Tag Archives: Death Certificate

Keeping Marriage Equality off the record

WHEN the South Australian government was caught out by the world’s media for its lax approach to recognising overseas same-sex marriages on death certificates, the justifiable outrage about Marco Bulmer-Rizzi being documented as “never married” to husband David resonated with many readers.

One small voice of disagreement came from Marriage Alliance, a grassroots anti-marriage equality movement with a presence in Australia, in the form of a tweet defining the Bulmer-Rizzi disenfranchisement as “unusual” and criticising Australian Marriage Equality for politicising the issue.

This was news to me. From where I sit, the negative treatment of same-sex spouses at the crucial and highly-sensitive time of death certification is so commonplace it’s time Australia admitted this kind of homophobia is the norm.

I should know, because it happened to me.

When my name was removed from my partner Jono’s death certificate in NSW in 2004, it was the result of illegal and underhand action by his blood relatives.

Long after his funeral, I was left to work out for myself what had taken place when Jono’s death certificate was not issued to me but to his mother. My name and any reference to our relationship was missing, and the offensive phrase “never married” inserted.

It hurt deeply to be coldly cut off from my own life. Legally it made wrapping up Jono’s affairs impossible. Meanwhile, his mother was busy collecting assets in her son’s name that were legally mine.

“It felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.”

Since my name was not on the document, I couldn’t apply for one independently. I sought help from a lawyer and she too was unable to extract the certificate from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.  The funeral company sided with Jono’s mother’s version of our relationship and challenged me to “do my worst” in fixing the miscarriage of justice.

But I was in shock and grief, the kind it takes years to recover from, the kind I still feel when I see the same thing happen to others.

I heard anecdotal evidence about incorrectly-created death certificates in NSW, from the pre-1999 era, before the state’s de-facto laws were amended to recognise same-sex spousal rights. The majority of these stories were about community warriors of the HIV-AIDS crisis, when deceased long-term spouses were routinely listed as “never married” on death certificates.

MIKEY:JONO
DISENFRANCHISED IN DEATH Michael Burge and Jonathan Rosten.

Almost two years after his death, I managed to get Jono’s death certificate re-issued and our relationship acknowledged. In order to ensure the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages ceased to operate in contravention of the state de-facto laws, I wrote to the NSW Attorney-General, the ALP’s Bob Debus, but I never received more than a staffer’s reply that the matter was being looked into.

That wall of political denial is what ultimately assisted me in making a submission to the Human Rights Commission in 2006 when it was investigating its Same Sex, Same Entitlements report.

Years later, when what happened to me eventually happened to someone else, I felt a terrible mix of validation and guilt. Having a potential ally was great, but for the worst of reasons.

Australian academic and LGBTI activist Dennis Altman’s partner Anthony died in 2012. The couple lived in Victoria at the time of death, and Altman wrote:“There was no provision on the death certificate to list Anthony as my de-facto partner.”

In his heartfelt account of life after his partner’s death, Altman outlined several of the challenges all surviving spouses face, although I didn’t realise at the time what an opponent of marriage equality Dennis Altman was, whereas since my disenfranchisement, access to our strongest, most legally-binding, irrefutable symbol of relationship became one of my driving forces.

By 2013, although five successive governments had enacted a range of laws since Jono’s death, recognising same-sex attracted relationships after the death of a spouse in everything from equal superannuation access to social security benefits, only Kevin Rudd had publicly acknowledged the need for marriage equality. His reason: to end “such unnecessary angst in the gay and lesbian community, it just shouldn’t be the case”.

I recognised that word, ‘angst’. It spoke loudly to the dreadful mix of apprehension and fear that I’d endured. Rudd never publicly named the LGBTI staffer who’d communicated so effectively to him the need for marriage equality, but if anyone else was feeling the angst of disenfranchisement, it wasn’t apparent.

DENNIS ALTMAN
FEELING THE ANGST Dennis Altman on the ABC’s QandA.

That was until Dennis Altman appeared on a special episode of the ABC’s Q&ABetween a frock and a hard place.

When the Reverend Fred Nile made the point that marriage equality was not necessary, he said: “All the laws were changed a couple of years ago to give de-facto, homosexual couples exactly the same rights as married couples in Australia.”

“But you are wrong,” Altman said. “You are wrong and I will tell you why you are wrong and it happens in a very important area. When my partner died, the death certificate could not record that he’d been in a relationship.”

“And I’m happy to change a death certificate arrangement if that’s what happened to you,” Nile casually replied.

Altman said: “Good. Go talk to the Government of Victoria.”

At that point I threw a tea towel at the television. Obviously, Altman knew the angst but had kept it under wraps. A month later, he begrudgingly declared a shift in his thinking and came out in support of marriage equality.

The issue of de-facto laws vs marriage equality came into sharp focus in the wake of another tragedy, the sudden death of Tasmanian Ben Jago’s partner Nathan in January, 2015.

Journalist Tracey Spicer reported on the case for Fairfax Media in November. “There’s a misconception that same-sex couples and married heterosexuals have equal legal rights,” she wrote. “It’s an urban myth.”

Removed from his position as Nathan’s next of kin almost instantly, and replaced by his partner’s mother, Ben’s story had strong resonance with mine, although he was made to endure the added indignity of having to sit at the back of the gathering at his partner’s funeral, with no public mention of the relationship during the service.

BEN JAGO
DEATH DISCRIMINATION Tasmania’s Ben Jago

Jago had trouble with the Tasmanian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, who gave him conflicting information about what he could do about his situation. His case will come before Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Tribunal this year.

I read that news with a sense of camaraderie for Ben. Good on him for having the courage to seek some kind of recourse.

Another Fairfax journalist, Monique Farmer, reported in December on the difficulty in creating a correct death certificate for her Aunt Julia, who’d lived for thirty years with her partner Annie, already dead by the time of Julia’s death.

“They were married, or at least they seemed that way to me. Their lives were as inter-mingled as my parents’ were, perhaps even more so,” Farmer wrote.

“Had they been de-factos for those 30 years? Well, legally yes – they lived together in a sexual relationship, their finances were combined, they owned property together. But it felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.”

Faced with what Farmer later described in a tweet to me as “a daze of grief”, she ultimately selected the descriptor ‘never married’.

And she felt the angst, also: “With a heavy heart I ticked that box. This meant that the next section of the death registration, asking for her partner’s name and other details, was left sadly blank. As if she’d never loved or been loved.”

I tweeted Farmer to let her know I’d been able to amend Jono’s death certificate some time after he died. She replied: “Since writing the story I’ve been thinking the same.”

The legal trap that David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi entered when they chose to honeymoon in Adelaide in January was set long before they arrived. Why would any Australian citizen assume their relationship – particularly a marriage – was not enshrined by every law of the land?

MARCO BULMER-RIZZI
SURVIVING SPOUSE British citizen Marco Bulmer-Rizzi.

In his grief-stricken interview, I got the sense that Marco Bulmer-Rizzi felt duped by a terrible system that compounded his shock with its inability to be real about what love between any two people means. That system has been supported by plenty of mixed messages and slow realisations within the LGBTI community, but it will take well-formulated, national marriage equality legislation to sweep away the mess our unequal state laws are currently creating.

Marco Bulmer-Rizzi left Australia hoping what happened to him would never happen again. What denial and obfuscation has this country indulged in that my case – twelve years prior – was not enough to change any laws or draw an apology from Bob Carr, NSW state premier at the time Jono and I were labelled “never married”?

Marriage Alliance is way off the mark. Australia has been caught out with homophobic anomalies in our relationship legislation at least five times. The Bulmer-Rizzi story is bringing more disenfranchised same-sex spouses out of the woodwork.

QUESTIONABLE DEEDS PRThe question Australian politicians need to ask themselves is how many more painful miscarriages of justice they require before allowing a marriage equality free vote on the floor of parliament?

Michael Burge’s book ‘Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love’ is out now.

This article was first published on No Fibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

Keeping #MarriageEquality off the record: @burgewords comments on #NeverMarried

Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is a writer, editor and journalist who lives on the beautiful island of Coochiemudlo. He is passionate about LGBTI equality and emergent forms of online publishing, marketing and access for writers and artists.
Michael Burge
Michael Burge
Michael Burge

David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi on their wedding day.

David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi on their wedding day.

It felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.

WHEN the South Australian government was caught out by the world’s media for its lax approach to recognising overseas same-sex marriages on death certificates, the justifiable outrage about Marco Bulmer-Rizzi being documented as “never married” to husband David resonated with many readers.

One small voice of disagreement came from Marriage Alliance, a grassroots anti-marriage equality movement with a presence in Australia, in the form of a tweet defining the Bulmer-Rizzi disenfranchisement as “unusual” and criticising Australian Marriage Equality for politicising the issue.

This was news to me. From where I sit, the negative treatment of same-sex spouses at the crucial and highly-sensitive time of death certification is so commonplace it’s time Australia admitted this kind of homophobia is the norm.

I should know, because it happened to me.

When my name was removed from my partner Jono’s death certificate in NSW in 2004, it was the result of illegal and underhand action by his blood relatives.

MIKEY:JONO

Michael Burge and Jonathan Rosten.

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.