Tag Archives: Jonathan Rosten

Australia’s marriage equality in chains

After many years trying to interest the Australian media in my story, particularly the LGBTI media, it was only in the wake of another tragedy that a European mainstream media source published this op-ed on Australia Day. 

AUSTRALIA has long traded on its relaxed ‘fair go’ approach when spinning friendly, down-to-earth slogans to sell our easy-going holiday locations to the world.

But for one pair of British newlyweds who recently honeymooned in South Australia, a crucial danger lay completely hidden.

Why would the same-sex legislation of South Australia be of any concern to David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi when they planned their romantic getaway?

“Between all the wine tasting and surfing, it’s easy to miss the inequality of this sun-soaked nation.”

We’re an enlightened, first-world society, aren’t we? Neighbours and Home and Away have their share of same-sex attracted characters; South Australia even has a proud record of LGBTI equality, being the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975. It’s all good, right?

Wrong. Between all the wine tasting and surfing, it’s easy to miss the inequality of this sun-soaked nation.

Hearing about the South Australian legal system’s treatment of Marco Bulmer-Rizzi, who was subjected to the indignity of seeing his husband’s relationship status recorded as ‘never married’ in the wake of David’s accidental death in that state last week, I felt a familiar and frustrating pang of grief.

The international outrage was loud and justified. South Australia’s Premier Jay Weatherill quickly apologised, offering a guarantee that South Australian law would be changed to amend David’s death certificate. In an acute state of grief, Marco gave an interview, expressing his ardent hope that this kind of thing never happens again in Australia.

At that point I got very angry, because I have wanted exactly that ever since my partner Jono died in New South Wales more than a decade ago.

MIKEY:JONO
LIFE PARTNERS Michael Burge and Jonathan Rosten in 2002.

In 2004, despite NSW’s same-sex de-facto laws having been in place for five years, my deceased partner’s death certificate was issued to his blood relatives without my name on it or any reference to our relationship.

You read that right: Sydney’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages broke the state law to disenfranchise me.

The complicity of the funeral company I’d contracted meant the illegally-issued document took me two years to fix. Despite lobbying the NSW Attorney-General, no apology was issued by the state government, and no assurances were given that training would be put in place to prevent anything similar happening to others.

For 12 years, I’ve been communicating the dangers for LGBTI couples and death certification to anyone who would listen. In 2015, I wrote a book about my experience – Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love. My motivation was to increase our awareness about how vulnerable LGBTIs are in Australia, with inconsistent state and federal laws that allow surviving same-sex spouses to fall between the cracks.

But death is a hard sell. Same-sex death is even harder. Too many Australians are unwilling to believe such unfairness and homophobia in our organisations and government departments.

Even more difficult to communicate is the homophobia that leads some families to deny the existence of same-sex spouses. At least Marco Bulmer-Rizzi was spared discrimination at the hands of homophobic in-laws, who were the driving force behind my disenfranchisement.

Whatever the reason behind the silence about my story, right now, there are generations of LGBTI in Australia who remain completely invisible on their deceased partner’s death certificates and were thereby blocked from their spouses’ estates.

Who is to blame for this legal lottery that has been erasing LGBTI stories in Australia for decades?

Politicians, sure, but it has long been painful and depressing to me how slow Australia’s media and publishing industries have been to recognize and disseminate the message about this disconnect. It’s impossible to argue they’re reflecting audience sentiment, when all polling on marriage equality places community support at over 70 per cent.

The solution is staring Australians in the face: a free vote of federal ministers on the floor of the nation’s parliament could enact marriage equality here in less than a week.

Yet national legislation that would sweep aside state anomalies is considered so controversial it put us in a holding pattern on marriage equality years ago.

“There has just never been enough outrage about marriage equality in this country.”

We have a sitting prime minister – Malcolm Turnbull – who supports marriage equality, but the political deal-making when he ousted Tony Abbott saw him sign away the parliamentary vote he once publicly backed. Instead, he has a plan for a divisive referendum at a time and in a manner he’s reluctant to reveal.

In the fallout of the Bulmer-Rizzi case, South Australia’s highest-profile conservative politician, Christopher Pyne, was quick to call for overseas same-sex marriages to be recognized in Australian states and territories.

But his approach illustrates the problem in a nutshell. Although he is a supporter of marriage equality, Pyne would rather advocate for a piecemeal solution that would protect visiting international LGBTI couples long before Australians.

When our leaders start to campaign for the human rights of guests instead of residents, they have lost touch with exactly who they represent in parliament.

Pyne’s words also imply he thinks marriage equality in Australia is so far away we’d best jet off to countries that support our relationships and benefit from a legal loophole.

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

This behavior is far from isolated in Australia. Our tendency to overlook our creatives in favour of international artists – our ‘cultural cringe’ – is cast into the shade by this even stronger legislative blind spot for all domestic human rights. It’s only ‘bad’ if it makes world news. It only warrants a state premier’s apology when it happens to a foreign national. Fix it by sorting out the laws that the world is watching.

We were caught out treating Marco Bulmer-Rizzi with the heartlessness of our penal-colony roots, and, putting his confidence aside, Jay Weatherill will come up against plenty of homophobic politicians and public servants in his journey to amend David Bulmer-Rizzi’s death certificate. I’m anticipating the British media will track this Australian story closest.

CREATING WAVESDespite all our ‘fair go’ slogans – or perhaps because of them – there has just never been enough outrage about marriage equality in this country to drive the issue from a statistic into a legal reality. That we got a kick along only as the result of the untimely death of a young gay tourist is shameful.

This op-ed was first published by Gay Star News.  

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

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.

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.