Paris may be the romance capital of the world, but Northern Ireland will be giving the City of Light a run for its money this Valentine’s Day. Same-sex marriage became legal in the region on January 13th, with the first ceremonies taking place from February 11th - just in time for the annual celebration of love. It also marks another historic win for equality in Northern Ireland following the legalisation of abortion in October 2019.
The first same-sex couple to marry under the new law are Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards. The couple met in a Belfast gay bar when Sharni, who is from Brighton, was visiting on holidays. The two began flying back and forth to see one another, ultimately settling in Belfast. Their marriage on Tuesday also marks the sixth anniversary of their being together.
“We’re absolutely excited,” they tell me, speaking over the phone a few hours after a press conference revealed they will be the first same-sex couple to marry under the new law. They got engaged five years ago. “Sharni had booked a holiday for us to Paris to see Ariana Grande,” Robyn says. Their visit to the city’s famous Pont des Arts bridge, where couples leave “love locks” on the railings, provided the perfect chance for Robyn pop the question: “I had got the lock engraved and we were putting it on [the] lock bridge and when she did that, then I was proposing.”
All marriages are special but Robyn and Sharni’s will be a landmark for Northern Ireland and for LGBT rights around the world. “It’s still so surreal for us, I don’t think it’s sunk in for us yet, it’s such an incredible feeling,” Sharni says when I ask about the historical significance of their wedding and the reactions to it, “it’s been overwhelming. It’s incredible.” Of the big day itself, Robyn explains what she is most looking forward to: “Just being able to marry the one person that I love and finally having it legal in the eyes of the law in Northern Ireland.”
Robyn and Sharni’s wedding may be Northern Ireland’s first same-sex wedding under the new law but it certainly won’t be its last. Holly Nedeljkovic and her partner Cáitlín are getting married in March. “You feel a lot more accepted in society. You’re no longer someone who doesn’t have the same rights as [other] people walking down the street,” Holly says when I ask about the significance of the new law. “It’s so important. It means a huge amount to us to be equally married. It’s going to mean a lot for LGBT plus youth.”
Civil partnerships have been available for same-sex couples in Northern Ireland since 2005 but as Holly explains, this was not equivalent to marriage: “If you’re a same-sex couple it’s not technically classed as ‘married’, like legally we wouldn’t have been married, we would’ve been civil partners. The fact that we weren’t allowed that option - just having the same rights as opposite sex-couples, that’s the most important thing.”
Holly and Cáitlín’s wedding in March will put them amongst the first same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland. When I ask what it’s like to be trailblazers, they laugh. “I don’t think that we consider ourselves like that,” Holly says. Cáitlín describes the media interest as “a real honor” especially the opportunity to “have our opinions shared” but adds, laughing again, “in terms of being trailblazers, I’m not sure we’re there yet.”
The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland is the culmination of years of hard work and campaigning across the region. This effort was often frustrated by Northern Ireland’s complex political situation which saw its assembly, Stormont, suspended from January 2017 to January 2020. A ruling from Westminster in July 2019 enabled the campaign to break through this stasis, paving the way for the legalisation of same-sex marriage if Stormont did not reconvene before October 21st. Thankfully for campaigners, it didn’t.
“We’ve had to fight longer and harder to win same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland than any other jurisdiction on these islands,” Patrick Corrigan from Love Equality NI explains when I ask about the struggle for LGBT rights in the region. “We wish we had won it years ago but the politics of this place prevented us meeting that target but we’ve finally got there, we got it over the line and couples are about to start getting married. We’re delighted for them individually and that the battle has been won in terms of equality for LGBT people here in Northern Ireland.”
Northern Ireland is still deeply shaped by the decades-long sectarian violence known as the Troubles. Although often classified as a ‘post-conflict’ society, when it comes to key issues like mental health, the impact of paramilitary violence remains. This reality hit Northern Ireland’s LGBTQ community hard in April 2019, when Lyra McKee, a celebrated young journalist, was fatally shot during a riot in Derry. In the weeks after McKee’s death, many people shared a letter she wrote as an adult to her 14-year-old self about growing up gay in Northern Ireland. In it she writes, “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.”
For campaigners, the legalisation of same-sex marriage is another step out of a dark past on the road towards a brighter future. “The issue itself was obviously about winning marriage equality but I think it had wider meaning for many,” Corrigan says. “It was a wider fight around LGBT rights and equality and a community that has long faced discrimination in Northern Ireland. But it was also about the battle for a more inclusive, progress society here. That brought many people together under the banner of equal marriage. We have fought together and we have won together.”
The future is something Robyn and Sharni are thinking about and looking forward to. “Just like every other couple, getting a house, having kids, holidays, everything,” Robyn says when I ask what they hope the years ahead will bring.
Just a few years ago, it was hard to imagine a time when same-sex marriage would be legal across Ireland, north and south. For those in countries where the struggle for equal marriage continues, Robyn says: “Just keep fighting. You are as equal as everyone else.” It’s a sentiment Partrick Corrigan from Love Equality NI echoes: “The tide of history is slowly flowing in the right direction and it’s not going to go back the other direction. Take heart. If we can do it here, you can do it too.”
This Valentine’s Day, that’s definitely something to celebrate.