There are certain delicious, subtle things about being a gay couple, out of the range of society’s radar. Hands furtively held on the armrest in the cinema, or a covert brush against one another in the street. My partner and I, also named Steve, moved house from Melbourne’s Prahran to Sydney’s Darlinghurst three years ago and, in doing so, gained such liberties.
Public affection between persons of matched sex is not the done thing in Chapel Street on a Saturday night. That is Oxford Street behaviour, on dedicated Mardi Gras evenings.
Most intimate relationships around us already come with a tradition of public affirmation: gifts and ribbons and cake and speeches follow solemn vows between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life. For most, the social ideals of wedding and marriage are conflated as though they are one and the same.
Other relationships, such as ours, tend to inch along in a linear fashion, unmarked by pomp, although the signifiers are clear to those who care to notice the detail.
There are practical reasons we need to register same-sex partnerships in Australia: recognising partners for federal superannuation benefits, for instance. Being classed as interdependent under commonwealth superannuation legislation gives us very limited rights, a second-class bare recognition.
There’s also a need to make clear relationships exist when a partner is ill or dies, particularly if they die without having written a will. There are plans mooted to extend Australian Defence Force benefits to same-sex dependent partners of personnel, but this is missing from veterans’ benefits. Some gay couples also want the right to adopt.
But the bigger picture is about commitment and love. The Australian government has drained the love out of marriage, gay activist Rodney Croome says. They have turned marriage in this country into an instrument of discrimination and exclusion.
Steve and I have been together for more than six years. We’ve never been much for bouquets. But contemporary same-sex marriage debates do make me ponder if I would like that public approval, and moreover the legal protection of a piece of paper that confirms I hug the same guy on the couch every night.
Steve and I met one surprisingly sober autumn night in April 1999 at the Sir Robert Peel Hotel in Collingwood in inner-Melbourne, during a men-only monthly dance party marketed as, ahem, Throb. Climate is something of a conduit for fidelity: Melbourne’s winters can be unbearably long, so gay boys begin their annual hunt to partner up against the cold.
It was dark in the disco, but I chose well. He was dancing tall and alone with his shirt off in a corner, showing off his squarely constructed shoulders. Classic square jaw.
Hi, I might have said, ingeniously.
Hi. He smiled.
Want some water? I asked, proffering my half-full bottle, which I suddenly no longer saw as half-empty.
We danced off centre stage together. A cheap date, even taking into account the five-dollar door charge. He’d seen me some weeks earlier, marching up and down Peel Street, preparing for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, torso exposed with fairy wings strapped to my back, a little white wrap around my butt. A Melbourne Marching Boy in miniature. Somehow, he was able to resist approaching me at that point.
We barely fitted in his small one-bedroom South Yarra flat that first year, but we were happy. He quickly dubbed me Mini Me, after the dwarf in the Austin Powers films. Naturally, I named him Bigger Me. It’s the closest we edge to tactility as a public couple. I can’t tell you where my wings flew.
How’s your friend? my father back home in Melbourne asks over the phone. Oh, good old whatsisname, he’s fine, I am tempted to say. Like all of us, my father needs to label participants in relationships according to life-conditioned codes.
Our family is an Australian suburban version of the royal Windsors: dysfunctional to the core, with unspoken but formal rules around relationships, even where the spectre of divorce -“ my parents’ -“ has exposed the folly of such inflexibility. Big Steve has a clear lineage to Camilla Parker Bowles in this picture: years in waiting, with a greater shot at princess than Queen.
However, at my younger brother Paul’s wedding in March this year, a point was made of including my lover in the official family portraiture. As Steve clicked away with a digital camera alongside the appointed photographer at our little nuclear family unit outside the chapel in Berwick, south-east of Melbourne, Paul called out that Steve should ditch his camera and join in. I looked up to my little brother that day.
Paul met his future wife, Kerry, when he edged close to losing his life. Paul took ill, with a terrible bug infection in his blood, a few years back. He was hospitalised, multiple tubes about his person, hallucinatory from a lack of sleep while the Frankston Hospital doctors grew the bug in the laboratory and tried to figure the name of this thing that had poisoned him.
It was not the first or last time this problem would lay him low. Eventually, they realised the first line of medication was doing little to stop his system collapse. His lungs were filling, and he was inching toward kidney failure. A facemask was shooting oxygen directly into his nose and mouth.
One day, nurse Kerry walked into the ward. Get out of the bed, she said brusquely. I need to make the bed. He pursued her around the ward in the coming days.
Kerry is smart, young, brunette, shy, and attractive. Indeed, my brother had chosen the best hospital to fall ill: he had been well overdue for a dose of happiness, and at last joy had arrived. A soothing human balm. Paul returned home to tell our mother he had the phone number of a nurse at the hospital.
What are you going to do with that? she asked, conditioned to her son’s singledom throughout his 20s. He intended to seal the deal with a certificate of marriage, was what.
Same-sex relationships, by contrast, tend to gain their social affirmation from friends, or queer characters reflected back on television, ?a Queer Eye, Queer As Folk, Six Feet Under and The L Word. To acquire any legal footing, we need wills, solicitors’ documents, significant others’ partnership recognition programs performed before a City of Sydney town hall official. Several local Sydney councils allow you to register your relationship, although the effect is largely symbolic.
In August 2004 Port Phillip Council urged the Victorian government to set up a same-sex relationships register, seeing a state system as having more clout than a council register, after 300 gay and lesbian couples lined up that year at the Midsumma festival to be married by festival organisers. The Bracks government, like the Iemma government in NSW, has avoided the issue.
Here in Sin City we’re thinking about a snappy march to the clerical counter, once we get the mortgage sorted. We need to do all we can to prove our relationship exists. We could also move to Tasmania, and certify ours as a significant caring relationship, but that’s well short of marriage, because it offers no access to federal laws as a couple.
We might make a quick trip to Canberra next year -“ the ACT has announced Australia’s first civil union scheme will begin operating there in 2006, possibly as early as March, with residents outside the territory able to take part. The details are scant, but this move could bring same-sex couples into line with married couples under territory law at least, without using the term marriage.
For more conventional relationships, there is not only footing, but also exquisite footwear combined with great arch support. Last October, my brother’s wedding invitation arrived: a handsome ribbon-wrapped red document, accompanied by a Bridal Registry Card from a travel agency. The separate little blue folded card featured a bride and groom on its cover, atop a multi-layered white wedding cake. Inside was the script, We would like you to be part of our honeymoon.
An attractive generic man and woman were photographed holding hands, strolling along the sand of some gorgeous sun-drenched isle. There was a space on the return zip-off card for how much we’d like to donate to the honeymoon -“ in Hobart -“ and a deadline about a month before the wedding. I appreciated the card’s call to punctuality: I’m not strictly marriage material, but I can be prompt with a gift.
The travel agency that produced the card was located at Fountain Gate, south-east of Melbourne. Fountain Gate doesn’t at all resemble where Big Steve and I live. Fountain Gate is where those favourite Australians, Kath and Kim, like to shop.
It is an aspirational region adorned by McMansions squeezed onto McNugget-sized blocks of land. The neighbourhood sprawls forever -“ you can of course opt for the shopping mall if you want a bit of a P and Q and a cino -“ and the place is filled with small people known as children.
By contrast, Big Steve and I are happily over-caffeinated in the high rise sphincter of the Sin City buggery belt of Darlinghurst, complete with tight singleted guys, the type who cleanse, tone and moisturise, promenading the narrow, broken footpaths, pondering whether they should Botox above, or bleach below.
We dream of one day adopting a pug to walk alongside their standard issue white, fluffy dogs, if only because our cramped inner-city aesthetic holds that dog ugly equals beautiful. Our substitute child will hold its head high, just like its two daddies.
I emailed a married girlfriend in New York, pondering the phenomenon of the Bridal Registry Card. She warmed to the theme. Remember the Sex And The City episode where Sarah Jessica Parker demanded a pair of Manolo Blahniks from a straight friend -“ just because? she wrote. Because she’d bought expensive presents for the engagement, the wedding, the baby shower, the christening, the birthdays -¦
Singles get nothing. Gay people, too.
Well, this is not strictly true. I am sure that if Big Steve and I opted for one of those commitment ceremonies, then we would get presents, too. What intrigued me was the institutionalisation of weddings and presents alongside marriage, rather than the literal pile of toasters at the reception or gilt-edged bridal dowry boxes. I donated some bucks. I wasn’t jealous, I swear. Or maybe I was. Perhaps I’d summoned my latent drama queen.
On 5 December, the world bloomed brightly for gay men and lesbians in Britain, when the Civil Union Partnership Act came into force, effectively the same as marriage. This was good news for the nuptials of ? gay couple Elton John and David Furnish, and their small family affair wedding planned for 21 December.
It’s good news, too, for ordinary gay couples we know, long-time partners whose relationship milestones cannot be cited from celebrity magazines and tabloids. One gay London couple in our circle, one an expat Aussie and the other a Welshman, booked their civil union ceremony straight away, while another couple, ex-Melburnians with UK passports, are planning a low-key ceremony in the new year.
In October, we followed via an internet blog as another gay couple we know, one Canadian born, the other from Sydney, who have been together more than a decade, most of it in Melbourne, tied the knot in Montr?. I felt a tad misty when I saw the looks on their faces in the ceremony video they brought home, their female friend from Sydney standing on the side as witness. In July, no less than the Canadian prime minister, Paul Martin, spoke in support of the Civil Marriage Act after it passed through the Canadian parliament.
Prime Minister John Howard sees no such need. In August 2004, just as France, Germany, Spain, South Africa, Canada, Britain and parts of the US were hurtling towards finally recognising our relationships, he stomped on the possibility of a national register for gay and lesbian couples -“ call it marriage, call it civil unions, call it what you will -“ or indeed these overseas ceremonies being recognised, when he tightened up federal marriage legislation.
Howard had been egged on by a vocal cast of right-wing Christian characters who bussed in support from Sydney to Parliament House’s Great Hall in Canberra to rally against gay marriage. He rammed through parliament the Marriage Legislation Amendment Act 2004, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others.
This amendment in total was little different to the legislation as it had stood for circa 40 years -“ the law always specified a strict quota of one bloke, one sheila per ceremony -“ but there had been an extremely slight argument that held that same-sex marriages performed in, say, Canada, might gain legal standing here in Australia.
Howard’s influence was a Texan fella named George, whose 10-gallon hat had popped off his head at the sight of gay couples lining up to get married in liberal enclaves such as San Francisco.
There had been, until very recently, little actual longstanding significant agitation in Australia for marriage among the gay and lesbian rights lobby groups, as opposed to a lot of work poured into seeking rights in superannuation, property rights and the like for gay couples.
More recently, however, the grass roots of the gay community have started realising what has been unceremoniously whipped away.
Overseas experience remains heartening: in September, California’s state parliament passed a bill to legalise same-sex marriage (though unlikely to get final assent from its Terminator governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), and gay couples are tying the knot in Boston. New Zealand passed a law late last year allowing same-sex twosomes to register their civil unions. The mayor who was at one stage sanctioning gay marriage in San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, is being tipped as a potential Democrat presidential candidate.
Among some gay people -“ it’s hard to say how many -“ marriage is viewed suspiciously as a conservative tradition, the franchise’s aims of monogamy and associated social strictures at odds with long-fought lifestyle freedoms, though this view is changing: as the overseas experience shows what’s possible, suddenly the options open to others become objects of desire.
Given a 40 percent divorce rate in Australia, too, the conservatism argument is looking a little creaky: it takes a radically romantic counter-cultural view of the institution to see marriage as a viable vehicle. Its daily demise still has the capacity to shock and awe in celebritydom: witness Brad and Jennifer’s split sharing the front page with tsunami victims a year ago.
The moral panic about same-sex marriage -“ that it would weaken heterosexual marriage -“ seems a trifle late. Still, the imprecations thunder on. Australian Family Association vice-president Bill Muehlenberg, for instance, helpfully argues on his website that gays and lesbians can in fact get married -“ just not to our own kind.
Nature itself discriminates, he reminds us. Thus, a girl cannot marry her pet goldfish, no matter how much she might love it, or a father cannot marry his daughter, regardless of his affection for her.
So that’s it then, as confirmed by the Catholic ideology shop masquerading as all things family: man and woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life. But realistically, that’s often not the way it works out, is it?
I revelled in my brother’s wedding. The ceremony was held in the chapel alongside the Old Cheese Factory in Berwick, a two-story structure built of local handmade bricks in the 1860s. That day in March, Kerry kept her wedding dress secret from Paul, as is tradition.
The chapel itself was understated. A dozen rows of wooden benches, with a raised stage at the end, on which my brother stood, a smile fixed on his face as his bride walked down the aisle on her father’s arm.
There was a veil, a long train flowing behind her, a strapless, beautifully embroidered dress. Pure happiness is a joy to watch, no matter how traditional its form. I enjoyed my brother’s smile.
The bride’s parents -“ divorced -“ sat together. The celebrant recited the recipe: man and woman, all others excluded.
Steve and I sat alongside my mother in the front row. I looked two pews behind to see my father, sitting alone. His lip quivered, and then came the torrent. I had never seen him cry.
On the way along the dirt road from the chapel service to the wedding reception and lunch, I looked at Steve as he drove the hire car.
Would you marry me?
Not marry. His wrap-around sunglasses made it impossible to read his face.
He thought for a moment. Commitment ceremony.
As I settled back into the passenger seat, on our way to the baked chicken and shepherd’s pie, I contemplated what seemed a lifetime’s best offer.