Category Archives: LGBTIQ Equality

Writing my way into my relationship

RAINBOW COURT Same-sex attracted people are exponentially earning our human rights, be warned!
RAINBOW JUSTICE Same-sex attracted people are exponentially learning our human rights, be warned!

A Writer’s first affidavit.

ONE of the most challenging and important pieces or writing I ever executed was the affidavit I wrote for the Supreme Court of New South Wales in application for the estate of my late partner, Jono.

Sitting across the desk from my solicitor, she tasked me with this ‘commission’ using some weighty words of her own, because an affidavit, particularly one relating to your deceased spouse, is not something to get wrong.

“You must relate the incidents of your relationship as though people are listening to it, with quote marks, and everything,” she explained, “and you can’t use his name, you must write ‘the deceased said this, and did this …’.”

It sounded like a scene from a script. In the midst of those dark days, compounded not only by my grief after losing Jono, but also by his family’s denial of the existence of our relationship, writing was something I knew how to do.

I’d been writing dialogue for years, and here was a story with a beginning, middle, and, sadly, an end which nobody saw coming.

My motivation was a simple one, primal, in a way.

I’d been duped. I’d trusted bad people. In the midst of my shock, Jono’s mother and brother had bullied the funeral director into removing my name, and any reference to our relationship, from his death certificate. They did it in secret. They did it at a time I would least suspect them, and they remained unmoved by my entreaties to undo what they had done.

I won’t go into the reasons they did what they did, that is for another piece of writing at another time. Suffice to say they did everything in their power to prevent the creation of any official document which linked their son/brother to me, and that it was, as is so often the case, for financial reasons. Laced with the pervading stench of homophobia, the treatment became a rare mix reserved for only a few of the widowed left vulnerable by lax laws and outmoded thinking.

Whatever their motivations, it was the shittiest, lowest, most devastating action anyone has taken against me. It hit me in my deepest places, and smarts to this day.

Faced with this denial, I wondered what exactly did they say Jono and I were to one another? The legal documents they’d falsified to deny my relationship with Jono carried weighty fines and/or jail time for false representation. What term could they get away with if pressed on the truth?

SPECIAL FRIENDS Comedy writers have made light of gay couples for decades.
SPECIAL FRIENDS Comedy writers have made light of closeted gay couples for decades.

‘Travelling companions’ is the definition comedy writers have placed into the mouths of homophobes for decades.

Yes, in times past, two men in love would have passed for ‘special friends’, but not me and Jono.

We were everything to one another apart from legally married, and the law did not (and still does not) extend to that. Everyone who loved us knew the strength of our commitment.

So, when I learnt to refer to Jono as my deceased spouse, I took our long-term relationship and all its episodes: fun, challenging, confronting and downright hilarious, and wrote it with as much fervour as I would a piece of drama, only I didn’t need to make anything up.

Using old diaries and our joint bank account, I managed to trace our relationship to its dawn. The words were easier to recall off the cuff than the dates, because it’s rather unforgettable when someone leans their head gently on your arm, looks you in the eye, and says: “I’m besotted with you.”

That night, at the alpine-style sunken lounge of Leura’s Fairmont Resort Bar in the winter of the year 2000, was memorable not just for our first kiss, but also the inebriated woman who was sitting near us, saying: “What a lovely couple you two are, awwww, you’re so well suited”. We laughed, because our relationship was just beginning, but it was a great affirmation for what was to come. This woman made it into my affidavit as an indicator of public knowledge of our relationship: one of the more than ten inescapable benchmarks when defining its existence legally.

TRAVELLING COMPANIONS? Yeah right, if you live on Planet Homophobe!
TRAVELLING COMPANIONS? Yeah right, if you live on Planet Homophobe!

Over thirteen pages I recalled how we’d expressed our love and care for one another enough to move in together after two years.

I related our journey through running our own business after only a month together, and all its highs and lows, but also the way that our support for one another saw us blossom as creative individuals.

I also revealed our slightly embarrassing pet names for one another.

There was no happily ever after to the journey Jono and I took, only a surprise ending which no-one would have believed if I’d ever written it into a screenplay.

But my written work could not simply end with Jono’s sudden, unexplained collapse in the middle of a dance rehearsal, because it was an affidavit, not a screenplay.

I needed to add the disenfranchisement I was subjected to after his death. I needed to explain to the court that I had been kept from Jono’s death certificate, and it was with no small embarrassment that I had to explain why I was asking them to bend the rules and allow the presentation of a less legally binding death certificate extract: because his family were homophobic.

In time, my affidavit did everything I needed it to do legally. It was an indelible, detailed document which shone a glaring light on the omissions purposely rendered on the one piece of paper where the details really mattered when I needed them to the most.

“Why do you need a piece of paper to prove your love for one another?” same-sex attracted people who want the right to marry are pressured to explain, to justify our argument for equality.

Well, because thirteen pages (and almost 60 supporting documents) is a mammoth effort, unless you’re a writer, especially when you’re grieving, and you’re fighting insidious, invisible homophobia. One simple marriage certificate would be my choice, every time.

The Supreme Court has no choice but to uphold that, which is exactly what the homophobes are scared of, because it might be just a piece of paper, but a marriage certificate places a great obstacle in the way of prejudice.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Michael’s story is published as Questionable Deeds.

Tony and Bern Sutton – equality people

PROUD PARENTS Bernadette and Tony Sutton, of PFLAG Central Tablelands.
PARENTAL PRIDE Bernadette and Tony Sutton, of PFLAG Central Tablelands.

A writer’s encounter with PFLAG.

AS the editor of a regional lifestyle magazine, it’s easy to focus all the content on sumptuous homes and gardens, and interviews with local business icons.

But for me, the job was an opportunity to explore the stories of the district’s many cultural pioneers.

So it was no surprise, when I turned my gaze to LGBTQI heritage, that I came across another groundbreaker – Australia’s first country PFLAG (‘Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays’) group, and two of the courageous rural people who were instrumental in starting this much-needed family initiative.

This feature was published in Blue Mountains Life magazine in December 2011.

Out in Bathurst

How one family fosters acceptance in the Central West.

Tony and Bernadette Sutton were brought together by telecommunication – Tony was a telephone technician and Bern worked as a telephonist at a local manual exchange. In 1971, after a five-year courtship, they were married at Coolah’s Sacred Heart Church.

Once settled at Bathurst, the first of their two children, Jeremy, was born in 1972, followed by Anne a decade later. Tony was raised in this proud Central Western community. His father was a local butcher. Bern came to Bathurst from a stock and crop farm near Coolah. Like generations of country families before them, the Sutton’s expectations about family were deeply etched in their history.

“On September 17th 1993, two days after his 21st birthday, our son told his Mum, during a weekend visit home, then returned to Sydney, leaving a letter for me,” Tony recalls of the very moment their lives changed, when Jeremy told them he was gay. “Bernadette held the letter, not being sure how I would take the news. This says volumes about his confidence in his Dad.”

“I read the letter one week later, and though a little numb, I managed it better than Bernadette. I felt terrible about some of the cruel comments I had made in previous years. I was as homophobic as the next bloke.”

Bern particularly had difficulty with questions of faith: “During that first week I would often think ‘I don’t know how I am going to deal with this … what would the family and neighbours say?’,” she recalls. “Gradually I realised I was only thinking of myself and not of Jeremy, who had already been through so much struggle.”

Jeremy Sutton (a Marketing Manager now living in Sydney) recalls his perspective: “Living in Sydney had allowed me to become who I really was, as I never felt like I could do that in Bathurst, so it was time to tell my parents. It was a relief, but it was also a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle. There was no turning back to how things were before. I also felt very guilty – seeing your mother cry is never easy”.

“I thought they would really struggle with it on account of their traditional views and being good Catholics, and I’m sure they did. Deep down I hoped they would find a way to deal with it as they are also incredibly good people. I very quickly received a letter from my father in response to the one I left for him which was very supportive.”

Had anything prepared this family for the challenges that coming out brings?

Tony explains: “We weren’t equipped at all, having been conditioned by society and the official position of our church, and the prejudice promoted by anyone and everyone in authority”.

“We love our boy Jeremy, and told ourselves he was still the same person after telling us, but we were very challenged by community opinion relating to gays and lesbians, but there were some surprising exceptions.

“Luckily for us, our parish priest (being ‘pastoral’) was not constricted by the institutional church. He recommended we speak with another family from out of town who were experiencing the same situation. I clearly remember thinking ‘why would I want to speak to this farming family about this topic?’,” Tony recalls. “How wrong I was!”

“Well, we all leaned on each other, for support, during those first months. It was a relief to find that we were not the only family experiencing such a significant challenge to our beliefs, and the values of what a ‘normal’ family is.

“As we were all Catholic, we used to joke that ‘only Catholics had gay children’. Our initial journey was challenged by Vatican teachings of prejudice and discrimination. Yet in 1994, our local church brought (then Father) Paul O’Shea to Bathurst for World AIDS Day to conduct a workshop in an attempt to counter homophobia.

“As a result of this, and with encouragement from our parish Priest, a meeting on March 14th, 1995, considered the establishment of a support group. Contact was made with PFLAG (‘Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays’) in Sydney, and one month later eight people met for the inaugural meeting of PFLAG Bathurst. This was the first rural Australian PFLAG group.”

STANDING TOGETHER Families march under the PFLAG banner the world over.
STANDING TOGETHER Families march under the PFLAG banner the world over.

PFLAG groups worldwide have become the life blood for families and communities seeking to stay together through the coming out process and beyond, but outside cities they often struggle against localised negativity and ignorance.

Tony describes one of he and Bern’s greatest challenges: “To eventually be open with our family and friends, while honouring Jeremy’s trust and privacy”.

“Even now PFLAG is not very prominent in the wider community, especially in rural regions. It began in 1972 in America. Perth, around 1989, had the first PFLAG group in Australia, followed by Melbourne, then Sydney and Brisbane. We are the most westerly group in NSW, though we have tried to get groups going in Dubbo, Broken Hill and Mildura/Dareton.

“Homosexual issues don’t challenge us at all anymore, but we still encounter homophobic comments, even from friends. We are distressed when PFLAG brochures we display in our Catholic cathedral are removed and destroyed by fanatic parishioners, even though we are encouraged to place them there by clergy.

“The wider community are basically ignorant of the true facts about same-sex attraction. They take the lazy path of believing what shock jocks and prejudiced religious literalists promote as ‘gospel’, instead of informing themselves from reliable, accurate and up-to-date material. Jeremy has done us a great service in forcing us to re-evaluate our attitudes to numerous issues in our society. We believe we have become better people as a result.”

Jeremy is very proud of how far his parents have come with PFLAG: “My parents have always liked getting involved, whether it’s the local school, the church, and environmental groups. I even recall going to a peace rally with them once. I think they really like being able to help other parents when they first discover they have a gay child.”

And the journey continues, with all the Suttons getting behind the push for Marriage Equality in Australia.

“We don’t think that ten per cent of society should be denied what the other ninety per cent receive,” Tony says. “They weren’t born gay just so that the ninety per cent majority would have a group to marginalise and allow themselves to feel superior to. They want their committed relationships acknowledged, just like heterosexuals.”

Jeremy agrees: “While a lot of discrimination against gay people has been removed, the fact some still remains gives some people a basis for their prejudices, and gives young gay people another reason to feel inferior or that there is something wrong with being gay. I think everyone knows that one day we will look back at this period with amazement that gay marriage was not legal, the same way we look back at amazement that women once were not allowed to vote.”

Anne Sutton (a primary school teacher living in Victoria) says: “It is ridiculous in such a modern multicultural society that we are still against such a simple thing as two people of the same-sex being joined together in marriage.”

The last of the immediate Sutton family to know about her brother’s sexuality, Anne felt less need for PFLAG. “Since leaving Bathurst I have lived in cities which have had an accepting nature towards gay and lesbian individuals. I think that we have been brought up in a generation which is accepting of homosexuality and has not felt the need for support or to formally offer that support to anyone else.”

From the perspective of his generation, Tony says: “PFLAG is still needed in rural and isolated areas. Communities in these regions can tend to be more conservative, and less tolerant of difference. Rural youth suicide undoubtedly has an element of homosexual despair – no one can ever know to what degree.”

Tony and Bern continue to spread the PFLAG message throughout rural mental health networks, but the results are often frustrating. “Where services are founded on a Christian platform, we often see a typical institutional religious prejudice. The lack of response on this issue can be very disappointing,” Tony says.

“Even when same-sex marriage is approved, PFLAG will still be needed. Parents will experience a range of emotions when they first hear news that their son or daughter is gay or lesbian. Support will still be sought and supplied by PFLAG.

PLUCK COVER copy“During Jeremy’s adolescence relations between him I were rather strained most of the time,” Tony recalls. “Following our acceptance of his sexuality, things have never been better. It’s great!”

PFLAG Central Tablelands (Bathurst) 6331 7267 or 0407 336 020.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

Jonathan Rosten – spirited dancer

DANCER Jonathan Rosten rehearsing for Song and Dance (Photo: Branco Gaica).
LANGUAGE OF DANCE Jonathan Rosten rehearsing for Song and Dance (Photo: Branco Gaica).

Jonathan Rosten (1960-2004).

JONATHAN Rosten knew how to dance – it was the language he expressed himself best in. His dance career included some magnificent highlights – solo parts for The Australian Ballet Company, and roles in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance (Cameron Mackintosh) and An Evening (Sydney Dance Company).

Jono also made his mark in commercial dance, from variety television appearances, to iconic dance-based commercials, and his various spots in the opening of the NSW Royal Bicentennial Concert.

After 20 years as a dancer, Jono began a new career path when he found himself writing, directing and choreographing his first show – A Really Off Off Broadway Show. Jono’s program notes for this end-of-year student performance at Jester’s Acting School in 1986 describe himself as, “One who has been thrust into directing and is better equipped to handle toasted cheese sandwiches”.

Just why he made this move seemed to be a combination of things – too many hours spent bitching about the quality of productions on offer at the time; a desire to turn his burgeoning ideas into reality; and seeing a now renowned production of an entire musical in a garage in North Sydney, which inspired Jono with it’s ‘Let’s Just Do It’ approach to entertainment.

Once this door was open, Jono spent the next ten years in a showbiz no-man’s-land, taking dance work where it paid well in order to finance his writing. Moving from mainstream to independent theatre also saw him work with and be inspired by some early mavericks, including choreographer John O’Connell on Mr. Cha Cha Says Dance.

An early unproduced work he created was And Then God Created Showbiz!, beginning a tradition of exclamation marks in his show titles. This was a comic exploration of the history of showbiz in a biblical and new age context. Ideas for numbers included The Ten Commandments in the style of The Ziegfeld Follies; a Fonteyn and Nureyev duet with a wheelchair-bound Fonteyn; and a climactic Xanadu-inspired number with Jesus on roller-skates.

Suffice to say the humour was subversive. The vaudevillian line-up of showgirls, drag-queens, biblical characters and historical showbiz luminaries would have made this show highly expensive and a copyright nightmare.

For Jono, it was a fantastic experiment he worked on for a decade, a place where all that seemed ‘unacceptable’ in his world (homosexuality, cross-dressing and new age spirituality) could be placed centre-stage. These were recurring themes in all his work, taken from his own life journey and stories he’d encountered along the way.

It took another ten years before Jono found someone out there like him. At the end of a trip across America, in which he took-in the heights of Broadway, Jono happened upon a small theatre company in Los Angeles holding a retrospective of the collected works of Justin Tanner, a self-made theatre man who created shows like Zombies Attack and Pot Mom. He went to see a new work every night of his stay in LA, and the impression it left on him lasted for the rest of his life.

SHOWSTRUCK

He knew he had no time to waste. He knew he could be to Australia what Tanner was for Tinseltown, and shelved a host of stymied and incomplete works, including And Then God Created Showbiz! to embark on an entirely new piece called Show Struck!

Produced in the Northern Rivers area by Jono’s fledging theatre company Creative in Company, this new show was popular with audiences and was well-reviewed.

Jono created a show where the vaudevillian and alternative concepts were well within the context of a strong plot – one man’s journey through contemporary Australian show business, his desire to integrate spiritually in a spiritual vacuum, and to express his sexuality as a gay man. He wrote the show’s lyrics and produced, directed, choreographed and also acted in the show when one of the cast was injured.

Tired of endless touring to regional RSL’s, Daniel, the hero of Show Struck! is in creative limbo with his friend, mentor and bete-noire, Sherri, a showbiz survivor who has nurtured Daniel creatively and spiritually but will not let him flourish in the face of her own failures.

His journey takes him from also feeling like a failure in life, career and love to a state of limitless potential, having exorcised his demons – Sherri, his agent, and creative and sexual guilt within himself. Comically and beautifully, this journey is made in the form of an original show within a show.

One of Jono’s favourite real-life showbiz characters was Ed Wood of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda fame. In the same spirit of this Hollywood maverick, Jono had big dreams to realise.

LOST SOULS The Lost Brother, Bondi Ballet, 2002.
LOST SOULS The Lost Brother, choreographed by Jonathan Rosten for Bondi Ballet, 2002.

He left Byron Bay for the Blue Mountains in 1999 and found himself in a new creative community where he quickly made his presence felt.

He began working with other maverick producers, like Out of the Blue, a community theatre group who through sheer hard work and self-belief staged the electrifying Australian Premiere of The Who’s Rock Opera Tommy at Parramatta Riverside Theatres in 2003, choreographed by Jono. Bondi Ballet gave Jono the chance to write and choreograph Lost Brother in 2002, a highly personal dance-multimedia work about the drowning death of his older brother Peter.

His dream now was to live close to the city and take original shows into Sydney after out-of-town tryouts in Katoomba. The Clarendon Dinner Theatre was the perfect venue for this plan, having birthed many successful productions over the years, and Jono approached the venue with a new show She Males from Outer Space!

Like all Jono’s shows She Males was purposely derivative. He dubbed it ‘Scooby Doo meets Plan Nine from Outer Space’. A gang of kids lost in the Australian bush encounter two strangely attired women who look like they’re from a science fiction movie, but claim to be collecting minerals at midnight. Before the kids know it they’re trapped in an intergalactic breeding program when one of them – Anne, a devout Brethren girl – is kidnapped. The gang must get her back and face their own shortcomings and lack-of-acceptance in the process.

SHE MALES

This show made it to Sydney in February 2004 as part of the Mardi Gras Cultural Festival, and had a 4-week season at The Edge Theatre in Newtown.

Jono injected this classic story of opposites with some of his best choreography. There were cheerleading sequences, mesmerising alien dance-moves and a continual comic through-line involving movement and lines inspired by old movies and television.

Deep in the plot was another of Jono’s appeals for acceptance when the hermaphrodite alien she-males explain to the younger gang that they are “Perfectly balanced in our male and female parts”, a beautiful piece of writing which challenges the gang (and us) to accept themselves, each other, and ultimately Anne’s alien she-male baby who was born during the curtain call.

Jono had succeeded in a long-held ambition to carry a weighty political message with a light comic touch, and reviewers and audiences responded. He had also discovered where his greatest talent lay – in storytelling using movement, dance and comic juxtaposition.

The Clarendon immediately asked for another show and Jono responded with his last unproduced show Double Identity (strangely there was no exclamation mark in this one). This show was again highly derivative, taking the film noir world and turning it on its head.

Inspired by audience reactions to the comic dance and movement styles in She Males, Jono created a series of dance/movement numbers and then built a plot around these. He also planned to return to the stage in a number of small crazy parts, including Frank the club owner who cross-dresses.

To date this show has had one performance only, two days before Jono died suddenly in rehearsal. Harking back to the garage-show in the 1980s, this performance was in the studio at the back of our home. I was the only member of the audience and the young leads – Nathan Roberts and Ines Vas De Sousa, were obviously going to be fantastic in the run. Jono was in there too – I had rarely seen him perform, and he sparkled with a glint in his eye, even when things went wrong and they had to do numbers from the top.

The man who started out as Buckingham in The Australian Ballet’s Three Musketeers, who danced for the Prince and Princess of Wales at Australia’s Bicentenary, who was The Milka Boy in the Swiss Alps with purple cows, was now integrating again in his newest incarnation as a singer-dancer-actor-writer-choreographer-director-producer.

Little did he or we know that the integration was so complete that only 48 hours later he would make the ultimate transition into death.

POSTER_email

Double Identity did not have its 3-month season at The Clarendon.

I can imagine Jono changing the name of this production to The Show Must Not Go On! (and scoring an exclamation!) because showbiz seems all too superficial without him.

Reality of his absence has kicked-in and Creative in Company has dissipated with the understandable shock.

The irony is that while his company was called ‘Creative in Company’ it really was just Jono instigating the work and driving it forwards, like Daniel in Show Struck!, helped and supported by a lot of talented people, but it was always Jono driving the bus.

“Don’t worry about being famous,” was one of the last things he ever said to me, in a way which told me he had once cared about fame, but had certainly let go of it and become much happier as a result.

I knew then why I loved him so much, and will never forget my years in the presence of this cheeky showbiz original who achieved his life’s ambition to understand himself, well out of the spotlight.

For this I am sure he would be happy to be remembered in the AussieTheatre.com Hall of Fame.

Published by AussieTheatre.com in 2004.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.