I’D like to briefly hold your attention in this short period before marriage equality is legislated in Australia, because nobody will ever give a second thought to the years of struggle that led to this week’s resounding public vote for same-sex dignity.
The concept of marriage equality first hit me like a bullet in 2004, in the moment I realised I’d been completely and utterly duped by this ‘lucky country’.
My partner Jono had died suddenly just weeks before, and I was struggling with acute, identity-killing grief.
I had no idea that this profound amputation would come to be treated as though it was a paper cut. Unbeknownst to me, Jono’s blood relatives had severed me from his death certificate and disenfranchised me from my rightful place as his next of kin.
Left to work this injustice out for myself, after avoidance from the funeral director and denial from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, it dawned on me in a flash that Jono and I had innocently allowed our relationship to remain ephemeral.
“Human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.”
Without the foundation of marriage, we were the same as every other gay couple in the country: easy to sweep aside in the legal processes. I desperately tried to recapture us, but there was no definitive moment to hold onto, nothing that had been formally witnessed or solemnised. Jono had been silenced and without him I was gagged.
Up until that point, my 34th year, I’d been a ‘good person’. I’d closeted myself when my sexuality became painfully obvious, duly distracted people from the truth, and disappeared to the other side of the world for a decade, part of which I spent in a relationship with a woman.
I’d returned home and dutifully come out, glossed over the profound disappointment that caused in my community, and thrown everything into my first gay relationship. All my hope, ambition, and love was wrapped up in it.
But the night Jono died it should have become apparent that I’d never really had a home to come back to. Australia was still brutally colonial in its complete lack of legal and cultural support for the same-sex bereaved.
I have come to learn that statement means almost nothing to those who have not experienced the death of a partner. Death is hard enough for most to countenance, but gay death places the bereaved right out on the margins.
And I nearly disappeared completely. As the denial of my relationship peaked, I calmly decided to kill myself in a manner that meant nobody would discover my body. Having been forced to take in the inglorious state of Jono’s lifeless form in the emergency room, I wanted to leave no trace.
The plan settled in me far too easily. Dangerously at a loose end without work and prospects of any kind, I refined it over a number of days.
But my ultimate exit was stolen from me. I was encouraged, through counselling, to choose to be a ‘good person’, again. Instead of self-obliteration I began to channel my rage into fixing the lies that had been wrought on Jono’s legacy and making this country a better place for LGBTIQ.
My anger found expression in a live submission to the Human Rights Commission’s Same Sex, Same Entitlements hearings, which were instrumental in overturning 100 pieces of discriminatory legislation for LGBTIQ; but I went the extra mile and, with a voice stymied by grief, reminded the gathering that marriage equality was the ultimate solution.
That was 2006, and despite my appeal having no visible impact whatsoever since it was outside the report’s tight frame of reference, I simply haven’t stopped talking about the critical need for LGBTIQ Australians to have the same relationship protections as the rest of the population.
Had anyone told me that would require more than a quarter of my life to date, I would have prepared myself better for fourteen long years in the wilderness.
Had anyone warned me that I was effectively hitting the pause button on the trajectory of my prime years and my career, I probably wouldn’t have listened.
Had anyone told me I would find love again even as my tears were still drying, I would have laughed until I’d cried once more, but I let it in despite all the risks.
Forced to take our relationship recognition far from home, my husband Richard and I married in New Zealand a decade ago. The noblest person I know, Richard has reached his arms around my pain and loss. He’s also a rabid equality agitator who takes it up to politicians and naysayers without fear.
We are not your classic ‘Marriage Equality Activists’.
My activism emerged from extreme emotional pain, the kind that is not given much currency in Australia, even among LGBTIQ.
I’ve upset dinner parties, taken on social media trolls, and assisted bereaved LGBTIQ to get their deceased spouses’ death certificates altered, because, fuck it, if I didn’t show them how, no one else was going to!
I’ve marched in protests, lobbied politicians of all stripes, written letters, boycotted, played nice, played nasty, door-knocked, given up hope and stoked my cut-glass anger to keep going.
I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about the need for reform, from the mainstream media to the grassroots, and I’ve read a million more written by others.
I’ve seen editors’ eyes gloss over with boredom about ‘another gay marriage article’, missed out on publishing deals because my work was deemed ‘too gay’, and thrown stuff at the tele when activists with perfect media currency landed inadequate blows on populists and let us all down.
I’ve lived in the outer reaches of LGBTIQ ‘safe’ territory, in places where democracy is dead and gay issues a low-level priority. I’ve spoken out against homophobic belligerence among local representatives and reminded a generation of politicians that we are watching.
I’ve been a harbinger in activism circles, a ‘bad fairy’ at the wedding talks, furiously reminding equality leaders that a critical part of having a relationship recognised is enshrining it effectively when one or both partners dies or becomes incapacitated.
To ameliorate my vengeful harpy lashes, I’ve also been a defender of Australia’s marriage equality poster boys and girls, many of whom remained deeply closeted when I was struggling in the wake of Jono’s death.
I have witnessed the reality behind their media-friendly masks, their exasperation, their power games, their u-turns, their fears, their failures and their white-hot rage, and I have reminded journalists and commentators that the truth is not just ‘love is love’ and holding hands under media-friendly glitter clouds on Oxford Street; it’s that human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.
Bereaved same-sex spouses don’t feature on the panel shows or the media spotlight in our own right. The energy it takes to fight on top of enduring grief is too great for the gay widows I have come across. Usually, we’re trawled out as exhibits for why the laws need to change, before returning to the shadows.
I admit to being a shadow, and I am jaded as all hell, but this week I have sensed the finish line of this painful emotional marathon my country subjected me to.
If I’m honest, I really don’t care about a few religious exemptions in the Marriage Act. If people of faith don’t get out and protest, we’ll know what’s delivered by this parliament contains inequality, but match-fit LGBTIQ will survive.
If Malcolm Turnbull and Liberal luminaries want to play at being statesmen and own the reform as their legacy, I don’t give a shit. Those of us who lashed all politicians before marriage equality was a popular choice for power-mongers will always know who actually got the reform over the line.
The day the legislation passes I will have carried an inconvenient truth for far too long, and I will set it down in territory that is finally safe, to rediscover whatever identity I have left.
This country-born boy who was well-behaved, thought of others far too much, had no role models for equal marriage and has nevertheless forged faithful love with another country-born boy, will have come home at last.
We’re thinking of a Tenterfield wedding to renew our vows and give this country the second chance it undoubtedly doesn’t deserve.
Lifeline 13 11 14.
© Copyright Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.