Same sex, different story

  • 6 December 2006
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When Ann Louise Gilligan, a former postulant nun, met Katherine Zappone over 25 years ago, she had never heard the word ‘lesbian'. Now the two await a decision in their law suit against the Revenue Commissioners for failing to recognise their marriage. By Justine McCarthy

Destiny brought Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone together more than a quarter of a century ago. One, a former postulant nun with the Loreto order in Dublin, had travelled from Europe's western outpost, a bastion of orthodox Roman Catholic doctrine. The other came from Seattle, Washington, a burgeoning Bohemia for artists and liberals. They met in Boston College on the first day of their theology doctorate studies – the only two students who qualified for the course.

At the time of their first encounter in 1981 – two years to the month after Pope John Paul's euphoric visit to Ireland when he told the people of Limerick that “marriage must include openness to the gift of children” – Ann Louise Gilligan, a middle-class Dubliner in her early 30s, had never heard the word “lesbian”. Within a year, she was living with Katherine Zappone and they had taken a vow of fidelity to one another.
The two women have established a foothold in Ireland's establishment, after settling in this country upon graduating with their PhDs in education and theology in 1986, seven years before homosexual acts were finally decriminalised at the direction of the European Court of Human Rights. Zappone, now an Irish citizen, is a former member of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) and a former chief executive of the National Women's Council of Ireland. She is a philosopher, a teacher, a public-policy research consultant and a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission.

Gilligan, a lecturer at St Patrick's College in Drumcondra, which is under the chairmanship of the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, chairs the National Education Welfare Board.

The couple run a second-chance education programme as a non-profit initiative for women and children in Jobstown, west Tallaght. The programme has received funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ireland Funds and the state. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste attended the official opening in 1999 of a new centre, An Cosán, under the auspices of their organisation, the Shanty Educational Project.
They are atypical of the Punch-style lesbian-feminist caricature. Middle-aged, middle-class and moderate in manner, their dress is the business-like uniform of lecture halls and boardrooms, their language policed by the idiom of judgement-avoidance. They have never flaunted their relationship, though they did not conceal it either. When Gilligan was being treated for breast cancer some years ago, from which she has recovered, Zappone took a year off work to care for her, suffering the concomitant monetary disadvantages of a single woman. Neither has ever been active in gay politics.

So, when they took a stroll along a beach in Co Waterford after a late dinner one night in 2003, they knew that the decision they were taking would hurl them and their relationship into the glare of the public spotlight.

Following a brief official engagement, Zappone and Gilligan had formally married in a civil ceremony attended by both their families in Vancouver, Canada on 13 September 2003. The marriage was made possible by a high-court ruling in British Columbia that opened the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, regardless of their country of residence. Zappone's parents are still alive and support her whole-heartedly. At the post-ceremony meal, her sister, for whom she had acted as bridesmaid 20 years before, brought a cake and wept as the newly-weds cut it. Explaining her tears, she recalled worrying on her own wedding day that Katherine would not have the same opportunity for happiness in marriage. To Katherine, it was an astonishing revelation as she had never confided in her sister about her sexual preference.
The honeymoon did not last long after the couple returned home to Ireland and applied to the Revenue Commissioners for the standard tax allowances enjoyed by married couples. The reply they recieved quoted the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word “marriage”. Their application was refused. On the Waterford beach, as they walked, they discussed their choices and decided, in conscience, that they had to assert their marital status. They agreed to take the Revenue Commissioners to court. They sought leave for a judicial review, which was granted by Judge Liam McKechnie on 8 November 2004.

Described as “low-key” and “very popular women” by Frances Fitzgerald, Fine Gael politician and former chairwoman of the Council for the Status of Women, they are acutely conscious of Gilligan's employment in a Catholic-run college. The Irish Catholic published an uncompromising editorial in the second week of the High Court hearing, reiterating the church's position on traditional marriage. After leaving the Four Courts on the first day of the case, Gilligan returned to St Patrick's College to interview applicants for places for a new doctorate course.
“They're genuinely very courageous,” says Ailbhe Smyth, director of UCD's school of justice and chairwoman of the National Lesbian and Gay Federation. “They both work either in the public eye or in institutions that are run by the Catholic church. They did it very bravely and, I think, not at all easily.”

The case was heard by Judge Elizabeth Dunne over eight days in the High Court last month. Gilligan and Zappone were
represented pro bono by Phil O'Hehir of Brophy solicitors, senior counsel Michael Collins and Trinity College law professors Gerard Hogan and Ivana Bacik. The claim they made was that the state and the evenue Commissioners acted unlawfully, that they contravened the women's constitutional rights and were in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Alternatively, they sought a declaration that they are entitled to marry each other in this jurisdiction. With thousands of other citizens potentially affected by the outcome (there were 1,300 cohabiting same-sex couples in Ireland at the 2002 population census), the near-full public galleries in the courtroom were not a surprise.

In his opening statement on 3 October last, Michael Collins told the court: “Doctors Zappone and Gilligan are not arguing for special rights or extra rights. They are arguing for the same rights as anyone else. They are arguing for the right to marry the person of their choice.”
On the most fundamental issue of conflict in the debate about same-sex marriage, he said that neither Irish jurisprudence nor international law had ruled that procreation was essential to marriage. “We view marriage between 80-year-olds as charming,” he said. “We see no objection on the basis of procreation. Why do we view it as less charming that doctors Zappone and Gilligan want to get married?”

The legal action, which is expected to end up in the Supreme Court, is estimated to cost about €50,000, mostly due to expert witnesses' expenses and research. Fundraising dinners and events have been organised by the KAL Initiative (taking the women's initials) founded by Grainne Healy, a former chairwoman of the National Women's Council. More than €20,000 has been collected so far. According to Edel Hackett, a voluntary press officer for the couple, their cause has attracted widespread support from the gay and lesbian fraternity as well as business, academic and women's interests groups.

That is small change compared to the potential cost to Gilligan and Zappone if they are to be denied the inheritance rights of a married couple. Their assets consist of the home they share in Brittas, Co Dublin and a second property in Kerry which they bought as an insurance against a loss of earnings in the future.

Giving evidence during the court hearing, Ann Louise Gilligan explained: “It's not easy to share the private aspects of your life. We did so because we are married and we wanted that recognised here.”π