A Writer takes on an Attorney-General.
NINETEEN months after the death of my long-term partner Jonathan Rosten, I received an email out of the blue via the Sydney Star Observer, one of Australia’s gay and lesbian news sources.
Weeks before I’d shared my story in an interview with a journalist from that paper, detailing the precarious legal and financial deadlock I had been subjected to by Jono’s family, their denial of our relationship, and their illegal actions which prevented me from accessing his death certificate.
I’d spoken about my experience to warn other gay couples in Australia, particularly in the city I lived in (‘gay friendly’ Sydney), that it was still a political act for two people of the same gender to live together, because they were not afforded the full protection of the law.
The email was from a man whose name I will not write here – we’ll call him Wayne – because what he told me could have gotten him sacked.
He worked within the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, presided over by State Attorney-General, The Hon. Bob Debus.
Wayne’s email was friendly, letting me know he’d read about my experience in the SSO, and wasn’t it great that the laws had recently been relaxed, meaning I could now get a copy of Jono’s death certificate with my name on it?
This was news to me.
I contacted the SSO and got Wayne’s number. He confirmed for me that, yes, working within the Registry, he’d witnessed directives that same-sex spouses were now to be granted access to their deceased partner’s death certificates. He wanted to remain anonymous because there were homophobes in very high positions within the department he worked in.
I rang the Registry, fobbing off the typical bureaucratic nonsense the telephonists engaged in. I already knew nobody but a top shit-kicker could help me, got put through, stated my case, and booked an appointment the next day.
The first thing that shocked me about the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages was the level of security. Bouncers, thick glass screens, metal detecting barriers, and an air of protection pervaded the place.
That’s when I realised why I’d had such a tough time with these bastards: they control access to some of the most important life decisions we enter into as citizens, so they expect problems, and they’re in a permanent state of lock-down.
Upstairs, the chief shit-kicker invited me to show him the documentation in my possession: statutory declarations, bank accounts, rental contracts, personal items, Jono’s journal; in all some sixty documents which proved various parts of our relationship.
His eyes widened, and he went to stand, saying he just needed to photocopy the first three. But I didn’t, couldn’t, let him go.
I got extremely angry and emotional at having to wait for this moment much longer than a straight spouse in my position would have had to. In the nineteen months prior I’d been brought to my knees emotionally, financially, and spiritually. I’d survived suicidal thoughts, processed deep shame, lost friends, and had to move far too often because I’d been forced to become a ball of unmanageable humanity by the shortcomings of one family and the internal regulations of this man’s department.
He was not getting away with just copying a few documents, this guy. I already sensed he was trapped between his feelings of homophobia and the new regulations which now required him to treat me equally, a full seven years after the NSW laws had changed.
He managed to squeeze out that he reckoned I had a very good case, and that if a new certificate were to be issued, all the old copies would be recalled for destruction.
Did he need the details of exactly where those fraudulent copies were now?
Yes, he mumbled, shame-faced.
I handed over the names and addresses for him to request the return of the death certificate which had been created for me, long withheld by the funeral director I’d contracted and held in their safe behind a wall of defensiveness and avoidance; and the other at Jono’s family’s disposal, already widely distributed to claim that I, Jono’s surviving spouse, did not exist.
At that, the shit-kicker looked as though he’d shit his pants.
Ironically, it was just a week later, after attending Sydney’s first screening of Brokeback Mountain (the story of two men who could barely come out to one another, let alone live as a couple, the way Jono and I had), that I arrived home to a letter inviting me to collect Jono’s death certificate from the Registry, whenever I was ready.
I could have gotten it from the front desk, but I booked an appointment with the shit-kicker and I made him give it to me, right into my hand.
There, on the same page, was Jono’s name, and mine, a record of the exact number of years we had been together, and the address we shared on the day he died: the truth which had frightened the homophobes in our lives, finally laid bare in paper form more indelible than any gravestone.
I cried a little, and then I went downstairs to apply for another original of the certificate by filling a form and passing it across the desk with the thick glass screen.
The young woman took the form and immediately shook her head, tapped her finger on my name and Jono’s, and said: “You can’t get this, not when you’re the same gender.”
I was not surprised. I said to her, calmly so as not to set off any security screens or draw the attention of the bouncers, that she was incorrect and needed to ask her manager for some training on this issue. The jaw, that had been munching so enthusiastically on chewing gum, went motionless.
I went upstairs and saw the shit-kicker’s distorted face through the glass as I made the same demand of the managers. Not one of them would come out of their office to meet me.
So I went to the top. I wrote to the NSW Attorney-General, and made a formal request for him to ensure all staff in his department were now made aware, ideally through some kind of training, that same-sex couples were able to apply for their deceased spouses’ death certificates without recourse to anyone.
Perhaps, I suggested, some media releases to the same effect would be an idea?
When his reply was tardy, I went to NSW’s best shit-kicker, Independent MP Clover Moore, who hurried the Honorable Mr. Debus along a little.
We never received more than a staffer’s reply. I guess Attorney-Generals hate to be reminded they need to catch up with the law.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
Michael’s story is published as Questionable Deeds.