A Writer is helped to understand his subject.
I WASN’T going to write anything more on the lack of marriage equality in Australia. Frustrated and saddened by the wait, I decided to stop trying. But this week I had one of my most profound experiences around the debate, one which needs sharing.
A week ago I received an unprompted apology from someone I went to school with. He sought me out on Facebook and made amends for his homophobic bullying more than twenty-seven years ago.
I was initially cynical – after all, this particular cruelty was usually an invitation into a fake conversation followed by a bullying sting.
So I publicly asked him to take some action – to write to his federal member in support of marriage equality – just to see if his apology was something more than words.
“The self-determined gay couple, if ever aware enough to lobby for the full backing of the law, would force societies to evolve.”
Then I waited. My husband witnessed me waver as the days passed – “I’ll never hear from this guy” I muttered, realising that I’d asked him to come out as a supporter of same-sex marriage.
I already knew from bitter experience how hard coming out can be. Declaring anything unexpected within your community can be a dealbreaker for all our relationships.
While I hoped for a reply and yearned for it to be a positive one, I revisited my own journey to marriage equality.
It began 10 years ago while I was standing in the voting queue at the 2004 federal election.
My life had taken its harshest turn for the worse earlier that year. My long-term partner Jono died suddenly, and in the midst of my grief his family denied the existence of our relationship and caused a legal battle over Jono’s debt-ridden estate.
Homophobia mixed with grief mixed with denial mixed with money … a devastating cocktail I tried my best to assuage, and failed.
I sorely missed a powerful record of our relationship to use against that force, but that year federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock and Prime Minister John Howard trounced any chance same-sex-attracted people had of accessing the federal Marriage Act to create legally recognised relationships.
By the looks of the colour of the how-to-vote cards in that long voting queue, Labor’s Mark Latham was not going to see-off Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, and, with community support for same-sex marriage languishing at just over 35 per cent, marriage equality seemed forever away.
Jono and I were oblivious to the precarious legal situation our relationship was in. We’d been happy to live very much to the tune of Joni Mitchell’s ‘My Old Man’: “We don’t need a piece of paper from the City Hall, keepin’ us tied and true”.
Not an uncommon stance in our generation but one which can leave either party in legal limbo after the death or incapacitation of the other.
As I waited to vote, I realised there was a tool to keep an indelible legal line in the sand when one in a couple dies – a marriage certificate – that elusive piece of paper.
I suddenly felt duped by the society in which I paid taxes. It had never given me and Jono the chance to feel secure, and all the while we’d fooled ourselves that we had forever, and that nothing could touch our evolving togetherness.
That was the scary part for many people – the self-determined gay couple, if ever aware enough to lobby for the full backing of the law, would force societies to evolve. No wonder our collective relationships were such a political football.
A decade on, the only thing that’s changed is the percentage. Now, 72pc of Australians support marriage equality – surely a free kick for whichever Prime Minister has the guts to kick that ball over the line.
Like many LGBTQI commentators, I find the lack of parliamentary leadership on this issue deeply unsettling, and in what I thought was my marriage-equality-writing-swan song, I extrapolated all the issues as I saw them.
But in trying to express my pain and angst in words, it turns out I was wrong about all of it.
Earlier this week I woke for a very early start at work. Bleary-eyed at the computer I noticed I’d been sent a friend request on Facebook – from the man who, as a teenager, bullied me at school.
The sending of that request, the most common, throwaway click of a virtual button, and my equally everyday acceptance of it, revealed a far more powerful acceptance.
“He is not a bully, he is a hero.”
On his Facebook wall I saw he’d graciously acquiesced to my challenge.
Here is his letter in full:-
Dear (name deleted)
I am writing to urge you to support a free vote on marriage equality.
I went through school with a gay student and recently reconnected with him. He was gracious enough to share with me the way that society’s treatment of gay people has impacted his life. As a young student he was bullied at school, and as a gay man he has been subjected to ridicule, discrimination and disenfranchisement for no other reason than because of who he loves. The reason I am giving you this context is because I am ashamed to say that at school, I was one of his bullies.
This person sharing his experience of how my actions at school impacted him, provided me with an opportunity to put myself in his shoes, to empathise with how it must have felt to be a victim of discrimination. Looking back I am appalled at my thoughtless disregard for the rights of another person. Today, all these years later, I am equally appalled that this person is still having his rights disregarded, only this time it is via Government-sanctioned draconian legislation, rather than by a high school bully.
As a parent, all I can think of is how I would feel if one of my children was forced to face the same struggles for acceptance, and forced to fight for what you and I, as heterosexual males, take for granted — the right to marry the person you love.
Could I ask you to place yourself in the shoes of someone facing this discrimination? Imagine if it was your own son who was in this position, if your beloved child was unable to marry the person he loved. Or perhaps think how it would feel if one of your daughters was not legally allowed to marry the person she had fallen in love with. If one of your own children was denied the same rights as the rest of society based purely on their genetic sexual orientation, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to fix this injustice? Wouldn’t you fight against the ignorance of others to ensure the freedom and chance of happiness for one of your own?
Research has shown that the majority of Australians believe it’s time marriage equality became a reality. I would hope that as a father, a husband, and a citizen of Australia in 2014, you agree that now is the time for this change. Now is the time for you to join 72% of the Australian population who are saying that all Australians are entitled to marriage equality.
I strongly urge you, as my representative with the power your position bestows upon you on my behalf, to take the necessary steps to ensure marriage equality becomes a reality. Please support a free vote on marriage equality. Do this on behalf of every parent, for the sake of every child who deserves the same rights as you and me.
This man and I must always have had more in common than we realised. He is not a bully, he is a hero, and on reading this for the first time, I was released from cynicism into fierce protection.
Same-sex marriages and civil unions have been granted and overturned at state level; the community support in all known polling regardless of age, region, religion and ethnicity is in the seventieth percentile, and plenty of same-sex-attracted couples want one.
Clearly, the culture war has long been won.
All that’s standing in the way are the real bullies – the politicians and community leaders who never really grew up and continue to cajole, avoid, ignore and deny the rights of same-sex attracted people, and our friends.
It took a reformed bully, and a reformed victim, to see it.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.