 2015) as an independent candidate.

“I feel extraordinarily privileged,” she says, “but there’s still a long way to go for true equality, and I’m not just talking about sexuality.”

It’s a decision that has come after much soul searching, but it’s one Ann Louise fully supports: “We need more women in politics, older women too, and if more women were enabled to get elected I think it would have an impact on the transformation [to a more pluralist society].

“This year has shown that change that was, would have been, seen as unthinkable can happen, so, of course, it is possible to create a far better Ireland for us — and those who come after us — to live in.”

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