Monday 22 July 2019

'We had to keep our bills for seven years to show we were an established couple . . . '

In the week when Britain officially recognised same-sex partners, Willie Dillon finds out why gay couples here have been seeking an urgent change in our laws

It's a typical evening in for Aaron Quigley and Brad Herbert. After arriving home from work, they'll prepare a gay dinner. Then they'll sit down and watch some gay TV. Their gay Christmas tree twinkles gaily in their gay living room.

It's a riotous, hedonistic existence - a mad, camp world of pleasure and excess.

Everyone knows this is how homosexual couples live.

Aaron enjoys a good chuckle as he rattles off the parody. The reality, of course, is much more mundane. After a busy day at the office, a gay dinner is much the same as any other dinner. And gay TV watching is remarkably similar to the heterosexual kind. You still do the same things when you get home, no matter what your sexual orientation.

"We're no different to any happily married straight couple," says Aaron, a lecturer in computer science at UCD. "We go shopping together, go to work, come home, pay our bills - very standard things."

A standard settled couple they may well be, but that's not the way the law sees it. Happily for all gay people living in Ireland, that law is about to change. From later this month, gay unions will be officially recognised in Britain and Northern Ireland. Gay couples will enjoy exactly the same legal benefits as married heterosexuals. A similar measure is currently being prepared here by Justice Minister Michael McDowell.

The change, when it comes, will be the culmination of a remarkable change in the official Irish attitude to gays. It's a mere 12 years since homosexual acts were decriminalised in this country.

The Irish statute books will be amended to give gay couples the same rights as married people in such crucial areas as taxation, home ownership, succession, social welfare and pensions. Gays are likely to get the right to legally nominate their partner as their official next of kin. It's not yet known exactly when the minister will table his proposals. But when they come, they will be momentous.

Aaron (32) and Brad (28) met eight years ago when both were studying at Newcastle University in Australia. They describe what happened in much the same way as any young couple would.

"We just got chatting," Dublin-born Aaron recalls. "It was a really nice day and we sat out in the students courtyard and had lunch. We talked for like three or four hours. We definitely connected."

Brad, an Australian who was finishing his honours psychology degree, subsequently brought Aaron to meet his family.

"We became friends," says Aaron. "Then we started going out and seeing each other regularly."

Aaron went on to become a lecturer at the university and they bought an apartment. They have lived together ever since.

Both men obviously welcome gay couples being given equal protection under the law. But in their particular case, the change may come too late. As an Australian citizen, Brad is here on a one-year working holiday visa. It expires in February and he may be forced to return home.

This situation would not arise in the case of a married couple. Neither would it be an issue in Australia where 'de facto' relationships - gay and straight - are recognised in law. As Brad's full-time partner, Aaron is fully entitled to live there.

In his application to remain in Ireland, Brad and Aaron gathered up years of household bills, bank statements and every other possible scrap of paper to show that they are a long-established couple. They consciously kept such documents, knowing they might one day need them.

"Thank God we had them," says Aaron. "I mean, who keeps electricity bills from 1998? If we were a straight couple, we could just get married in the morning and that would be it."

The pair moved to Dublin last February after Aaron got his present job in UCD. They are renting an apartment in central Dublin. Aaron is adamant that if Brad is not allowed to stay, they will both return to Australia without a moment's hesitation.

Brian Finnegan, editor of Gay Community News, says no gays from the Republic will be going to Britain or the North in the coming weeks and months to formalise their relationship. Changes in UK law will make no difference to people living here.

He says different people want different things from the proposed Irish legislation. "The ideal for me is equality. And equality would only mean that I could get married."

However, Senator David Norris, a veteran gay rights campaigner, says he is not hung up on the word marriage.

"Language reflects reality on the ground. People will start calling it marriage anyway. They'll invite you to their wedding and so on."

Indeed, the proof is already there in British gay magazines. These now carry ads from wedding organisers keen to entice gay couples intending to tie the legal knot. The wedding caterers, limousine companies and jewellers are all lining up to cash in on an entirely new segment of the market.

But he says any religious definition of marriage is not one for the legislators. "I respect the right of the churches to decide what they want to do with their own flock.

"I have always believed in the separation of Church and State, And if it works one way, it works both ways. I don't think it's up to the State to tell the Roman Catholic Church that it has to marry people in church.

"Personally, I don't think it would burst them to give gay couples a blessing. I mean, they bless tractors and trawlers and goldfish. It wouldn't burst them to bless a few dykes while they're at it," he says, laughing loudly.

"How do they know the goldfish weren't lesbians? They could have been. Goldfish have a very free sort of lifestyle in their little bowls."

The new Irish legislation, when it comes, will have a significant input from Mr Norris. He hopes that "quite a bit" of the Civil Partnership Bill, tabled by him in the Seanad, will end up in Justice Minister Michael McDowell's final legislative package - though maybe in a slightly different form. The minister has signalled that the gay issue will be addressed before the end of the present Dail - effectively sometime within the next 18 months.

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