A moment that changed me: my wife and I had resolved to marry 22 times. Her death was devastating | LGBTQ+ rights

In 2017, my wife, Julian, and I were having dinner with friends when the conversation turned to same-sex marriage. “Not a problem any more, right?” one said, convinced that there were now equal rights for all. Over lentil stew, we had to tell them that, at the time, gay couples could get married in only 22 countries; to this day, homosexuality is criminalised in 64 and carries a possible or definite death sentence in 11.

As the conversation went from inequality to the latest Kara Walker exhibition, I started thinking: how could we get those numbers out there? Change starts with knowledge and it was clear our friends were shocked that my wife and I couldn’t marry in more than 170 countries.

I went to the kitchen to prepare dessert. As I scooped chocolate ice‑cream into bowls, an idea popped into my head.

In bed, after our guests had left, I whispered the idea to Julian, waking her up. “What if we got married in every country we’re allowed to? Isn’t marriage and love a perfect starting point to raise awareness?”

“Great idea, honey,” she said, and went back to sleep.

When I woke the next morning, Julian was already calculating and listing the possibilities in a spreadsheet. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we figured that, if we sold everything, we could have five weddings. So, we took a leap of faith. We ended up with one suitcase each, filled with the only belongings we hadn’t flogged.

Their Dutch nuptials. Photograph: Femke van Hettema

We had married in 2015, but we were committed to raising awareness about countries that would not allow same-sex marriage. As artists, we were accustomed to using our lives in our work. We were brave and enthusiastic – and very much in love, so nothing else really mattered.

That September, we officially started 22: The Project by getting married at the Marriage Bureau in New York. Our inbox exploded – every news and media outlet wanted to talk to us. We told a story of hope and inclusion and we were called role models. Julian and I then married in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Paris. After our fourth wedding in the project, she felt dizzy suddenly. She was diagnosed with multiple brain tumours and died six weeks later.

I was devastated. As soon as she was gone, I felt completely helpless. I stared blankly at the wall; walked in and out of the room in which she died. For those few weeks of her illness, I had been hypervigilant. Now, there was nothing left. Losing Julian was crippling; all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and never leave.

When she died, I was left with two suitcases and €125 in my bank account, so all I could do was keep working. I wrote a book, Julian, about our life together. Not long afterwards, a publisher asked if I was interested in writing a children’s book about two women, Fleur and Julian, who marry in all the countries where same-sex marriage is allowed. In the resulting books, Love Around the World and Love Is Love, Julian doesn’t die; they gave me the opportunity to finish the project, even if only on paper.

When we started our wedding project, there were 22 countries in which we could get married. In January, that number will rise to 35. I still find it difficult to look back, because the project reminds me of happier times and I miss Julian like crazy. But I also know that we started a lot of really important conversations in the countries we visited. The project was a success – even if we weren’t able to finish it.

It has been five and a half years since Julian’s death. I am still passionate about championing equality – and committed to doing something about it. Who knows, maybe some day, over lentil stew or chocolate ice-cream, a crazy new idea to raise awareness about same-sex marriage might pop into my mind.

Julian by Fleur Pierets, translated by Elisabeth Khan, is published by 3TimesRebel Press (£12.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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