Category Archives: LGBTIQ Equality

Art and validation (and why they don’t mix)

WHEN I was fourteen living in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia, two life-changing things happened to me: I developed the ability to draw and paint well; and I realised I was gay.

“Capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.”

One of these led me to years of study and training in visual, fine and applied arts, with others fostering my nascent skills. The other led me to fifteen years’ profound fear and confusion. It’s likely you’ve already worked out which is which.

Creative skills and homosexuality are traits I was born with. Although I had relatives who were artistic and same sex-attracted, both states came out of nowhere for this kid, who in the early 1980s had become quite accustomed to blending in with the furniture.

But when I sold my first artwork at the age of 14 and started receiving regular commissions, I was coaxed from behind the sofa. My single mother wouldn’t let me accept money, initially, but when I reached the age when others in my school year were earning pocket money pumping fuel or at the checkout, she shrugged and said that I should be paid for the work I was producing.

Exhibiting in group charity shows I earned a decent sum after the commission and framing was paid for. At the time, the Blue Mountains had a booming arts scene with prolific artists whose work was instantly recognisable, names like David Brayshaw, Robyn Collier, Fiona Craig and plenty more were sources of great inspiration for me.

It didn’t take long for people to open avenues for my artwork. One of the earliest was the encouragement from a teacher for me to enter the annual Gould League art awards, with a particular focus on the subject of birds. I entered several works and received three prizes.

‘Platypus’ (pen and ink on paper by Michael Burge, 1985)

There was a huge resurgence of wildlife art during the 1980s and despite my youth I rode the wave. Commercial prospects for my art opened wide when a school trip to New Zealand required a fundraising effort, and stationary was printed with a range of my wildlife studies. It sold like the proverbial hot cakes and suddenly my bespectacled, pimply demeanour had a creative context.

But to anyone paying close attention, I was entering an extremely dangerous phase.

Subtle poison

As the decade ended and I went off to tertiary studies that included a design diploma at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, I felt the creeping need for something to be done with my innate skills. Arts are defined as ‘fine’ or ‘applied’, after all, but my grasp on validation slipped during the post-recession era of the 1990s.

Validation… what a subtle poison it was for me, allowing one side of me to be singled out at the expense of the other. HIV/AIDS was tightening its terrible grip and while homosexuality had been decriminalised in NSW in 1984, any sign of it in my conservative community was treated with disdain.

I recall believing that if I could express myself in other places I might find true acceptance, and part of my journey to tertiary studies in Sydney and in the United Kingdom was an attempt to shuffle off the kid who could draw in order to find the adult in another art form altogether.

But it was harder than it should have been, and trying to manifest other skills and dreams led me down several blind alleys, because every one of them brought me face-to-face with myself, and, being deeply closeted, my basic composition was squeezed into a frame that left me looking and feeling terrible.

‘The Pursuit of Saint Valentine’ (ink on paper by Michael Burge 1995)

For years I didn’t paint or draw. Living in the United Kingdom and trying to earn a crust in the post-Thatcher economy, I eventually picked up the paintbrush and generated a portfolio that no-one I showed it to was the least bit interested in.

Art wasn’t enough. The talents of the kid meant nothing in Thatcher’s world, which also trampled on LGBTIQA+ rights at every opportunity.

Brushtrokes

So I came home, came out, and did something outrageous: I went and studied acting. I was determinedly playing catch-up and wasn’t content to replicate what I saw on canvas, I wanted to be the art, in every cell.

Life outside the closet got suddenly very tough when my partner Jono died in 2004. I struggled for creative direction for many years. It wasn’t until I found myself in a new relationship that I started, quite tentatively, to paint again.

‘Nocturnal Opening’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2007)

It was stop/start for a few years, and it took a while for others to get their heads around my artwork, which was often staunchly abstract instead of a replication of nature. I came to realise that my realistic works were not much more than the ability to keenly observe what I saw, and that capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.

‘Emerald Screen’ (oil on board by Michael Burge, 2016)

In 2016, friend and artist Ellen Paxton gave me some paints and told me to just get going. She purchased the first work I executed and I have not stopped painting since.

The smell of oils when I squeeze colour onto my palette is a great motivator, because it calls to mind almost four decades of art as second nature. All those years of discipline in composition, perspective, colour theory, life drawing; all those exhibitions when work walked off the walls, and all those when it didn’t… every single part of the journey is a brushstroke on my psyche. I wouldn’t be without a single one.

Carelessly cut

This month, some of those 35-year-old Gould League-winning works came back to me. They arrived in a dangerously inadequate envelope with a miserly amount of postage, but thankfully the postie alerted me before delivering, saying he’d have had to fold it if I hadn’t been home.

When I opened the completely uninsured, unregistered correspondence, my past came rushing at me in these original sketches. I recall the hours spent solo in my childhood bedroom, every line of the Artline pen (I went through hundreds of the things in the 1980s); but also the loneliness, confusion and the desperate need to hide in that room.

CRUELLY CROPPED: The artworks returned to me this month.

Their appearance in my letterbox is a timely lesson in validation, because I have watched young, artistically-skilled people rise into the world in the decades since I did, and I have quietly reminded people – emotionally immature teachers and mentors, particularly – to take great care with them.

It’s hypocritical to validate someone for their innate skills, yet refuse to respect something equally as innate, such as their sexual orientation. In the case of the people who were gifted these artworks, returned to me after being carelessly cut from their frames, acceptance of my sexuality (and that of many others in our community) was painfully piecemeal.

But I’m very glad to have these precious early brainchildren of mine back. Considering the open-hearted manner in which I donated the reproductions to send clueless private school kids to New Zealand 35 years ago, then gave the originals to people who no longer value them, or me, they’re wonderful proof that I have always been much bigger creatively and emotionally than the narrow frame others envisaged for me.

Depths of acceptance

A decade ago, while paying for new tyres, the bloke who’d done the job read the name on my credit card and asked: “Are you Michael Burge, the artist?” and I nearly fell over. He described the pen-and-ink sketch of galahs that he and his wife had been gifted for their wedding and shook my hand with gratitude for a piece of art they love, another from my Gould League-winning collection.

‘Change Coming, Deepwater’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2020)

It was a pivotal year when more of my teenage works came to the surface, including my first work of non-fiction, which failed to launch because of jealous adults but came rushing at me while on assignment for a piece of journalism. “Could you please sign my copy of your book?” a guest at the same event asked. Again, the shock was profound since I’d lived for many years without the validation of such moments.

Validation… too many are unaware of just how much of it you relinquish when you come out, but I have lived long enough to learn how shallow it really is when compared with the depths that flow with just a little acceptance.

Coming on top of a self-determined life that includes the right to marry and the broadest equality rights Australian LGBTIQA+ have had in our history (despite there being much, much more to achieve), these days I treat validation as more of an incentive.

It’s a reminder to keep up the hard work and the difficult, vital process for creatives to put ourselves right out there in a way that very few who live within the safe walls of validation will ever understand.

A country welcome for same-sex couples

THE northern NSW town of Tenterfield is opening its heart to four same-sex couples for an affordable and unique pop-up wedding event in September.

‘One of many rural electorates that voted in favour of altering the Australian Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples.’

To celebrate the arrival of marriage equality in Australia, a group of local businesspeople has created a fun, intimate wedding experience in this colourful corner of the New England country region.

Say I Do in Tenterfield is an initiative of Amanda Rudge, Sharon Julius, Desley Roos, Kim Thompson and Wendy Roots.

According to the group, the pop-up wedding concept was inspired by locals noticing a trend, but also a major shift in national politics.

“In the past 12 months our town has become a very popular wedding destination for city and coastal brides and grooms seeking to have their wedding in a beautiful, relaxed country town,” the group said in a statement.

BOY’S BIOG The definitive biography of Peter Allen.

“As 2017 rolled to a close, Australia voted yes for marriage equality! The group of experts behind Say I Do in Tenterfield wanted to celebrate, so we’ve teamed up with the 2018 Peter Allen Festival to launch something special.”

Immortalised as the birthplace of Grammy-nominated and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Peter Allen in his single ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, the town is an LGBTIQ-friendly destination.

Tenterfield is situated in one of many rural electorates that voted in favour of altering the Australian Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples, and local LGBTIQ have been taking their vows ever since.

Constituents in this region didn’t have much leadership on the issue. Held by the National Party at federal level by the staunchly anti-marriage equality Barnaby Joyce MP, assisted by the similarly opposed Senator John ‘Wacka’ Williams, the wider community rallied during the marriage equality survey to show how out of touch its Canberra representatives are on LGBTIQ equality.

Michael Burge and Richard Moon outside the Tenterfield Saddlery.

I should know, because it was here that I finally got to marry my long-term partner,  silversmith Richard Moon. We tied the knot in the New England in May this year, after more than a decade of pushing for a change in the law.

I was born at nearby Inverell, and after living and working throughout the world in the four decades since I left, it was a touching experience to be able to marry in the place which has become my homeland once again.

Richard was born at nearby Toowoomba, so these two country boys have been able to come home and get married in the border country where we hale from.

And since moving to the region from southeast Queensland in 2017, we have found the New England community very LGBTIQ-friendly. We know of two lesbian weddings in the New England region this year, in fact Richard created the wedding rings for one couple.

Better than Eloping

According to the Say I Do in Tenterfield team, their pop-up wedding event will be “better than eloping”.

“If you’ve always wanted to get married but you don’t want to deal with all the fuss and fluff, let us take care of it and create an intimate wedding for you to enjoy!”

The group underlined that the Say I Do in Tenterfield consortium has all bases covered for stress-free and affordable nuptials, without putting couples through a media circus.

“From published photographers and first-class stylists, to a world-renowned wedding cake creator, let us take care of the lot for under $10,000!”

COLOURFUL COUNTRY Tenterfield is known for its seasonal beauty. (Photo: Tenterfield Tourism)

The Say I Do team includes Amanda Rudge, co-owner and manager of Tenterfield’s Our Place Wine and Espresso Bar; Sharon Julies and Desley Roos, business partners of Inspired By You wedding style and hire; Kim Thompson, owner of The Bungalow and Ivy Leaf Chapel and Tenterfield Topiary Hire, and Wendy Roots, owner of Tenterfield Weddings.

“We look forward to holding more themed pop-up weddings and renewals in the very near future,” the group said in a statement.

“Our aim is to include as many local and regional businesses, services and products as we can.

“Come and experience first-hand what other brides and grooms have already experienced and loved! Taste, smell, see and feel our exceptional regionally-produced products, services and our soulful town.

“Tenterfield has so much history: beautiful old buildings, picturesque landscapes and is central for wedding guests to meet.”

According to the Say I Do in Tenterfield team, the cost of a wedding in the country is considerably less than city prices, and much more stress-free.

“Couples can’t believe the value you get for your money, and how relaxed and easy it is to deal with our local businesses and services, with nothing too hard to put together,” they said.

“You can make your wedding rings in one day with Richard Moon; have a private Yogalates session for you and your family and friends; get gourmet picnic packs sent out with you as you explore our magical national parks, and there’s many more little secrets to come!”

If you’re interested in being one of the four couples at this pop-up wedding email idotenterfield@outlook.com.au or go to the Say I Do in Tenterfield Facebook page.

From this day backwards: the long journey to Australia’s first lesbian marriage

WHEN Australian same-sex couples were finally granted equal access to the Marriage Act in December 2017, the widespread expression of relief was tempered by a growing awareness of a legal minefield.

“Here we were on the other side of the world not being able to have clarified which of our relationships was valid.”

Brisbane couple Elaine Crump and Sharon Dane let the emotions in, but the status of their long-term relationship remained in limbo. Like many same-sex couples seeking legal documentation during the interminable wait for Australia to pass marriage equality, Elaine and Sharon had already taken their chances in countries where equality was accessible.

The pair first solemnised their relationship with a civil partnership at the British Consulate in Brisbane during 2006 in fact they were the first lesbian couple to do so in this country — but neither could have predicted that was merely the start of an arduous legal journey.

“It gave us some credibility among our family and peers,” Elaine, a tradesperson, remembers.

“We were no longer just a couple living together but had some form of formal recognition, albeit in another country; and both our families are British.

“There was a level of excitement about it, as it was something we were finally sharing together that others were able to take for granted.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT Sharon Dane and Elaine Crump.

Sharon, a psychology researcher, agrees: “There was no other way back then of us formalising our relationship”.

“The only thing we had to show we were a couple prior to that was a ‘stamp duty free’ declaration form from the Department of Transport.

“As we were British citizens, we felt that at least we were being legally recognised in a country that was part of our identity,” she adds.

According to Sharon, just before the couple were civilly-partnered, staff at the consulate required them to officially acknowledge that they understood the ceremony was not a marriage.

“That was hard to swallow,” she says.

“We were well aware of that, but to have it emphasised on our special day was upsetting.”

The ‘Best Wedding’

The ceremony attracted significant media attention during the Beaconsfield Mine collapse in Tasmania. Elaine and Sharon recall the sudden scrutiny brought on by the media’s need for alternate content during the lengthy wait before the trapped miners were brought to the surface.

“We allowed the media into that occasion and there was a sense of politics about it which somewhat detracted from the very personal nature of what we were doing,” Elaine says.

“For this reason, I drew the line in not allowing the media at our reception.”

Sharon believes the spotlight came as a result of being one of the first same-sex couples to enter into a UK civil partnership in Australia.

“Interestingly, we weren’t allowed many people to attend the ceremony at the consulate, only immediate family and our witnesses,” she says.

“So there wasn’t that sense of celebration you would normally experience at a wedding.

“Instead, the media filled the room taking photographs.

“While this took away from some of the personal nature of it, it also gave it some sense of celebration, with it being acknowledged as something historic and special.”

According to Elaine, the bulk of the ceremony was at home with close friends and family: “I do remember my mum saying it was the best wedding she had ever been to.”

Time Capsule

By 2008, overseas civil partnerships between same-sex couples were still not recognised in Queensland. That process would not begin until 2011 or be settled into law until 2016.

Elaine and Sharon’s relationship recognition had therefore reached an impasse, but they saw an opportunity in another country.

“Part of it was opportunism, as Sharon had to go to Rhode Island for a conference and I decided to go with her for a holiday,” Elaine recalls.

“We decided we would use the opportunity to drive up to Canada to marry, as it was another step in our journey.

“Marriage felt far more normalising. It would allow us to say we are married couple now, not civilly-partnered.

“We could come home and say that at least somewhere in the world we are a married couple.”

Sharon remembers her critical concern was about she or Elaine dying before they had the opportunity to marry or have a civil partnership recognised at home.

“If that happened, you couldn’t turn back the clock,” she says.

“There would be no way of the surviving partner showing we were ever married. 

“I felt it was like putting it in a time capsule, ready to pull out once the laws had changed.

“It was also because people got it when you said you were married, they didn’t get it when you said you were civilly-partnered.”

Marriage Activists

SPEAKING OUT Dr Sharon Dane speaking at a PFLAG Brisbane event in 2014.

By the time of Elaine and Sharon’s 2008 marriage in Toronto, Canada, the couple had become involved in marriage equality activism, although both remember how entering into their second relationship certification was not in any way political.

“We were doing it for us,” Sharon says.

“However, letting the media tell our story was politically motivated, as we wanted to get the message out there that we were a normal couple that just wanted to be treated like everyone else.”

Elaine agrees: “From a political perspective it was great that our ceremonies helped highlight the issues in the press.”

Sharon’s role as a psychology researcher working on the relationships and wellbeing of LGBTIQ Australians was extended into her activism, which strengthened her views on why having the choice to marry was so important.

“As the research strongly indicated, it was simply about being respected and included in society,” she says.

“The desire to marry was a personal one, but to have the choice was critical in terms of feeling treated as an equal.”

Spare Bunk

Elaine and Sharon met through the Brisbane entity of the social group Older Wiser Lesbians (OWLS).

“I was away in Darwin on a work trip and when I came back Sharon was a new member and we became friends,” Elaine says.

“Eventually, and when I was no longer in a relationship, we found a mutual attraction to each other.”

Sharon recalls the pivotal weekend the relationship began: “A group of us women went camping at a lake. Elaine had a small sailing boat which you could sleep in. Everyone was deciding what tent they were going to sleep in and Elaine said ‘I’ve got a spare bunk in my boat’.

“Well I quickly put my hand up for that offer, and just as well, as it was in that boat where we expressed a mutual attraction,” she adds.

“That was almost 17 years ago. We no longer have that boat but a picture of her hangs proudly in our house as a reminder.”

It’s Complicated

After their 2008 Canadian marriage, Sharon and Elaine continued to campaign for marriage equality in Australia, including staunch opposition to the Turnbull Government’s planned plebiscite on the human rights issue throughout 2016.

According to Sharon, their interest in laws regarding civil unions and same-sex marriages across the world made the couple aware that it wouldn’t be possible to have two formal relationships — even if to each other — recognised in the same country.

“As the UK later changed its laws in 2014 to recognise overseas same-sex marriages, we started to wonder which of our two relationships — the civil partnership or the Canadian marriage — it would recognise,” she recalls.

“To complicate matters further, Canada changed its laws in 2014 to recognise an overseas civil partnership as equivalent to a marriage, with a Canadian lawyer advising us that our civil partnership would be viewed as the true marriage because it happened in 2006, two years prior to our 2008 Canadian marriage.”

The couple quickly realised they were in the same position as countless other same-sex partners in Australia: in need of legal and/or consular advice about the status of their relationships. 

“We first contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK government,” Sharon says.

“They told us that it was complicated because we didn’t live in England and therefore they weren’t sure which of our relationships was valid.

“This meant we were not allowed to have our civil partnership converted to a marriage in case the Canadian marriage had rendered the civil partnership void in the UK.”

The couple corresponded with the United Kingdom Government for over three years while remaining in what they describe as “legal limbo”.

“Finally, they agreed that if we could seek the expert opinion of specialists in English family law, they would consider our case,” Sharon recalls.

“This was a costly exercise that we feel we should not have had to go through.

“We felt we had no choice but to pay for the services of a London lawyer specialising in same-sex marriage law.”

Sharon did an internet search for “Family Law, England, LGBT”.

“Luckily we found A City Law Firm, a wonderfully supportive and knowledgeable legal firm in London,” she remembers.

“They, with counsel on the matter from a barrister, made it clear to the UK government that it was our Canadian marriage that was void under English law, not our civil partnership.”

Reality Check

“The reality set in: Were we really legally married?”

In late 2017, the Turnbull Government conducted a compulsory postal survey to gauge public sentiment on allowing same-sex couples equal access to the Marriage Act.

Sharon was present in the House of Representatives at Parliament House, Canberra, when marriage equality was voted on and passed on December 7 that year.

“I remember calling Elaine right after and us crying over the phone, and that we were ecstatic this had happened,” she says. 

“I think the passing of the law at that time was when I experienced the huge emotional outpouring.

“But then within a week of that, the reality set in: Were we really legally married?

“That put a real damper on things.”

According to Sharon, words can’t adequately describe the frustration and powerlessness that she and Elaine went through while they waited on a response from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

“Here we were on the other side of the world not being able to have clarified which of our relationships was valid,” she says.

“This meant we couldn’t confirm if we were already married, nor could we get married in Australia in case the Canadian marriage was deemed valid.

“I couldn’t help but feel bitter, as if we had the right to marry in Australia in the first place we would not have had to have gone through this unnecessary stress and expense, which was of no fault of ours but as a consequence of same-sex marriage laws changing around the world.”

When the news finally came through from the UK government in February, 2018, that the couple could convert their civil partnership to a marriage, Sharon and Elaine recall being overwhelmed with joy and relief, particularly because the certification was back-dated to take into account the total number of years of their marriage.

“This was the relationship we entered into first, 12 years ago, and the one that involved all our friends and family in Australia,” Sharon says.

“It was the one with a wedding album, flowers, a cake and our loved ones.”

Sense of Peace

AT LAST Elaine Crump and Sharon Dane with their marriage certificate after converting their UK civil partnership to a marriage, at the British Consulate in Brisbane, February 2018.

This year, Elaine and Sharon returned to the British Consulate in Brisbane to have their 2006 civil partnership converted to a marriage that was automatically recognised in Australia.

The certification was likely to have recorded theirs as the first lesbian marriage in this country.

For Elaine, the overriding feeling was relief: “It’s been such a battle for so long,” she says.

“We finally know it’s legally binding and recognised in the place we call home.

“When we go out now and introduce each other as ‘this is my wife’, I don’t get that feeling that people think ‘oh yeah that’s nice, but they are not really married’.

“After all these years of exclusion, I’m able to say ‘yes I’m part of this, I am legally married, you are my wife’.”

Sharon recalls the conversion as an experience of happiness on two fronts, the “huge relief” of ending a drawn out legal battle, and that having the marriage recognised in Australia gave the couple “closure and a sense of peace”.

“All the boxes are now ticked,” she says.

“There is no more fighting on an Australia level, no more fighting on a British level, or any other level.

“We are now like any other couple who can say ‘okay we are married’ and that’s the end of it.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Photos/Video: Alison Pike and Stephen Pike.