Tag Archives: Homophobia

The making of a marriage equality advocate

IRELAND’S yes vote for marriage equality kicked a rainbow-coloured goal for LGBTI people around the globe, and while the major Australian political parties fight for ownership of the ball, this extract from an upcoming podcast and book Questionable Deeds is a reminder of how far we’ve come. 

IN the lead up to the 2004 federal election the issue of same-sex marriage hit the media.

The year prior, various provinces followed Ontario’s lead in Canada and allowed same-sex marriages to take place. Many Australians availed themselves of this legislation since it did not require the couples to be residents, but as soon as the newlyweds stepped back onto Australian soil, the marriages had no legal standing whatsoever.

Two couples decided to test Australia’s Marriage Act (1961), and their application landed on the desk of federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, sending him into a spin.

“Marriage, like a seed, was planted within me.”

It turned out there was no specific mention of gender in the Act. As far as the law was concerned, any two people, same-sex or otherwise, could apply to be married in this country. Back in the early 1960s when the legislation was created, nobody even dreamed of same-sex marriage.

The conservative Liberal government, led by John Howard, went into overdrive to see this loophole changed, and they got plenty of support from both sides of parliament, election year or not.

By August of the year my partner Jono died, same-sex marriage had been made a legal impossibility in this country. I barely recall the announcement. It would have passed through my consciousness in my deepest grief and registered only as another reason to feel dreadfully unsafe about being same-sex attracted in my own country.

The looming election, of course, required me to turn up at the ballot box, since all Australians must have our names ticked off the voting register on the day, whether we use our vote or not.

The voting queue at the local primary school, the same one I had attended over twenty years’ prior, was long. It gave me plenty of time to think over the issues, and, more importantly, to observe people and the colour of the how-to-vote cards in their hands.

Prime Minister John Howard was showing great leadership for the majority of Australians – sixty per cent – who objected to same-sex marriage, and, by the amount of blue of the cards I saw all around me, things were not about to change.

They didn’t. The diminutive target John Howard saw off the Labor party’s brutish Mark Latham, no problem.

But marriage, like a seed, was planted within me as a concept. Alone, processing the loss of my partner, I pondered what difference marriage would have made to my situation.

First and most obvious was the certification. The warranting of a relationship’s existence is so easy with that ‘one piece of paper’ which straight couples had access to for years prior, eschewed by many as either too binding or not needed.

I realised how much simpler it would have been for me, one certificate, and how much harder – impossible, really – it would have been for Jono’s mother and brother to erase the visible signs of his relationship with me.

I thought of the traditional marriage vows, and the words ‘forsaking all others’.

I processed its meaning, looked deeper than any sublimation of women and property rights, to find how the line was actually a warning to all those present at a marriage ceremony that they are the forsaken ones. Their son or daughter is placing them on solemn notice with that line, warranting that they are no longer the next of kin to their loved one.

Their spouse replaces family, from that moment, and a new family unit is created.

My parents’ marriage had ended in acrimonious divorce, to the point where my mother was wary of any signs of my father in me and my brother, and our father allowed his new wife to demonise our mother as she saw fit.

I was glad they did not stay together, and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s leadership on fault-free divorce through the creation of the Family Law Act (1975) had built the firm foundation that allowed many families to undo what needed to be undone, with access to legal aid and counselling.

Almost instantly I shed my wariness of marriage. I saw exactly how it could work for same-sex couples needing that line in the sand around our relationships, whether the marriage lasted forever or not.

Marriage did not have to follow the archetypal plan. Its history is littered with anomalies, of couples stretching its boundaries, simply because they were quite safe to do so by law. In recent times, any victim of marriage also had recourse to become un-married.

I recalled the night Jono and I took one another to our favourite pizzeria on Katoomba Street, on the brink of relocating to Sydney and starting a new phase of our lives. Jono was pensive until he revealed what was on his mind: he was worried that he did not have enough to offer me as a partner, being ten years my senior. He wondered if I wanted to explore other relationships.

I looked him in the eye, and held his hands between mine, and said: “No, Jono, that is not what I want. I want to be with you.”

He bent his head in his humble, accepting way, flicked the corners of his mouth up, and we kissed.

From that moment, we were married. The only things missing, apart from the support of any law, were two witnesses and a state-sanctioned celebrant.


Widowed and alone in that voting queue, barely two years later, I became a marriage equality advocate.

An extract from Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Questions coming at you

ONE random night in 2004, Michael Burge’s long-term partner, choreographer Jonathan Rosten, died suddenly while rehearsing a show.

In the midst of the ensuing grief, Jono’s relatives started the secret and devastating process of disenfranchising Michael from his position as Jono’s next of kin.

Unable to wrap-up his de-facto partner’s affairs, in a legal, ethical and financial ‘David and Goliath’ battle, Michael was exiled from his own life, facing grief, depression and suicidal thoughts.

The story of how he found the strength to right the wrongs is told in a new book.

An extract from Questionable Deeds

“A tough but ultimately triumphant and deeply satisfying read. It touches on themes of grief, denial and injustice. The ending is uplifting.”Mary Moody.

“You know that your partner’s heart has stopped?” he asked me in a careful tone.

I said: “Yes”, waiting for the next part about them rushing Jono into surgery.

“Well,” the nurse said, “we’ve been unable to start it again.”

My hand went to my face, but it hit me on an angle. I didn’t care, I thought I was slipping off my chair. People seemed to be rearranged in their seats by unseen forces as I left the nurse and Jono’s old friend Amanda behind.

I was led into a corridor, where I watched how another nurse pushed a red button to open opaque glass double doors. Behind that, in a curtained space, Jono was lying still on a gurney under a sheet.

It is true what they say about the newly dead appearing to sleep. Jono’s face was relaxed, his skin pliable, as I brushed my hand across his forehead, the sobs starting to run through me like tremors. I felt the silkiness of his eyelashes as I kissed him.

Not yet believing, I opened one of his hazel eyes, and the gaping darkness of his dilated pupil met my gaze; a sudden wall against the life here, the emergency department of a Sydney hospital, and wherever he now was.

“The room was about to fill with strangers it would take me hours to free myself of.”

My glance must have been like a scan, both forensic and feeling. He was just so beautiful, a perfect version of himself, with his body’s tendency to slump slightly sideways, chin dropping to his left shoulder, the way he’d always done in life in moments of vulnerability and cheekiness.

But the worst thing of all had happened to him, the very worst. The eyes told me that.

The green sheets around his naked body concealed all trauma, apart from the point at the top right of his chest where an intravenous main line had been inserted in an attempt to save him, and two small grazes on his nose and cheek where he’d knocked himself as he’d fallen to the floor, alone, in the rehearsal room.

But all that knowledge was to come. In that precious, solo moment I took in the reality of Jono’s death.

“I will cry for you for a very, very long time,” I said, my loneliness coming back at speed.

Acceptance did not take long. Resistance to it is useless. I read years later how, faced with this moment, Yoko Ono had repeatedly smashed her head against the tiles of the hospital wall.

For me, the moment was filled with the memory of the grief of losing my mother at a young age, although I had the cold sense of how very much worse this was going to be.

I instinctively ran my hands over Jono’s arms, his belly, and cupped his penis in one hand through the sheet, bidding those intimacies farewell. After not very long I tried to return to the hallway, through the automated doors.

But I found myself trapped in the corridor. The exit to the waiting room was one way into the life to come. Jono, and our life together, was in the other direction. When I chose to go back to him, a passing nurse came across me in my indecisive confusion, and pushed the button for me.

I went back to him for a moment. I don’t know why. To see if it was true? It was. I don’t remember anything about the next moment of separation, the walking back outside.

I sat down in a new room, and a young man, a counsellor, introduced himself to me. I needed to make some calls. I tried my sister Jen. There was no answer. Amanda stood and hugged me, told me how sorry she was. For a moment, sitting in my chair, I was suspended in the naphthalene scent of her fur coat.

Somehow I was made aware that Amanda was going in to see Jono, but I made no objection. I was in shock. The reality of Jono’s death was being transmitted across the city. The room was about to fill with strangers it would take me hours to free myself of.

It never occurred to me that nobody in that place, apart from a medical practitioner, or me – Jono’s partner and senior next of kin – had the right to view his body. His naked body.

Because I was unaware that my relationship with Jono was not ours alone. I had no idea in those precious, vulnerable moments that he and I were well and truly owned.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Dancing around casual homophobia

ONE of the big stories of the week came and went as quickly as a Channel Nine dancer running screaming past the camera.

Breaking late on Tuesday afternoon from the Fairfax stable, what became known as the French Ambassador Incident trended at least twice on Twitter in the following 24 hours, then disappeared.

It’s hard to ascertain exactly what happened. Most media reported that Australia’s Ambassador to France, Stephen Brady, was witnessed shouting at someone on a Paris tarmac before, during or after the arrival of Prime Minister Tony Abbott fresh from Gallipoli late on Anzac Day.

“To many same-sex-attracted people, the stink of casual homophobia is unmistakable.”

The reason – according to eyewitnesses yet to be named – was the directive from the PM’s team for Brady’s partner of more than thirty years, Peter Stephens, to make himself scarce during the PM’s arrival, and wait in the car.

Quickly defined as a ‘hissy fit’ by some media, and a protocol error by others, the story of Brady’s reaction grew so fast that by Wednesday morning, Mr Abbott was forced to face questions about the incident during a doorstop about something else.

Visibly uncomfortable, he clarified that Mr Brady was a good “friend” and defined the conflict as “trivial”.

Neither me or my husband had ever heard of Brady and Stephens, or knew of their groundbreaking position in the international community as an out gay diplomatic couple.

But between us, we vocalised the rush of indignation that resonated on a gut level. To many same-sex attracted people, the stink of casual homophobia is unmistakable.

DIPLOMATIC DUO Australia's Ambassador to France Stephen Brady with his partner Peter Stephens. Photo: Ella Pellegrini
DIPLOMATIC DUO Australia’s Ambassador to France Stephen Brady with his partner Peter Stephens. Photo: Ella Pellegrini

LGBTQI people have different homophobia ‘breaking points’, but the trouble with casual homophobia is that it’s usually invisible. A protocol directive is a perfect place to deliver it, because, of course, it’s so diplomatic and neutral it’s all about how the message is taken, not how it’s given.

But as Wendy Harmer said in her tweet as the story grew: “‘Wait in the car’ – everyone understands what that means.”

Casual homophobia can be off-hand, even unintentional, but, by the sounds, it’s exactly what sent a man, who’s made a shining career out of being diplomatic, over the edge.

Speaking as someone who has received his share, the level of alarm and clamour witnessed on the Paris tarmac is the only way to register that casual homophobia has been directed at you. There is almost no use dealing with facts, all that hangs in the air is the intention to disenfranchise you or someone you love.

The PM’s office did not deny the incident took place. Junior staffers were blamed. Nobody offered an apology. The only thing that resulted was a resignation, in the moment, from Stephen Brady.

The last time international audiences were served this kind of open-ended story was the Jeremy Clarkson incident.

For weeks, more than a million Top Gear fans publicly defended Clarkson while an internal BBC investigation got to the truth of his violent physical attack on one of the program’s producers during location shooting. Clarkson spent the time making jokes in the media, but privately tweeting his apologies to his ‘alleged’ victim.

He was eventually sacked from the BBC’s flagship motor program. The voices in his defence have either come to terms with his crime, or silenced themselves.

Whether the French Ambassador Incident goes a similar way, or the facts never come to the surface, the limited, cautious reporting of it shows that, like most discrimination and bad behaviour, the media finds it almost impossible to report accurately on casual homophobia.

That’s possibly because the perpetrators sail so close, in fact beyond, what is legal and socially acceptable, that editors don’t know how to put the story in its correct context. In other words, they’re slow on the uptake when it comes to equality.

The social media is, of course, more of a free-for-all.

On April 24, Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine dropped a casual clanger when she tweeted during the Brumbies vs Highlanders rugby match.

The Brumbies’ David Pocock had just scored his third try, and celebrated in front of the television cameras in a manner which Ms Devine took exception to:

So, Pocock’s vibrant gesticulation was actually the Auslan (Australian Sign Language) sign for applause. ‘Jazz Hands’ is a totally different thing.

Devine had scored a hat trick with her resort to “tosser” – not only was her tweet borderline unsporting, but she’d swiped the deaf, gay and showbiz communities in one try.

FOSSE'S WAY Classic Bob Fosse 'jazz hands' choreography.
FOSSE’S WAY Classic Bob Fosse ‘jazz hands’ choreography.

Many showbiz folk attribute the dynamic flat-handed open-fingered gesture, often accompanied by hat and cane, to the man who made it his signature move – American choreographer Bob Fosse – although it has deeper roots in centuries-old vaudeville.

Somehow, due to its association with enthusiasm and heightened expression, and probably because it involves articulation of the wrists, Jazz Hands has also come to denote camp behaviour – it’s shorthand for gay.


But Pocock wasn’t doing Jazz Hands: “Thanks, Miranda. That’s totally fine,” he replied, “also glad it wasn’t ‘jazz hands’.”

Which sounds like a casual diplomatic dance to me.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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