D.C. resident John O’Mahony says he and his husband and life partner of 25 years Yaroslav Koporulin remained hopeful in January of 2019 when Koporulin was diagnosed with lung cancer on the same day their twin sons were born, making them the first known gay couple in the U.S. to have two sets of twins through surrogacy.
The couple’s two daughters, Violet and Claire, were born in May 2016, a little less than three years before the birth of their twin sons, Evan and Damian.
John says he’s thankful that Yaroslav, a native of Russia and an acclaimed artist and graphic designer who became a U.S. citizen in 2016, had a chance to help raise the four kids and place his loving personality on them up until just four weeks ago, when Yaroslav died on Oct. 24 of complications associated with lung cancer at the age of 48.
Yaroslav’s sudden passing has created both an emotional and financial struggle for John, according to a close friend of the couple who posted a GoFundMe page inviting friends and supporters in the community to provide some help.
“Your kindness and generosity will help John to deal with the funeral and a lot of other expenses coming his way during this unbearable time of loss and grieving for his beloved husband of almost 25 years,” said Olga Deviatkova, the friend who posted the GoFundMe page. “Please donate to John, Violet, Claire, Evan and Damian.”
On Friday, Oct. 23, John, who’s 52, says his mother took Yaroslav to Georgetown University Hospital’s emergency room with a fever and difficulty breathing. John says he arrived at the hospital about an hour later, and doctors soon informed him and his mother that Yaroslav appeared to have pneumonia.
He had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for small cell lung cancer, which is a form of lung cancer known to spread to other parts of the body, for over a year, according to John. The harsh chemo treatment had weakened his immune system, making him susceptible to infection.
Later that night, after John returned home thinking the pneumonia would be successfully treated and Yaroslav would come home in a few days, John says he received a call from one of the doctors at the hospital saying Yaroslav had developed a sepsis blood infection in addition to the pneumonia.
“So they called me saying they think he might pass,” John recalls being told. “I’m like, what?”
To make matters worse, John says he was informed that he could not come back that night to visit Yaroslav at the hospital’s intensive care unit where his husband was being treated due to strict COVID-19 restrictions even though Yaroslav had tested negative for COVID through two separate tests. He said he was told he would have to wait until later the next day to be able to come in for a visit.
“I had to wait until 3 p.m. the next day to see him,” John says. “He went in on Friday, Oct. 23 at about 7 p.m. They called me at 7 a.m. on Saturday to say he had passed,” John says. “So that was the hardest part. There was kind of no closure with somebody that I’ve been with for 25 years or more.”
John told the Blade in an interview on Nov. 9 that talking about his life with Yaroslav and the many things they did together as well as being with his kids helps to ease his struggle in coping with the loss of his husband.
“Just say that I loved him very much and I’m going to miss him more than anything,” he says. “I wish he would have been around longer. But the only way my life is bearable is because I have the kids with me and part of them are him,” John says. “So I feel as though he is kind of here too.”
John explains that he and Yaroslav retained the services of two fertility agencies to arrange for them to become the biological fathers of two sets of twins through in vitro fertilization. The process involved obtaining separate eggs from a female donor and fertilizing one of them from John’s sperm and the other from Yaroslav’s sperm through a laboratory in vitro fertilization process.
The fertilized eggs, which became separate embryos, were then implanted into a female surrogate who was compensated for becoming pregnant and delivering the babies. According to John, although the implantation of an embryo into a surrogate often does not “take,” it did take in both cases for them resulting in the birth of their two sets of twins.
Columbia Fertility Associates was especially helpful and supportive of their effort to bear their kids through surrogacy, John told the Blade. “They’ve been so good to us and so good to the gay community,” he said.
A couple that ‘clicked’ together
John says he and Yaroslav met in 1995 in D.C. at the Dupont Circle gay bar The Fireplace, where John was working as a bartender. Yaroslav, a resident of Moscow, was visiting the U.S. in an artists’ exchange program for just a few weeks and was in D.C. and set to visit Philadelphia and New York before returning to Moscow.
John, who has a bachelor’s degree in international relations, says he was wearing a Russian sailor’s hat while serving drinks at The Fireplace when Yaroslav approached him and asked why he was wearing that hat.
“And I said it’s kind of a cool hat. It’s a Russian navy hat. And he said well I’m from Russia,” John recalls. “And we just started talking. I was just getting off work and we just clicked and kept in contact for the next year,” John says.
During that year John says he traveled to Moscow to visit Yaroslav a few times and Yaroslav came back to D.C. to see John a couple of times. About a year after the two met and had become a couple separated by an ocean and a continent John says he decided to “drop everything” in D.C. and move to Russia to live with Yaroslav in Yaroslav’s Moscow apartment in late 1996.
A short time after his move to Moscow John says he applied for and quickly got a job at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. John says that under the tenure of then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the atmosphere for gay people at least in Moscow was generally open and supportive. He says he and Yaroslav walked holding hands through the streets of Moscow without a problem.
On one of his visits to Moscow he thinks was in 1995 prior to moving there he and Yaroslav exchanged vows that the two considered to be equivalent to a marriage in Pushkinskaya Square, a park-like plaza in downtown Moscow, John told the Blade.
“We used strands of grass to make two rings and put them on each other’s fingers,” he said. “We kept them in a drawer for a long time. It was cool. They looked like rings.”
After living together in Moscow for four years the couple decided to come back to D.C., where they moved into the Logan Circle area house owned by John, which he leased to tenants during his time in Moscow. A short time later, the two bought a five-bedroom house near 17th and U streets, N.W. that they turned into the U Street Bed and Breakfast.
“We lived in the basement apartment and used the upper floors for the bed and breakfast,” John says, which the couple operated for the next 14 years. They sold the business at the time they decided they wanted to start their family and have kids, noting that the long hours it took to operate the B&B would not be conducive to raising children.
John says it was not until 2013 that he and Yaroslav got legally married in D.C. Although D.C. legalized gay marriage in 2010, five years before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, John says lawyers representing Yaroslav’s ongoing effort to obtain a green card and permanent U.S. residency advised him not to enter into a same-sex marriage.
The anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in the 1990s and signed by President Bill Clinton prohibited the federal government from extending any benefits or policies in support of same-sex marriages. That prohibition prevented Yaroslav from obtaining U.S. residency through a same-sex marriage in the same way a heterosexual marriage automatically resulted in residency status for foreigners that marry a U.S. citizen.
The lawyers said getting married might also jeopardize his efforts to obtain a green card and prevent him from staying in the U.S. without a renewed visa, John said.
All that changed in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in U.S. v. Windsor, which upheld a lower court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.
John says that opened the way for him and Yaroslav to get married in D.C. under the same-sex marriage law that had been approved by the D.C. Council and signed by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2009 and which took effect in March 2010.
The 2013 Windsor Supreme Court ruling also cleared the way for Yaroslav to obtain his long-awaited green card and a short time later his full U.S. citizenship.
John says that after the two gave up their bed and breakfast business, Yaroslav stepped up his longstanding line of work as an artist, with showings of his artwork in galleries across the city. He also began work as an adjunct professor teaching art at American University, which he continued until illness related to his lung cancer forced him to step back.
His citizenship status came too late for Yaroslav to vote in the 2016 presidential election but he was able to do so this year, John says.
“He was so happy he got to vote in his first presidential election and he voted for Biden,” according to John. “He didn’t like Trump too much.”
Added John, “He voted on Wednesday, three days before he died. And we mailed in his ballot.”
With Yaroslav’s passing, a child care center called CentroNia in Columbia Heights where John and Yaroslav had enrolled their four kids has become immensely helpful in the kids’ support and educational development, John says. The center’s policy of providing a financial subsidy for parents who cannot afford the full tuition for enrolling their children has also been helpful.
When asked how the kids are dealing with the loss of one of their fathers, who they called Papa — they call John Dad — John says the loss has been mostly something they don’t fully understand or grasp due to their young age.
“Thank God they’re not 7 or 8 or 9 when maybe it sticks in you more,” he says. “But they’re only 4 and a half and almost 2. So the twin boys, the young ones, they don’t even know,” John says. “They just started to say papa. But the girls, they said papa probably 200,000 times. They just say papa died. So they get it but not really,” he says.
“But I just tell it like it is,” John says. “And I say papa has died and you know that he had lung cancer and he had a booboo in his lungs. And papa is not with us anymore but he’s thinking about you and he’ll always love you.”
The GoFundMe site in support of John O’Mahony and his family can be accessed here.
A site displaying Yaroslav Koporulin’s artwork, some of which may be for sale with the proceeds used to support his family, can be accessed here.