Tag Archives: Creating Waves

“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 NoFibs.com.au. 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.

Vote yes in the Marriage Equality survey, just look out for Uncle Mal

A PUBLIC vote on marriage equality is delivering what some Australians have craved for years: an excuse to publicly trash LGBTIQ dignity.

The usual pundits are hailing the Coalition’s survey as a victorious tipping point for the fortunes of the Turnbull Government, but at best it’s a hand-holding exercise for the prime minister.

“A sad, embarrassing uncle – let’s call him Malcolm – is trying to get us to pull his cracker; but we know what’s coming.”

Because when the 122-million-dollar show comes to an end – and regardless of the result – if he wants to harness the voice of the people Mr Turnbull will still need to stand on his own two feet, walk into parliament and vote on a bill with his colleagues.

Not one outside voice, recorded at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, will echo in that chamber.

It happened that way five years ago this month when the parliament last voted on legalising marriage between any two Australians regardless of their gender. The Prime Minister was Julia Gillard, who crossed the floor and sat with then opposition leader Tony Abbott to vote the reform down 98 votes to 42.

In 2017, the numbers are a lot tighter thanks to a monumental campaign on multiple fronts, but it’s a very brave pundit who would predict the outcome.

If parliament votes on marriage equality – and there is nothing about the Coalition’s survey that binds it to vote on the result – the leadership vacuum may well see the status quo maintained.

Turnbull assures the country he and Lucy will vote yes… but remember, Mal, Lucy doesn’t get a vote where it really matters.

Uncle Mal

LGBTIQ Australians are in for a turbulent patch, and whenever our detractors pause from labelling us as dangerous to society they’ll be busy playing the victim, set to lose their freedom of speech and religious rights.

The display is already astonishingly vile, and when same-sex-attracted Australians and our supporters crack the shits and bite back, I support them, because it’s just not possible to debate human rights respectfully.

This survey is akin to a family Christmas where the LGBTIQ community has been seated on folding chairs at the wobbly card table, inches lower than the ‘adults’. It’s just assumed we’ll listen to the ignorant windbags sitting at the other end and consume whatever gets served up.

A sad, embarrassing uncle – let’s call him Malcolm – is trying to get us to pull his cracker; but we know what’s coming… a dumb joke and a cheap trinket.

It’s just another opinion poll, this survey. I’ll vote yes just like I’d wear Uncle Mal’s silly hat… for the sake of appearances, not because I’m having a great time.

Tricky Andy

It wasn’t Peter Dutton MP who came up with the marriage equality postal survey, as it’s often reported by the mainstream media. It was hatched in a Queensland backwater known as the electorate of Bowman, currently my home.

Here, Andrew Laming MP has annually surveyed constituents by post for years.

His techniques include publishing running tallies on Facebook, thousands of ‘lost’ forms, unscrutinised counting and only one vote per household. Unsurprisingly, Mr Laming has never announced a result that wasn’t a fervent no to marriage equality.

However, the electorate was independently polled in 2017 and the result was 59 per cent in favour.

It was also petitioned in 2016 and the result was overwhelmingly in favour of equality for same-sex couples.

For all of his ‘ask the people’ cleverness and claims of giving voice to democracy, none of Laming’s surveys ever united this electorate or resolved the issue once and for all, and it will be the same nationally.

Whatever the outcome of this misguided moment in the long game, creating legislation with the result will take a prime minister who leads the nation from the front.

CREATING WAVESThere’s absolutely no guarantee that will be Uncle Mal.

© Copyright Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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