Category Archives: LGBTIQ Equality

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.

Bad fairy at the wedding: the curse of marriage equality activism

I’D like to briefly hold your attention in this short period before marriage equality is legislated in Australia, because nobody will ever give a second thought to the years of struggle that led to this week’s resounding public vote for same-sex dignity.

The concept of marriage equality first hit me like a bullet in 2004, in the moment I realised I’d been completely and utterly duped by this ‘lucky country’.

My partner Jono had died suddenly just weeks before, and I was struggling with acute, identity-killing grief.

I had no idea that this profound amputation would come to be treated as though it was a paper cut. Unbeknownst to me, Jono’s blood relatives had severed me from his death certificate and disenfranchised me from my rightful place as his next of kin.

Left to work this injustice out for myself, after avoidance from the funeral director and denial from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, it dawned on me in a flash that Jono and I had innocently allowed our relationship to remain ephemeral.

“Human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.”

Without the foundation of marriage, we were the same as every other gay couple in the country: easy to sweep aside in the legal processes. I desperately tried to recapture us, but there was no definitive moment to hold onto, nothing that had been formally witnessed or solemnised. Jono had been silenced and without him I was gagged.

Up until that point, my 34th year, I’d been a ‘good person’. I’d closeted myself when my sexuality became painfully obvious, duly distracted people from the truth, and disappeared to the other side of the world for a decade, part of which I spent in a relationship with a woman.

I’d returned home and dutifully come out, glossed over the profound disappointment that caused in my community, and thrown everything into my first gay relationship. All my hope, ambition, and love was wrapped up in it.

But the night Jono died it should have become apparent that I’d never really had a home to come back to. Australia was still brutally colonial in its complete lack of legal and cultural support for the same-sex bereaved.

I have come to learn that statement means almost nothing to those who have not experienced the death of a partner. Death is hard enough for most to countenance, but gay death places the bereaved right out on the margins.

And I nearly disappeared completely. As the denial of my relationship peaked, I calmly decided to kill myself in a manner that meant nobody would discover my body. Having been forced to take in the inglorious state of Jono’s lifeless form in the emergency room, I wanted to leave no trace.

The plan settled in me far too easily. Dangerously at a loose end without work and prospects of any kind, I refined it over a number of days.

But my ultimate exit was stolen from me. I was encouraged, through counselling, to choose to be a ‘good person’, again. Instead of self-obliteration I began to channel my rage into fixing the lies that had been wrought on Jono’s legacy and making this country a better place for LGBTIQ.

My anger found expression in a live submission to the Human Rights Commission’s Same Sex, Same Entitlements hearings, which were instrumental in overturning 100 pieces of discriminatory legislation for LGBTIQ; but I went the extra mile and, with a voice stymied by grief, reminded the gathering that marriage equality was the ultimate solution.

That was 2006, and despite my appeal having no visible impact whatsoever since it was outside the report’s tight frame of reference, I simply haven’t stopped talking about the critical need for LGBTIQ Australians to have the same relationship protections as the rest of the population.

Had anyone told me that would require more than a quarter of my life to date, I would have prepared myself better for fourteen long years in the wilderness.

Had anyone warned me that I was effectively hitting the pause button on the trajectory of my prime years and my career, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

Had anyone told me I would find love again even as my tears were still drying, I would have laughed until I’d cried once more, but I let it in despite all the risks.

Forced to take our relationship recognition far from home, my husband Richard and I married in New Zealand a decade ago. The noblest person I know, Richard has reached his arms around my pain and loss. He’s also a rabid equality agitator who takes it up to politicians and naysayers without fear.

We are not your classic ‘Marriage Equality Activists’.  

My activism emerged from extreme emotional pain, the kind that is not given much currency in Australia, even among LGBTIQ.

I’ve upset dinner parties, taken on social media trolls, and assisted bereaved LGBTIQ to get their deceased spouses’ death certificates altered, because, fuck it, if I didn’t find them and show them how, no-one else was going to!

I’ve marched in protests, lobbied politicians of all stripes, written letters, boycotted, played nice, played nasty, door-knocked, given up hope and stoked my cut-glass anger to keep going.

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about the need for reform, from the mainstream media to the grassroots, and I’ve read a million more written by others.

I’ve seen editors’ eyes gloss over with boredom about ‘another gay marriage article’, missed out on publishing deals because my work was deemed ‘too gay’, and thrown stuff at the tele when activists with perfect media currency landed inadequate blows on populists and let us all down.

I’ve lived in the outer reaches of LGBTIQ ‘safe’ territory, in places where democracy is dead and gay issues a low-level priority. I’ve spoken out against homophobic belligerence among local representatives and reminded a generation of politicians that we are watching.

I’ve been a harbinger in activism circles, a ‘bad fairy’ at the wedding talks, furiously reminding equality leaders that a critical part of having a relationship recognised is enshrining it effectively when one or both partners dies or becomes incapacitated.

To ameliorate my vengeful harpy lashes, I’ve also been a defender of Australia’s marriage equality poster boys and girls, many of whom remained deeply closeted when I was struggling in the wake of Jono’s death.

I have witnessed the reality behind their media-friendly masks, their exasperation, their power games, their u-turns, their fears, their failures and their white-hot rage, and I have reminded journalists and commentators that the truth is not just ‘love is love’ and holding hands under media-friendly glitter clouds on Oxford Street; it’s that human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.

Bereaved same-sex spouses don’t feature on the panel shows or the media spotlight in our own right. The energy it takes to fight on top of enduring grief is too great for the gay widows I have come across. Usually, we’re trawled out as exhibits for why the laws need to change, before returning to the shadows. 

I admit to being a shadow, and I am jaded as all hell, but this week I have sensed the finish line of this painful emotional marathon my country subjected me to.

If I’m honest, I really don’t care about a few religious exemptions in the Marriage Act. If people of faith don’t get out and protest, we’ll know what’s delivered by this parliament contains inequality, but match-fit LGBTIQ will survive.

If Malcolm Turnbull and Liberal luminaries want to play at being statesmen and own the reform as their legacy, I don’t give a shit. Those of us who lashed all politicians before marriage equality was a popular choice for power-mongers will always know who actually got the reform over the line.

The day the legislation passes I will have carried an inconvenient truth for far too long, and I will set it down in territory that is finally safe, to rediscover whatever identity I have left.

This country-born boy who was well-behaved, thought of others far too much, had no role models for equal marriage and has nevertheless forged faithful love with another country-born boy, will have come home at last. 

CREATING WAVESWe’re thinking of a Tenterfield wedding to renew our vows and give this country the second chance it undoubtedly doesn’t deserve.

Lifeline 13 11 14.

© Copyright Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

The hate that dare not speak its name

AUSTRALIA is fighting a very old battle. It’s been Trojan-Horsed into every household in the form of the Turnbull Government’s postal survey on federal marriage law. Like all wars, the propaganda is rife.

“It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’.”

We’re being asked to vote on altering the Marriage Act to allow equal access to couples of the same gender. Naturally enough for Aussies, we’re dealing with it by forming teams in a numbers game over the country’s oldest political football.

In one corner we have gay-friendly #TeamYes in bright, inclusive colours, although the commentators can’t avoid the war references, labelling them everything from rainbow authoritarians to the gay gestapo. 

In the other corner #TeamNo is pitching itself as the underdog, and while it’s still working out what colours to wear, #TeamYes has been chanting Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe!

Understandably, it’s unsettling for them, but what label would #TeamNo prefer?

#TeamConservative

This would be apt had Western right-wing governments not led their nations to major marriage equality wins long ago. It was David Cameron, Tory prime minister of Great Britain who said that he supported equal marriage rights for the same sex-attracted because he is a conservative in a now famous speech that forever ruled out conservative as a more accurate label for a homophobe. 

#TeamOrthodox

Many of Australia’s faithful are sticking to their ancient creeds, led by the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton; but this label fails on two counts. First, anyone upholding all the Abrahamic scriptures in the twenty-first century must broaden their definition of marriage beyond one man and one woman. The Old Testament allows a bloke more than one wife and a list of exceptions to consensual monogamy. Second, Australia is replete with people of faith who are publicly voting yes to marriage equality. 

#TeamFamily

Upholding the nuclear family is another excuse for refusing same-sex couples equal marital rights. Family First’s breakaway Senator Lucy Gichuhi is one champion in this hard-fought corner. But family values come undone as an excuse for disliking marriage equality when we have multiple generations of surrogate, adopted, biological and foster children that have no different outcomes as a result of being raised by same-sex parents. 

#TeamTraditionalist

Resisting change for change’s sake is a hybrid of orthodoxy, conservatism, and family values, practiced enthusiastically by the likes of Senator Cory Bernardi. However, when a minority group seeks access to a traditional legal institution such as the Marriage Act, Mr Bernardi’s objection to sharing traditional marriage with gays can only be homophobic. This might be why several sub-teams pop up in the traditionalist camp to diffuse the simple yes/no question in the marriage law survey – #TeamFreedomOfSpeech, #TeamReligiousFreedoms and #TeamRadicalGenderTheories, to name a few.

#TeamSorryNotSorry

Social media is replete with players enlisting themselves onto #TeamNo because they feel bullied by #TeamYes, led by the dummy spit of columnist Tom Switzer. They were going to vote for marriage equality, apparently, but their vote was dependent on same sex-attracted people playing nice in a respectful match. They usually profess “heaps of gay friends” yet preface lengthy anti-equality statements with the word “but” to discriminate against the same people. Exclusion on the basis of a rough game is not victimhood, it’s homophobic.  

#TeamAntiGayMarriageGays

Internalised homophobia is a thing. Anyone who was ever closeted will tell you how easy it is to catch a bout of it, even long after coming out.

#TeamHomophobiaIsNotAThing

If all the above players are to be believed, homophobia has never existed and same sex-attracted people are making up all the laws that saw us arrested, chemically castrated and executed across the centuries.

What didn’t exist for a long time were terms to describe the evolution of equality, but as same-sex attraction made space for itself in Western culture, phrases and words were added to the lexicon. It’s an evolving process and commentators need to keep up.

During Oscar Wilde’s trials in the 1890s, homosexuality was analysed around the euphemism ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but by the middle of the twentieth century the fluid term ‘gay’ was in common use and doing little harm.

But pejorative words for homosexuality came into widespread public use as gay liberation got serious in the late 1960s. It’s hardly surprising that a blanket term ‘homophobic’ – coined by a psychologist – was swiftly owned by same sex-attracted subculture, replacing ‘wowser’ and ‘zealot’ in the gay pride push-back.

#NoWin

#TeamYes earned its stripes long ago and has plenty of skin in the long game to full equality.

It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’. It sounds more easily curable than bigotry; there is no law against being inherently homophobic, and religious freedoms are already protected in the Marriage Act.

Their failure to self-identify is what proves any equivalence between #TeamYes and #TeamNo to be so false, and the whole match stacked against a clear win for anyone in Malcolm Turnbull’s survey.

We are right to suspect that is the aim of the game.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.