Category Archives: My Story

“I noticed your profession, so I know you’re scum”

“I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers.”

A Writer introduces his latest book.

AFTER a career in publishing, marketing and other creative dalliances that was more like the verb (‘move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way’), I arrived relatively late to journalism.

A decade in, I received the comment in the title of this foreword from one of my social media readers. It was posted in reply to an appeal from me for the commenter to take in the whole of my 800-word piece before dissing the point I was trying to make.

The import was brutal. I was expected to step away from the debate about my own work. I was nothing more than the journalist who wrote it, not to be trusted on that basis alone. Had I persisted, the grab-bag of insults would surely have included ‘fake news’.

What on earth was I thinking, becoming a journalist in my forties?

Most of my journalism has taken place in the shadow of the social media’s rise at a time of enormous upheavals and fractures in the journalistic landscape. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to earn a living as a reporter and editor for almost ten years, usually taking positions that no-one else wanted because the pay was terrible and the prospects of advancement zero.

My first full-time journalism contract was inexplicably based on the template for engaging a builder. A year-and-a-half later, the boss tried to dump me because advertising sales were gently drifting downwards and he thought it better to install an unskilled family member as the writer.

I held my nerve, cited my tradesman’s agreement in an assertive conversation, and tried to imbue my employer with courage when he cried and begged me not to make him honour it.

This strangest of arrangements lasted until the office locks were changed on me before my final pay arrived in the bank account, and the first gap in my journalism career opened wide.

I did what so many of us do: I started a blog and learned to publish online. The lure of the Publish Button was strong but it hadn’t quite found the sweet spot to kill the media just yet, because soon enough I was asked to interview for a position at Fairfax Media.

As one of the company’s last sub-editors I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers, working with subs capable of taking the shoddiest copy and transforming it into double-page spreads with multiple lead stories, down-pages and briefs, all spell-checked and “legalled” in under 15 minutes.

It was an education like no other in a newsroom environment swiftly replaced by a landscape where news-making means almost nothing.

Along the way, my writing output increased to the point where I was often heard to confess that there’s no off switch.

This is undoubtedly due to the rise of digital and independent publishing tools which allow writers to reach a wider audience than ever before. Finding a readership is still the challenge it always was for wordsmiths, but securing our place in the flow of digital media is as easy as a username and password.

So it was a defining moment for me when seasoned journalist Margo Kingston, also formerly of the Fairfax stable, offered me the chance to write for The gig: a regular column. The subject: the Arts.

“The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality.”

Getting an encouraging green light from a respected commentator is rare. Doing the work for free, yet having editorial control, presented the perfect antidote to hours spent shaping the work of other journalists while still on deck as a paid, casual sub-editor at a Fairfax newsroom in Queensland.

The resulting output forms most of the articles in this volume, written over a four-year period (2013-2017) during which Tony Abbott’s brief prime ministership was played out then snuffed out, leaving Australians to endure the fallout.

The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality, traversing the period when journalism as we knew it went into its death throes and started to slide behind pay walls.

They also document the final, frustrating years of Australia’s journey to marriage equality; the belligerent delays, missteps and guesswork in delivering marriage equality to a community in which 60 per cent of voters continually told our representatives that we wanted a change to the law.

Here lies the key to understanding every long-form title I wrote across the same period, and why I often crossed over into activism in addition to journalism.

Any ‘scum’ still writing articles for general readership these days are either overstretched under a masthead, or still plugging away independently for very little return, more likely nothing. This book is dedicated to every one of them.

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If you’re still reading this, just 800 words in with no digital bells and whistles to amuse you, your attention span is fit and you’ll probably make it to the end. If any of it leaves an impression, please take that incredibly rare action that is a gift to independent writers and a necessity if we want journalism to survive: share it.

An extract from Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

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.

I am my first book (at my first festival)

UNDER the general theme of ‘belonging’, the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival (BWF) set itself up with few boundaries, and writers have been rushing to traverse the intentionally unfenced territory across the city.

“We were inside the building. We belonged, inasmuch as new students belong in new classrooms when they change schools.”

As an independently published author, I was pleased to find the door open to my memoir, which has national significance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex (LGBTI) equality movement. It was written in Queensland about the battle to maintain my next-of-kin status after the death of my same-sex spouse in New South Wales in 2004.

But my indie book about stigma – Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love has been regularly stigmatised across its first twelve months in print. Locked out of traditional publication and several literary events, awards and festivals, it nevertheless made it into BWF through the generosity of director and CEO Julie Beveridge.

On opening night, emboldened by a glass of quality wine and rallied by a brilliant welcome to country, my husband Richard and I managed to be the first to meet Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk as she left the stage.

The Premier was generous with her time, listening to my thoughts on independent publishing and allowing us to update her on the national marriage equality campaign. It was indeed a privilege to have her interest and spark a few new ideas about the future of publishing – and marriage – in Australia.

I am my book, it seems. Where it gets access, I follow.

CAROLINE'S CRIMES Journalist and author Caroline Overington.
CAROLINE’S CRIMES Journalist and author Caroline Overington.

Turning to crime 

The next day, journalist and author Caroline Overington came to Wynnum Library in my part of the world – Brisbane’s Bayside – to talk about her latest psychological thriller The One Who Got Away.

Overington immediately engaged and challenged her audience, noting there were just a few men in a crowd of women. I laughed with the other guys. I reckon we knew we were not the typical Overington crowd. It’s her journalism I find plenty in common with, and what the heck, I was there to support the festival that supports me and comes to my doorstep. Who am I to be picky?

Caroline proved a very disarming presenter on the deadly issue of crime, explaining how coverage of two crucial Queensland legal cases – the trials of Gerard Baden-Clay and Brett Peter Cowan – led her deeper into fiction writing than she’d ventured before.

Her reason? As the author, she gets to ensure the perpetrator “really gets it”. We all laughed, but it was a knowing ripple, considering the way the legal system all too often works in real life.

I was the one who got away when I had to rush from Caroline’s session into the city to appear on a BWF panel discussion at the State Library of Queensland. 

Crying into my book

The LGBTI-themed ‘The Right to Belong’ was something of an experiment, giving oxygen to themes Julie Beveridge told me BWF had often been asked about.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-4-35-01-pmAuthors David Hardy (Bold: Stories from older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender & intersex people) and Heather Faulkner (North of the Border: Stories from the A Matter of Time Project) joined me and moderator Emile McPhee of the Queensland LGBTI Legal Service.

We each presented our titles, all non-fiction dealing mainly with the national struggle to maintain LGBTI identity in the face of legal and cultural oppression. 

Faulkner and Hardy’s works document through images and words some critical LGBTI histories, particularly Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen years. They are groundbreaking in their scope.

I had not planned my appearance but had a short section of my book to read if the mood took me. Just before I began to speak, Heather read a letter from a friend who couldn’t be there.

16010_uwa_north_of_the_border_cover_b2_grandeThat gentle and powerful message tipped me over the edge almost immediately, and I struggled to recover. My late partner’s death was 12 years ago, but the echoes of the struggle to honour our relationship without him still run very deep. The chances that our story would never reach anyone because of the crippling impact on me, the vessel of the story, were all too relevant in the light of the other authors’ work.

Wondering what on earth I had done by blubbering my way through an extract about the day I gave a live submission to the Human Rights Commission a decade ago, I thanked the audience for letting me come to share part of my story.

I am my book, after all. When it cries, so do I.

We need to talk about Lionel

On the way home across a darkening Moreton Bay, a friend sent me a post published that day by writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied on her reasons for walking out of US author Lionel Shriver’s BWF keynote speech the night prior.

In it, she called-out Shriver (author of We Need to Talk About Kevin), describing the first 20 minutes of the speech as: “A monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others’, simply because it is useful for one’s story.”

This has been an issue for many Australian writers – me included – for more than a decade.

WRITER WALKING OUT Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

“I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point,” Abdel-Magied wrote.

Cue my right to belong in this argument.

The event that saw three Queensland-based LGBTI authors discuss our work had not been the classic writer’s festival offering.

Authors and audience blended. LGBTI had come to see their own. They asked questions of us and we of them. There were no celebrities and plenty of spare seats.

We were inside the building. We belonged, inasmuch as new students belong in new classrooms when they change schools. It’s an incredible honour, yet there’s a sense that it’s very embryonic.

One of the questions from the floor urged we panelists into some much-needed future thinking: how does the LGBTI community open itself to the kind of mainstream attention that engages the publishing economy in the book and media trade to back us?

The answer relies on readers ‘walking out’ on the kind of media and publishing that marginalises LGBTI stories, and finding us regardless. It also relies on people finding their way to writer talks that might not interest them at first glance.

Within the same 24-hour period, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and I had done just that.

I am not my next book

Caroline Overington and I had the briefest of conversations about books for, by and about women, particularly in Australia.

“I don’t believe I will leave a mark in territory I do not already inhabit or have to fake.”

I was engaged because I am venturing into territory that Lionel Shriver tells me I have a right to enter, and Yasmin Abdel-Magied suggests I do not: creating a 19th century, Irish-born, female protagonist based on the life of a real woman in Colonial NSW whose unique achievements left almost no trace.

Shriver’s point – that fiction writers fake it anyway, so why should there be a limit? – is valid up to the line that Abdel-Magied drew in the sand so effectively in her response.

Access to publication for genuine voices must precede the “colonisation” of identity with inauthentic fictional voices, no matter how effective or sincere.

But I would add there has never been a better time for those voices to reach audiences through independent publication regardless of the notion of access. I’m living proof that if they’re loud and genuine enough, such voices are increasingly being heard.   

I am writing a book that is not me.

As a gay, Anglo-Saxon, Australian man with a Maori great grandfather, I don’t believe I will leave a mark in territory I do not already inhabit or have to fake. Inequality is an overriding theme in my writing; it’s a roughly hewn stone with as many slices taken out of it as there are writers.

As someone who may be required to independently publish it, I am keen to write something popular. If that takes artful, empathetic imagination and skill, then so be it.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. This article also appeared on NoFibs. Main photo by Daniel Seed.