TV & Radio
The Sunday Times - Ireland
August 07, 2005
Belfast to host Britain's first gay wedding
NORTHERN Ireland is expected to host the first official gay “marriage” to take place in the UK. The first ceremony is expected to happen just before Christmas this year.
New laws giving same-sex couples the same property and inheritance rights as married heterosexual ones come into force across the UK on December 5. But the notice period to hold the civil partnership ceremony is only 14 days in Northern Ireland, a day less than in England, Scotland and Wales.
“We cannot accept formal bookings until the law comes in, but we have already had six provisional bookings to reserve the room,” said a spokesman for Belfast City Council. A further 12 bookings have been received by Derry City Council for ceremonies in the historic Guildhall.
Andre Graham, 44, and Seamus Sweeney, 33, are hoping they will be the ones to make history this Christmas, winning the race to become the UK’s first husband and husband.
The two have been cohabiting for 10 years and jointly own the Kremlin, a Soviet-themed gay bar and entertainment complex in central Belfast.
“We have applied for a licence to hold the ceremony in the Kremlin,” said Graham, who moved to Ireland from his native New Zealand as an executive with Colombia Tristar Films 13 years ago.
“It is absolutely a marriage. To me it’s a marriage. I’m not going to worry about the technicalities of whether it is part of the marriage act or not.”
The two are hoping for a quiet ceremony attended by friends and family, although they may be joined by the world’s paparazzi if they become the first couple in the UK to seal a same-sex union.
Graham met Sweeney more than a decade ago in Dublin, where the two men were working. Sweeney, originally from Letterkenny, in Co Donegal, said: “I was like many young people in Ireland. I wouldn’t come out in my home town, but went off to Dublin where there was a different life. Gradually I became more comfortable with my homosexuality. It doesn’t seem to be so important what people think of your lifestyle when you have a strong relationship. My partnership with Andre certainly made it easier for me to tell my family, and they turned out to be very understanding.”
It was on a trip to meet Sweeney’s family that the couple drove past a vacant bar in Belfast, deciding on the spot to try to buy it. “Another bid had been accepted on the premises, but we offered more and it was all settled within eight days,” said Graham.
Though Northern Ireland’s reputation for homophobia was sealed by recent comments by Mary McAleese, the Irish president, who condemned gay attacks in Londonderry, the couple say they have not experienced significant problems.
“Homophobia exists everywhere in different degrees,” said Graham. “In Belfast we have had so much support from so many people — the trade, our suppliers. I hear stories on the mainland UK of problems that different gay bars had with the council and other groups. We don’t seem to have had any problems here.”
Belfast has a vociferous anti-gay lobby led by fundamentalist Christians.
In Derry, the province’s second city, gay bashing is a recognised social problem that was condemned earlier this year by McAleese in a speech she made in the city.
Yesterday, the annual “Belfast Pride” gay parade was picketed by fundamentalist Christian groups opposed to the legalisation of gay civil partnerships. One website dedicated to stopping the march said: “Unless a sodomite realises the awful and vile status of their practice before God, and the judgment God will bring upon them and all who will not turn from their sin, they will never see the need to find the place of repentance and healing.”
Northern Ireland unionist MPs opposed the introduction of the legislation to Northern Ireland and it is likely that it would not have been extended to the province if the local power-sharing assembly had been in place. Lisburn Council, near Belfast, already faces a legal challenge after it attempted to block gay couples from using their wedding room, known as the “Cherry Room”.
Elsewhere in the UK, gay civil partnerships are expected to take place in Brighton, where the local council launched a “pink waiting list” last July.
Brighton register office is opening at midnight for the occasion, and as the hour tolls the first couple, Reverend Debbie Gaston and Elaine Cook will become Mrs and Mrs Gaston.
Britain will become the fifth country to legalise gay unions, after Spain, Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands. The first two women to tie the knot in Spain did so in July, only weeks after legislation allowing lesbian couples to wed and adopt children came into effect. The new law caused considerable controversy in the predominantly Catholic country. The Vatican has strongly opposed gay unions of any sort.
The legalisation of homosexual marriages is the ultimate landmark in the battle for equality that has been waged by gay lobby groups. Though still illegal in the republic, same-sex unions are expected to be given legal recognition next year. At the moment, homosexuals do not enjoy the same tax, pension and inheritance breaks as heterosexual couples.