Tag Archives: Homophobia

I have a man here who won’t take off his hat

HATS OFF or else, in some parts of the world.
HATS OFF or else, in some parts of the world.

A Writer’s encounter with the Catholic faith.

FROM the shade of Bodhi yum-cha restaurant we could see the steeples of St Mary’s Cathedral rising above the bustling lunchtime streets of Sydney.

It was Richard’s birthday, so it was up to him where we spent our city day trip. He’d expressed an interest in going to the Australian Museum, just along the road, but the thought of the cool air inside the cathedral beckoned us both.

I’d also wanted to show Richard the reproduction marble of Michelangelo’s heartfelt Pietà sculpture of Mary and the dead Jesus in her lap, which I’d last seen on a school excursion.

That idea sealed the deal, so we paid for our meal and ascended the steps in the heat of a late summer Sydney day.

“I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.”

I spotted the ‘no photography’ sign at the last-minute, and the memory of numerous cathedral visits in Europe made me think of removing my hat. But there was no sign, and a flock of tourists in hats beyond the threshold, so I shrugged and left my cap on.

The darkness and temperature drop was immediate, as was the sense of calm away from the traffic and crowds. Richard disappeared towards a set of stunning brass gates, as we started our respectful, slow search for the sculpture.

We were soon separated by another crowd of tourists, and I waited in the half-dark by the gates until they passed.

By a door on the eastern side of the nave, I saw a sad sight: an old man, slumped pitifully against a pew, wisps of hair lifted by the breeze. A homeless man, perhaps, or someone so down on his luck that only time in this place of worship could restore him?

His demeanour was so compelling that I turned away, because looking seemed an imposition.

But as I went to move, a sudden jabbing drove into my shoulder from behind.

I turned in shock as a security guard said to me, breaking the calm: “Remove your hat!”

CATHOLIC GROUND Interior of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney.
CATHOLIC GROUND Interior of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

In a bit of shock, I paused, looked at the tourists near me, some of whom had heard the guard, and said: “I will, in a moment,” and turned to find my husband.

“You will remove it now,” the guard said, loudly, “hats are not allowed in the cathedral!”

I turned, looked at the be-hatted tourists, and said: “I will remove my hat, when you ask them to remove theirs.”

I moved off quickly and heard him muttering at my heels. Adrenalin rushed through me, the result of the sudden physical attack on my shoulder, and something about the guard’s attitude towards me in particular.

When I caught up with Richard, his hat in his hand, I ascertained that the original request had been made to him. The guard caught up with us and repeated his demand.

I refused, and repeated my request for hat-removal equality in the cathedral, adding that I would be more than happy to remove my head covering when the same demand had been made of all the visitors.

“Women are allowed,” he snapped, thinking he’d snookered me.

I looked at the group again. Women and men, many of both, wearing hats, a point which I assertively made to the guard, before I turned away and determined to find the Michelangelo reproduction.

His unmistakable footsteps came after me, so I did the first thing that came into my head. Inspired by George Emerson in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, who, when harassed in Santa Croce, slumped to his knees in a position of prayer, I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.

Richard chortled.

The guard stopped, tutted, and waited. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. We were in a waiting game I’d need to play to its end if I was going to stay prone, so I took my time, finished my ‘prayer’ and stood, before calmly resuming my search.

“I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was.”

My tactic got him off my back, although he kept his distance and tried a new one of his own. He reached for his mobile phone and punched numbers into it as clumsily and implausibly as a comedian would, and said: “Hello? Is that the police? Yes, I have a man here who won’t take off his hat!”

Suppressing laughter, I told him I’d give him a Logie for that performance, and we did a dance of barely controlled energy all the way back to where Richard and I had arrived, my hat firmly in place all the way.

As I left, I turned and saw the guard attempt a dreadful impersonation of a poof. Limp wrist, hand on hip, and a lisped farewell: “Bye-bye, see you laytaaa!”

I laughed. I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was, but when I told my husband outside, Richard stormed back in and demanded the guy’s name.

Holding his hand over his badge, he began a tirade that did not end until we were both ejected through the door onto the steps, the place where thousands, perhaps millions of those in need had sought help from the church: at their door.

Adding to the surrealism of the moment, the poor soul I’d taken pity on by the eastern door came over and joined in the very loud rant about respect, hats, and who gets to wear one and who doesn’t on hallowed catholic ground, saying we could do what we liked in the world, but in the cathedral, it’s their rules. All of it avoided the reality that surrounded us: many men with covered heads, going into the church unmolested.

We were spat out, rejected and thoroughly repelled, but none of it was really about my hat.

As we descended the steps, the Museum in our sights, I asked Richard if he still wanted to go there.

“No, I’ve had enough of antiquities for one day.”

Touché.

We went shopping instead, and within minutes I’d worked out why the incident had happened.

Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which has taken place annually on the doorstep of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney’s gay heartland – Darlinghurst – was in its final days.

I’d read years before that LGBTIQ catholics from around the world make a point of visiting the cathedral and visibly asking for confession and communion as a form of protest.

Thus the security guards, who, I hasten to add, have very delicate gaydar sensor settings indeed. Richard and I had not held hands or been in remotely close proximity while in the cathedral, but, like most gay men, we have a kind of ‘uniform’ when it comes to clothing.

CREATING WAVESWe wear hats because we’re both rather bald, but the classic baseball cap (as opposed to the truckers’) is probably a bit of a giveaway for security in a Darlinghurst cathedral.

I’ve never been so quickly labelled as gay without opening my mouth.

And I’ve never so mistakenly labelled a soul in ‘need’.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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

Human rights of reply

FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION Andreas Ohm and Jim Woulfe, Michelle McCormack and Lynne Martin with son Tom, Michael Burge, Maria Vidal and Susan Everingham with daughter Antonia, and Jiro Takamisawa. (Photo: Sahlan Hayes).
FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION Andreas Ohm and Jim Woulfe, Michelle McCormack and Lynne Martin with son Tom, Michael Burge, Maria Vidal and Susan Everingham with daughter Antonia, and Jiro Takamisawa.
(Photo: Sahlan Hayes).

A Writer discovers his voice.

SOMEONE once said: “Don’t get mad, get even”, which must have been on my counsellor’s mind when he suggested something towards the end of my two years of grief counselling after the death of my partner, Jono.

The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), now the Human Rights Commission, were looking for people to make submissions to illustrate various aspects of their Same Sex: Same Entitlements investigation into financial discrimination against same-sex couples in Australia.

“Why not think about writing your experiences?” he put to me.

I said I’d think about it, although my first thought was that my experiences were somehow not relevant. Then I thought deeper.

The death of my partner, with whom I cohabited, ran a business, and had joint financial affairs, had cost me dearly emotionally, but it had also cost me economically.

Unlike straight people in my situation, Centrelink did not recognise the validity of my relationship in any way. I was unable to claim any kind of support linked to my grief or my monetary losses when I had to move house three times in one year, and take time off work.

Centrelink staff had been quite defensive about their organisation’s shortcomings, and told me to apply for Newstart (Newspeak for ‘the dole’) which came with the requirement to be seen to be seeking work and attending mind-numbing ‘how to write a resume’ courses.

I’d taken things into my own hands and gotten a part-time job in aged care, which I happily did for a few months until my car blew a gasket, and needed thousands of dollars for a new engine. I sold it as scrap, had to quit my job (for which I needed a car), and proceeded to hunker down in my cheap accommodation, a granny flat, until I had to move because the property was sold.

I headed back to Sydney and city rent, and tried to speed up my application for Jono’s superannuation, which was slowed by the machinations of his family. They threatened to apply for it in its entirety, then didn’t apply for it at all. None of them were in any way financially dependent on Jono when he died, so none of them were eligible.

I was, but, thanks to all the unwelcome nonsense, it was months before Jono’s super fund could simply do what the law required of them and send me a cheque.

I endured financial discrimination because my country had nothing for me by way of support. What was slightly galling was that certain demographics – straight divorcees over the age of 50, for example – were allowed to access the ‘widow’s pension’ automatically. No job-seeking or resume classes for them.

Me, a genuine widow, could get nothing.

ACTU-Worksite-Australian-Human-Rights-CommissionI didn’t feel like entering into a sob story, but when I contacted HREOC, they encouraged me to submit a written document on these experiences, because they had not received any accounts of people in my particular position, and many of the unequal laws applied to the circumstances of being widowed.

Like my affidavit to the Supreme Court of NSW, my submission to HREOC was easy to put together. They have strict guidelines, I couldn’t just cry: “It wasn’t fair!” and let them sort it out, I had to show where I fell between the cracks because I had lived in a same-sex de-facto relationship.

Part of the deal was the delivery of a live submission to the Commission, and a willingness to submit to media interviews afterwards. I agreed without thinking, because, when the day came, I had a plan to follow the contents of my written submission, but completely overlooked the possibility that emotions would take over.

I watched as other gay and lesbian people expressed their experiences, and, when my turn came, I forced my story out from beneath an aching heart.

Expressing the inexpressible about death is one thing. Defining negative behaviour by other people around that death is another. I struggled my way through my submission, masking hurt with the kind of plosives that hit the microphone with the cut-glass anger that is entirely suitable for such occasions.

As I exited the hearing I forgot about the media, and had more microphones shoved in my face to elaborate further. The interviews went live at midday, and many of my family and friends, and my counsellor, heard me explain the disenfranchisement to a State that finally seemed to be listening.

report_coverAdele Horin, formerly of Fairfax Media, interviewed me at length on the phone after my HREOC submission, for an article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

It took her a few attempts to fully understand my position, and with hindsight I understood her difficulty was the same obstacle that many people encountered when coming to terms with my experience, because they simply could not understand why Jono’s mother and brother would do what they did, it was such an aberration.

In the end, I suggested she ask them directly for their reasons, to secure the ultimate right of reply, although I suggested she’d need to be tactful – their son and brother had died, after all, and the illegal actions they’d taken made them vulnerable to heavy fines and/or jail terms, had anyone really wanted to “get even”.

Somewhere in her research, Horin came to realise that my experience went way beyond financial discrimination and spoke to one of the final frontiers of same-sex equality in this country: marriage.

The last twelve months of the Howard government needed to pass before anyone in power was willing to read the Same Sex: Same Entitlements report.

So it was with great delight that many in the LGBTI community watched 11 years of conservative government swept away by KevinO7 and the ALP, who’d made the implementation of the Same Sex: Same Entitlements recommendations an election promise, and finally altered almost 100 pieces of discriminatory federal legislation in 2009.

The fight for full equality continues.

Michael’s story is published as Questionable Deeds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

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.