For Irish couple Patricia Cullen and her partner of 32 years Marijona Devitt, Sunday, July 24 was a day they never thought they'd live to see.
The location was City Hall and the world looked on as gay marriage finally became a reality in New York State.
Just a few minutes with the couple, who are now happily married and, like most longstanding couples are very happy to complete each other’s sentences, will quickly convince you they were made for each other.
Cullen, originally from Donabate, Co. Dublin -- she works at the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the UN as a diplomat -- and her partner Devitt, originally from Strabane, Co. Tyrone, had a magical first meeting, one for the books in fact.
“My cousin Paddy introduced us,” Devitt tells the Irish Voice. “He was a student in UCD with Patricia and he knew she was gay. At the time she had worked in Washington and when she came back from her posting in 1982 we met for the first time.”
THE story of how the couple met is hilarious, worthy of a two act farce in fact.
Years ago in 1982, in an Ireland that's gone with the wind now, Devitt was invited out to the pub by her cousin Paddy who told her he had something very important to say to her.
“I have something very important to say to you, Marijona,” he told her again, inviting her out for a nightcap.
Devitt was suddenly anxious. They had been close for a long time and had gone out to the theater and to dinner on many occasions. But had she given him the wrong idea, she fretted?
“I've been wanting to tell you this for a long time and I don't want you to tell anyone else, especially the relatives,” Paddy confided, with his most serious expression.
“And you must swear not to laugh at me, all right? Because I’m only going to tell you the once.”
Devitt raised her eye to heaven, dreading the proposal was looking imminent.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, here it comes. What will I say to him?’”
But instead of proposing Paddy turned and told her he was gay. The relief was immense and Devitt burst out laughing, saying, “Join the club!”
But Paddy screamed at her with irritation. “ I knew it! I knew you wouldn’t take me seriously!” he fumed. “How dare you take that attitude with me!”
And he stormed out of out the pub convinced he was being sneered at.
The next day he contacted his openly gay friend Patricia Cullen to complain about his mistreatment. “My cousin’s pretending to be gay and she’s taking the piss out of me,” he moaned. “I’m really upset and I’d like you to suss her out to find out if she's telling the truth. Because I am convinced she’s totally pretending.”
Patricia eventually agreed, and with the plan in place the three met later that night at the Viking, which in 1982 was Dublin’s only exclusively gay pub.
Within minutes the two women found themselves laughing uproariously at the circumstances of their meeting and they got on famously. “It was love at first sight,” they both say, simultaneously.
In the years that followed their relationship deepened though some of the darkest years in the history of the gay and lesbian community.
“We got very heavily involved when the boys got sick with the HIV/AIDS,” says Cullen, who remembers the time and its challenges vividly.
“We became heavily involved with the fundraising and all of that. It was a difficult time that underlined how far the community had to go to gain equality,” she adds.
There were other challenges too. Cullen encountered so many people who weren’t just anti-gay; they were often nakedly racist too.
Once, she was strongly reprimanded for bringing an African American friend to a cocktail party in 1979 hosted by the Irish government. An ambassador took her aside and said, “What the hell were you thinking bringing him here? These are Irish Americans, they don’t do black.”
Cullen was appalled. “To me the man was my friend, and I don’t see color,” she said.
The discrimination against gay people in Ireland and the mountain of hurtfulness down the years “and the blunt fact that you didn’t have legal recourse to say, ‘No, you can’t in fact treat me like that, I have rights too,’ just wasn’t there,” says Cullen.
“I couldn’t say, ‘You can’t be abusive, you can’t be snide.’ But now it’s regarded as very poor form to be homophobic, but it’s been a very long journey. And we’re part of it, and we’re glad to be a part of it.”
ASKED if either of them ever, in their wildest dreams, imagined they’d one day be lining up outside City Hall in New York to get legally married, they have a short answer.
“No,” Devitt says firmly. “We genuinely never imagined it. People were so biased -- and so many still are -- and my sense is that bias against us is still huge.
“I mean, years ago when I went to London it was a little more relaxed in terms of the society there, but in Ireland in the 1980s the hold the church had on the country’s attitudes was tremendous.”
Cullen agrees. “There was a sense of taboo, and I don’t like to use the terms like double discrimination, but sometimes back then in Ireland being lesbian seemed an even more awkward place to be than being a gay man.”
Devitt adds with a smile, “Irish mother’s dote on their sons and if they’re gay she need never fear she’s going to lose him to a woman inferior to herself. That’s me being a little tongue in cheek, but in a way lesbian women were pushed further into the shadows back then, I think.”
For most young people, growing up Ireland has a familiar story line -- it’s one of christenings, communions, confirmations, engagements and marriage. It also includes prom nights, the GAA, discos and pubs.
If you’re face fits you’ll probably have the time of your life -- but if you’re a wee bit out of the ordinary, a wee bit gay, it all breaks down. It’s not that you’ll be excluded, exactly. Most people won’t be bluntly hateful to your face.
They will just feel a bit awkward around you and they’ll stop inviting you to things.
For Cullen and Devitt, moving abroad meant finding the room to write their own story.
“You create your own narrative don’t you?” says Cullen. “You find a loving relationship and good friends who are both gay and straight. You find a place where you can withstand the cuts and bruises of discrimination.
“But some people aren’t so lucky. In many towns in Ireland to this day the statistics about young male suicide are terrible, and have been all down the years. Mostly Irish rural gays have tended to migrate to the big cities where they found the room to be themselves and create their own communities.”
President Mary Robinson, in her second year in the Aras an Uachtarain, the Irish presidential residence, invited members of the gay community for cocktails, Devitt remembers.
“I was there and I recall everyone was having a fine time. Then the press photographer arrived and people started ducking behind armchairs and curtains,” she says.
“They were afraid their mammies might see them in the paper. Even in the early 1990s they were terrified of the climate of hostility.”
Cullen adds, “They were comfortable with her in Robinson’s inclusive environment, but they knew that outside as teachers and doctors and whatever they were they would be discriminated against and their parents would be mortified and their neighbors would be perhaps nasty. And so they ducked to protect themselves and their parents, which is very sad -- but we’ve moved on from that now.”
But as she’s telling me this on Sunday at City Hall, across the street one lone protestor with a placard quoting the Bible is shouting, “Abominations! Sinners! Evil doers! Repent or face the fires of Hell!” He shouts this over and over, and at the top of his lungs, so that the prospect of God’s love sounds indistinguishable from damnation.
It would seem that not everyone has moved on from discriminating against gay people, not by a long shot.
But Cullen and Devitt aren’t thinking about the small but determined religious groups who have made it their life’s work to separate them. This is their big day and they intend to have a celebration.
Later, when they emerge from the government offices a huge crowd of well-wishers erupts with cheering and throws confetti. It’s been a long time coming, this day, but it’s finally here.
ACROSS the street I notice a man dressed all in black and wearing dark glasses that concealed his eyes. He just pulled up sharply on a motorbike.
He starts reaching into a kit bag just six feet away from the hundreds of couples waiting in line. I tense up thinking after the events in Norway last weekend, because no one who’s hated by extremists can afford to take chances these days.
He looks at us all with an expression that’s hard to read and then he pulls out a huge Nikon camera and starts photographing the happy crowd. “
Congratulations!” he shouts and we all answer together, “Thank you!”
Then he drives off into the traffic smiling. As Bono put it, it’s a beautiful day.
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