Category Archives: LGBTIQ Equality

I fought the law

BOB'S WAY Attorney General of NSW until 2007, the Hon. Bob Debus.
BOB’S WAY Attorney-General of NSW until 2007, the Hon. Bob Debus.

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.

FINDING A PULSE in a homophobe can take some work.
FINDING A PULSE in a homophobe can take some work.

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.

IN HIS OWN HANDS My friend Prue took this shot of me, Jono's death certificate hot off the press.
IN HIS OWN HANDS My friend Prue took this shot of me, with Jono’s death certificate hot off the press.

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.

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