Meg Stone (left) and Elena Ivanova (right) aboard Boadicea. (Elena Ivanova)
A lesbian couple forced to sail around the world for 16 years just to be together are making a last ditch effort to settle in Europe.
Elena Ivanova, who is Russian, and Meg Stone, from Canada, having been living on their 14-meter sailing boat, Boadicea, for more than a decade.
The couple first met online in the mid-2000s, when Elena was working as an architect in Russia and still living with her strict and traditional family. They were pushing her into a relationship with a man she didn’t love, expecting her to get married and have children.
She describes in her book, Talking to the Moon, what was in store for her: “Imprisonment in a tiny flat with some man she hated, while being told by others, she needed.
“Once married or pregnant, his claim on her would be sealed legally. She would go insane for ever having anything to do with him, yet she would be powerless to change anything. They would be bound together.”
When she met Meg online, she found comfort in speaking with someone whose life was so different from hers, and soon, they fell in love.
In 2006, they hatched a plan for Elena to escape her family and to finally meet Meg in person in Kyiv, Ukraine. While both women managed to make it to the Ukrainian capital, Elena’s family followed.
The couple told PinkNews that they were attacked by Elena’s family, who tried to take her back home.
“I wanted to be with Meg,” said Elena. “I knew that if I left Ukraine and returned to Russia, we would never see each other again.”
Although Elena’s family eventually gave up on returning with Elena, they took her passport back to Russia with them.
Desperate for a way to leave Ukraine together, they decided they needed to make it to Canada to see if Elena could get citizenship and they could be together.
They headed to the Canadian embassy in Kyiv, but officials would only help Meg out of the country, and encouraged her to leave Elena behind. She refused.
The Russian embassy was of little help either, and the couple were unable to stay in Ukraine long-term. Luckily, some of Elena’s friends managed to smuggle her passport back to her, and she and Meg headed to Turkey.
By this point, they realised they wouldn’t be making it to Canada together by official means, and so they purchased their sailing boat, Boadicea. What they didn’t know is that the boat would become their home for the next 16 years.
A journey across the Atlantic
They managed to sail thousands of miles across the entire Atlantic Ocean, a 10-month journey that saw them risk their lives in a hurricane, and finally reached Canada in 2007.
However, upon arrival in Victoria, Elena was detained by Canadian Border Services and Meg says she was charged with people smuggling. Although Elena was released into Meg’s custody, their future together was uncertain.
They battled for years for Elena to access Canadian citizenship, to finally have a place where she and Meg could have a home as equals, but this seemed like it would never happen.
They spent more than five years in Canada, still living on their boat in a harbour, which Meg said felt like being “incarcerated”.
“I couldn’t move without her, she couldn’t move at all, period,” she said.
“We just had to get out for our own sanity, we still had the boat which was pretty much all we had left, and we sailed away.”
Even after leaving Canada, the couple fought for Elena’s citizenship “based on the fact that she’d been there for over five years without spending a single day anywhere else”.
However, it would take Canada 11 years to make a decision, and the country finally refused her citizenship in 2018.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told Gay Star News at the time that Elena was “not a stateless person”, that if she returned to Russia she would not face unusual hardship, and that she had not provided services of exceptional value to Canada.
Meg Stone and Elena Ivanova continue to search for a country to call home
Since the day they left Kyiv, Meg and Elena have been searching for a country where they would be “under no threat of separation and with the same rights and freedoms”.
As their search has continued, for 16 years they have been forced to moor only in countries which will accept Russians and Canadians ashore as tourists, and that are accessible by water.
These countries are often in Asia and Central and South America, and the couple are often living among communities which are small, religious, and unwelcoming to LGBT+ people or women travelling alone.
Their movement has been even more restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, as neither of them are able to access healthcare in the countries they’ve moored in and so are unable to access vaccinations.
“We need safety, we need to be acknowledged,” said Elena.
“We are not acknowledged unless we are citizens of the same country.”
It doesn’t make a difference whether the couple are married or not, Elena said, as they cannot return to Russia, and marriage does not create a right to Canadian citizenship.
She said: “What makes a difference is that I’m the holder of a Russian passport, Meg is the holder of Canadian passport. That’s it.
“As long as we have those passports, we are not a couple. We are not a family. And that’s been the problem all this years… We have no country.
“Nobody wants us. No single country in this world wants to give us the same citizenship, recognise us as a family, and give us equal rights.”
Now, the couple said, they are at the “end of their rope”.
Meg has Scottish heritage, and a strong Scottish accent despite growing up in Canada, and the couple are now hoping that Europe might finally be their safe haven.
Although Scotland itself was an option they were considering, the war in Ukraine has made travel even more complex for Russian citizen Elena.
At the time of writing the couple are moored in Central America, and are trying to figure out how to make the perilous trip back across the Atlantic Ocean.
Meg and Elena feel like they’ve ‘lived 15 lifetimes’
The goalposts are ever-changing, but their main message, Meg said, is to encourage others to live life on their own terms.
“I don’t regret it,” she said.
“We’ve had one hell of a journey, we’ve had one hell of a life, it’s been one heck of an adventure, and I wouldn’t give it up. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve lived 15 lifetimes, and if my life ends, it ends.
“We just go on doing what we have to do… we take every single day, and we live it, and we love it. We love every leaf on every tree. We love every monkey, we love every every animal, every fish, everything we can see. everything that’s here, every moment we have together.”
Meg said they’re often told that they “gamed the system” and “jumped the queue” with their initial voyage to Canada, but she responds: “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be together. If we didn’t, we might not even be alive. You never know what’s going to happen.”
She added: “We want people to know that they should love who they want to love, especially to love themselves, and to do what they know they need to do.”