NICOSIA, Cyprus — Kevork Tontian met the man he wanted to spend the rest of his life with behind bars. And not even his freedom was enough to keep him away from Wemson Gabral da Costa.
Tontian, a Cypriot, says that after being released from Cyprus' central prisons complex two years ago, his longing for Da Costa coupled with his family's rejection of his homosexuality and disenchantment over bleak job prospects drove him to break the law again just so he could rejoin the Brazilian national back in prison. Freed again a year later, Tontian got himself sent back once more.
Now, Tontian, 34, and Da Costa, 30, have become only the second same-sex couple to tie the knot inside a correctional facility of a European Union member country.
Same-sex couples in Cyprus can enter into a civil union which gives them the same rights and privileges as a married couple except that they are not allowed to adopt children.
“We dare, we dare, we asked. There is no shame. Love has no shame,” Tontian told The Associated Press in an interview from inside the prisons' theater, with Da Costa sitting beside him.
A drug-related offense landed Tontian, a former heroin addict, in prison back in 2015. He battled his addition and overcame it, saying that he's been drug-free five years now.
Da Costa's journey to Cyprus was a complicated affair, Tontian said. Also rejected by his family because of his sexual orientation, Da Costa lived on the streets and prostituted himself to made ends meet, Tontian said.
It was an appeal by his ailing grandmother for money for medical treatment that led Da Costa to his incarceration. Da Costa confided his problem to a friend, who offered to pay for his grandmother's medical expenses if he would act as a “mule” and smuggle drugs to Cyprus. His arrest at Cyprus' Larnaca airport resulted in a five-year prison sentence.
Tontian and Da Costa began their relationship when they first met during an inmates' bingo game. Their bond grew stronger after they were granted permission to take part in Cyprus' gay pride parade under supervision.
Their requests to jointly take part in prison activities, including working together at the facility's archive, culminated in a successful petition to share a cell.
Throughout their courtship, prisons authorities were supportive, even when all wasn't smooth sailing, Tontian said. Inmates who verbally accosted the couple were transferred to other wings.
Their decision to formalize their bond through a civil union was a product of their desire “to get closer to one another,”said Tontian.
Tontian said Cyprus' Prisons Director Anna Aristotelous and her deputy Athena Demetrou helped do some of the legwork in gathering the appropriate paperwork for the civil union ceremony. And despite some delays chalked up to the country's red tape, the ceremony — replete with a wedding cake — took place last week in front of prison staff and a handful of inmates who are friends of the couple.
Aristotelous said the ceremony is a reflection of the facility's respect for human dignity, diversity and sexual orientation of all inmates.
“The anachronistic perceptions of a few stood as no obstacle for us or to the equal treatment of all,” she told the AP.
Da Costa is currently undergoing hormone therapy at the Cypriot capital’s general hospital as part of a potential gender-affirmation surgery.
Tontian and Da Costa are due to be released at the same time in June and they say they'll continue their lives together in Cyprus — as the spouse of a Cypriot national, Da Costa has the right to stay. But the couple plans many trips abroad, including prolonged visits to Brazil where they hope that Da Costa's family will embrace them.
Tontian's message to other other inmates wishing to formalize their relationship is simple — “dare.”
“Parents won’t be with us our whole lives, at some point the parents will leave,: Tontian said. "They should do it, they should dare. If they lose their family, so be it. At some point the family will regret it.”