Tag Archives: Marriage Equality

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.


Writing my way into my relationship

RAINBOW COURT Same-sex attracted people are exponentially earning our human rights, be warned!
RAINBOW JUSTICE Same-sex attracted people are exponentially learning our human rights, be warned!

A Writer’s first affidavit.

ONE of the most challenging and important pieces or writing I ever executed was the affidavit I wrote for the Supreme Court of New South Wales in application for the estate of my late partner, Jono.

Sitting across the desk from my solicitor, she tasked me with this ‘commission’ using some weighty words of her own, because an affidavit, particularly one relating to your deceased spouse, is not something to get wrong.

“You must relate the incidents of your relationship as though people are listening to it, with quote marks, and everything,” she explained, “and you can’t use his name, you must write ‘the deceased said this, and did this …’.”

It sounded like a scene from a script. In the midst of those dark days, compounded not only by my grief after losing Jono, but also by his family’s denial of the existence of our relationship, writing was something I knew how to do.

I’d been writing dialogue for years, and here was a story with a beginning, middle, and, sadly, an end which nobody saw coming.

My motivation was a simple one, primal, in a way.

I’d been duped. I’d trusted bad people. In the midst of my shock, Jono’s mother and brother had bullied the funeral director into removing my name, and any reference to our relationship, from his death certificate. They did it in secret. They did it at a time I would least suspect them, and they remained unmoved by my entreaties to undo what they had done.

I won’t go into the reasons they did what they did, that is for another piece of writing at another time. Suffice to say they did everything in their power to prevent the creation of any official document which linked their son/brother to me, and that it was, as is so often the case, for financial reasons. Laced with the pervading stench of homophobia, the treatment became a rare mix reserved for only a few of the widowed left vulnerable by lax laws and outmoded thinking.

Whatever their motivations, it was the shittiest, lowest, most devastating action anyone has taken against me. It hit me in my deepest places, and smarts to this day.

Faced with this denial, I wondered what exactly did they say Jono and I were to one another? The legal documents they’d falsified to deny my relationship with Jono carried weighty fines and/or jail time for false representation. What term could they get away with if pressed on the truth?

SPECIAL FRIENDS Comedy writers have made light of gay couples for decades.
SPECIAL FRIENDS Comedy writers have made light of closeted gay couples for decades.

‘Travelling companions’ is the definition comedy writers have placed into the mouths of homophobes for decades.

Yes, in times past, two men in love would have passed for ‘special friends’, but not me and Jono.

We were everything to one another apart from legally married, and the law did not (and still does not) extend to that. Everyone who loved us knew the strength of our commitment.

So, when I learnt to refer to Jono as my deceased spouse, I took our long-term relationship and all its episodes: fun, challenging, confronting and downright hilarious, and wrote it with as much fervour as I would a piece of drama, only I didn’t need to make anything up.

Using old diaries and our joint bank account, I managed to trace our relationship to its dawn. The words were easier to recall off the cuff than the dates, because it’s rather unforgettable when someone leans their head gently on your arm, looks you in the eye, and says: “I’m besotted with you.”

That night, at the alpine-style sunken lounge of Leura’s Fairmont Resort Bar in the winter of the year 2000, was memorable not just for our first kiss, but also the inebriated woman who was sitting near us, saying: “What a lovely couple you two are, awwww, you’re so well suited”. We laughed, because our relationship was just beginning, but it was a great affirmation for what was to come. This woman made it into my affidavit as an indicator of public knowledge of our relationship: one of the more than ten inescapable benchmarks when defining its existence legally.

TRAVELLING COMPANIONS? Yeah right, if you live on Planet Homophobe!
TRAVELLING COMPANIONS? Yeah right, if you live on Planet Homophobe!

Over thirteen pages I recalled how we’d expressed our love and care for one another enough to move in together after two years.

I related our journey through running our own business after only a month together, and all its highs and lows, but also the way that our support for one another saw us blossom as creative individuals.

I also revealed our slightly embarrassing pet names for one another.

There was no happily ever after to the journey Jono and I took, only a surprise ending which no-one would have believed if I’d ever written it into a screenplay.

But my written work could not simply end with Jono’s sudden, unexplained collapse in the middle of a dance rehearsal, because it was an affidavit, not a screenplay.

I needed to add the disenfranchisement I was subjected to after his death. I needed to explain to the court that I had been kept from Jono’s death certificate, and it was with no small embarrassment that I had to explain why I was asking them to bend the rules and allow the presentation of a less legally binding death certificate extract: because his family were homophobic.

In time, my affidavit did everything I needed it to do legally. It was an indelible, detailed document which shone a glaring light on the omissions purposely rendered on the one piece of paper where the details really mattered when I needed them to the most.

“Why do you need a piece of paper to prove your love for one another?” same-sex attracted people who want the right to marry are pressured to explain, to justify our argument for equality.

Well, because thirteen pages (and almost 60 supporting documents) is a mammoth effort, unless you’re a writer, especially when you’re grieving, and you’re fighting insidious, invisible homophobia. One simple marriage certificate would be my choice, every time.

The Supreme Court has no choice but to uphold that, which is exactly what the homophobes are scared of, because it might be just a piece of paper, but a marriage certificate places a great obstacle in the way of prejudice.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Michael’s story is published as Questionable Deeds.

Tony and Bern Sutton – equality people

PROUD PARENTS Bernadette and Tony Sutton, of PFLAG Central Tablelands.
PARENTAL PRIDE Bernadette and Tony Sutton, of PFLAG Central Tablelands.

A writer’s encounter with PFLAG.

AS the editor of a regional lifestyle magazine, it’s easy to focus all the content on sumptuous homes and gardens, and interviews with local business icons.

But for me, the job was an opportunity to explore the stories of the district’s many cultural pioneers.

So it was no surprise, when I turned my gaze to LGBTQI heritage, that I came across another groundbreaker – Australia’s first country PFLAG (‘Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays’) group, and two of the courageous rural people who were instrumental in starting this much-needed family initiative.

This feature was published in Blue Mountains Life magazine in December 2011.

Out in Bathurst

How one family fosters acceptance in the Central West.

Tony and Bernadette Sutton were brought together by telecommunication – Tony was a telephone technician and Bern worked as a telephonist at a local manual exchange. In 1971, after a five-year courtship, they were married at Coolah’s Sacred Heart Church.

Once settled at Bathurst, the first of their two children, Jeremy, was born in 1972, followed by Anne a decade later. Tony was raised in this proud Central Western community. His father was a local butcher. Bern came to Bathurst from a stock and crop farm near Coolah. Like generations of country families before them, the Sutton’s expectations about family were deeply etched in their history.

“On September 17th 1993, two days after his 21st birthday, our son told his Mum, during a weekend visit home, then returned to Sydney, leaving a letter for me,” Tony recalls of the very moment their lives changed, when Jeremy told them he was gay. “Bernadette held the letter, not being sure how I would take the news. This says volumes about his confidence in his Dad.”

“I read the letter one week later, and though a little numb, I managed it better than Bernadette. I felt terrible about some of the cruel comments I had made in previous years. I was as homophobic as the next bloke.”

Bern particularly had difficulty with questions of faith: “During that first week I would often think ‘I don’t know how I am going to deal with this … what would the family and neighbours say?’,” she recalls. “Gradually I realised I was only thinking of myself and not of Jeremy, who had already been through so much struggle.”

Jeremy Sutton (a Marketing Manager now living in Sydney) recalls his perspective: “Living in Sydney had allowed me to become who I really was, as I never felt like I could do that in Bathurst, so it was time to tell my parents. It was a relief, but it was also a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle. There was no turning back to how things were before. I also felt very guilty – seeing your mother cry is never easy”.

“I thought they would really struggle with it on account of their traditional views and being good Catholics, and I’m sure they did. Deep down I hoped they would find a way to deal with it as they are also incredibly good people. I very quickly received a letter from my father in response to the one I left for him which was very supportive.”

Had anything prepared this family for the challenges that coming out brings?

Tony explains: “We weren’t equipped at all, having been conditioned by society and the official position of our church, and the prejudice promoted by anyone and everyone in authority”.

“We love our boy Jeremy, and told ourselves he was still the same person after telling us, but we were very challenged by community opinion relating to gays and lesbians, but there were some surprising exceptions.

“Luckily for us, our parish priest (being ‘pastoral’) was not constricted by the institutional church. He recommended we speak with another family from out of town who were experiencing the same situation. I clearly remember thinking ‘why would I want to speak to this farming family about this topic?’,” Tony recalls. “How wrong I was!”

“Well, we all leaned on each other, for support, during those first months. It was a relief to find that we were not the only family experiencing such a significant challenge to our beliefs, and the values of what a ‘normal’ family is.

“As we were all Catholic, we used to joke that ‘only Catholics had gay children’. Our initial journey was challenged by Vatican teachings of prejudice and discrimination. Yet in 1994, our local church brought (then Father) Paul O’Shea to Bathurst for World AIDS Day to conduct a workshop in an attempt to counter homophobia.

“As a result of this, and with encouragement from our parish Priest, a meeting on March 14th, 1995, considered the establishment of a support group. Contact was made with PFLAG (‘Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays’) in Sydney, and one month later eight people met for the inaugural meeting of PFLAG Bathurst. This was the first rural Australian PFLAG group.”

STANDING TOGETHER Families march under the PFLAG banner the world over.
STANDING TOGETHER Families march under the PFLAG banner the world over.

PFLAG groups worldwide have become the life blood for families and communities seeking to stay together through the coming out process and beyond, but outside cities they often struggle against localised negativity and ignorance.

Tony describes one of he and Bern’s greatest challenges: “To eventually be open with our family and friends, while honouring Jeremy’s trust and privacy”.

“Even now PFLAG is not very prominent in the wider community, especially in rural regions. It began in 1972 in America. Perth, around 1989, had the first PFLAG group in Australia, followed by Melbourne, then Sydney and Brisbane. We are the most westerly group in NSW, though we have tried to get groups going in Dubbo, Broken Hill and Mildura/Dareton.

“Homosexual issues don’t challenge us at all anymore, but we still encounter homophobic comments, even from friends. We are distressed when PFLAG brochures we display in our Catholic cathedral are removed and destroyed by fanatic parishioners, even though we are encouraged to place them there by clergy.

“The wider community are basically ignorant of the true facts about same-sex attraction. They take the lazy path of believing what shock jocks and prejudiced religious literalists promote as ‘gospel’, instead of informing themselves from reliable, accurate and up-to-date material. Jeremy has done us a great service in forcing us to re-evaluate our attitudes to numerous issues in our society. We believe we have become better people as a result.”

Jeremy is very proud of how far his parents have come with PFLAG: “My parents have always liked getting involved, whether it’s the local school, the church, and environmental groups. I even recall going to a peace rally with them once. I think they really like being able to help other parents when they first discover they have a gay child.”

And the journey continues, with all the Suttons getting behind the push for Marriage Equality in Australia.

“We don’t think that ten per cent of society should be denied what the other ninety per cent receive,” Tony says. “They weren’t born gay just so that the ninety per cent majority would have a group to marginalise and allow themselves to feel superior to. They want their committed relationships acknowledged, just like heterosexuals.”

Jeremy agrees: “While a lot of discrimination against gay people has been removed, the fact some still remains gives some people a basis for their prejudices, and gives young gay people another reason to feel inferior or that there is something wrong with being gay. I think everyone knows that one day we will look back at this period with amazement that gay marriage was not legal, the same way we look back at amazement that women once were not allowed to vote.”

Anne Sutton (a primary school teacher living in Victoria) says: “It is ridiculous in such a modern multicultural society that we are still against such a simple thing as two people of the same-sex being joined together in marriage.”

The last of the immediate Sutton family to know about her brother’s sexuality, Anne felt less need for PFLAG. “Since leaving Bathurst I have lived in cities which have had an accepting nature towards gay and lesbian individuals. I think that we have been brought up in a generation which is accepting of homosexuality and has not felt the need for support or to formally offer that support to anyone else.”

From the perspective of his generation, Tony says: “PFLAG is still needed in rural and isolated areas. Communities in these regions can tend to be more conservative, and less tolerant of difference. Rural youth suicide undoubtedly has an element of homosexual despair – no one can ever know to what degree.”

Tony and Bern continue to spread the PFLAG message throughout rural mental health networks, but the results are often frustrating. “Where services are founded on a Christian platform, we often see a typical institutional religious prejudice. The lack of response on this issue can be very disappointing,” Tony says.

“Even when same-sex marriage is approved, PFLAG will still be needed. Parents will experience a range of emotions when they first hear news that their son or daughter is gay or lesbian. Support will still be sought and supplied by PFLAG.

PLUCK COVER copy“During Jeremy’s adolescence relations between him I were rather strained most of the time,” Tony recalls. “Following our acceptance of his sexuality, things have never been better. It’s great!”

PFLAG Central Tablelands (Bathurst) 6331 7267 or 0407 336 020.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded