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It’s as though we’re on a merry-go-round: round and round we go but we don’t actually get anywhere.  All we get are spinning heads and headaches and a wish – a burning desire even – that we can get off this wretched thing and get back to living our lives.  Except some of us can’t live our lives, not really, not fully, because the law’s not on our side.  Yet again the Australian Government is investigating the pros and cons of allowing same-sex couples to marry, and yet again I find myself sitting at my desk, wanting to have a voice about this.  So here it is, my voice: I, Nigel G. Featherstone, Australian citizen, a humble scribe, fully support any amendment to the Marriage Act that allows gay couples to tie the knot.

As an openly gay man in a loving and committed relationship of fifteen years, I only want for the partnership that I’m in to have the same social and legal recognition and protection as our parents, our siblings, and our friends.  After all this time together I simply want the opportunity to stand in front of my community and have my relationship acknowledged for what it is: a mature, devoted bond, with all the highs and lows and challenges and routines of any other Australian couple.

I also want young gay men and women to know that their sexuality and relationships have a legitimate place in contemporary Australian society.  On May 15 2006 the ABC’s Four Corners program broadcast ‘A Deathly Silence’, which investigated why in 2005 a 17-year-old Sydney school boy called Campbell O’Donnell killed himself.  Quoting from the program’s official transcript, Campbell was described as ‘quirky, loyal to his friends and a born mediator’ and academically he was a high-achiever, being dux of his school four years running.

However, the note Campbell left behind read in part: ‘Almost every day I see a boy, some fantastic-looking guy that makes my pulse quicken but also makes me want to cry, and it makes me feel sad… There is nothing in the whole world that has caused me more hurt than this.  Nothing.’  In response to her son’s sexuality, Campbell’s mother said: ‘I think the big issue for Campbell that came out in his adolescence was how do you form relationships?  How do you move on in the gay world?  How do you?’

The proposed amendments to the Marriage Act that are currently before the House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs provide the recognition and protection my partner and I are seeking, as well as an answer to the questions asked by Campbell’s mother.

First and foremost the proposed amendments recognise that discrimination has no place in any modern society, and that for the law to not recognise same-sex relationships is a position based on discrimination.  The proposed amendments also provide those people in same-sex relationships with certainty about issues such as consent to medical procedures, and they ensure greater clarity when resolving property disputes in the event of dissolving relationships.

The proposed amendments legitimise gay and lesbian lives in the eyes of the broader community.  They send an unambiguous message that homophobic attitudes and anti-gay violence is not acceptable.  Every so often my partner and I, while looking like any other adult couple (except one of us isn’t a woman), are confronted by uncomfortable social situations and verbal abuse, and at least once a year we fear for our safety – the most recent was doing something as innocuous as walking along the mainstreet after doing the grocery shopping.

The proposed amendments also recognise that this is about what the State endorses as an adult relationship, not what the church endorses.  They recognise that in the last ten years there have been significant shifts in the community’s attitude: poll after poll shows that a majority of people now support same-sex marriage.  Modern societies around the world are moving forward on this issue; to-date, Australia has not – it simply can’t get its act together.

Most importantly, however, the amendments send a crystal-clear signal to same-sex-attracted youth like Campbell O’Donnell that their sexuality is valid and valued.  There is no doubt in my mind that changing the Marriage Act to allow gay couples to marry will save lives, especially the lives of young people.

Even though the ACT Civil Union Legislation has been reduced to an almost ineffectual level by Australian Government interference, the ACT’s determined leadership on this issue has sent a very positive, healthy message to the nation that discrimination based on sexual preference is not acceptable.  Perhaps if this message came louder and clearer from the federal government, a young man like Campbell O’Donnell may still be alive, and my partner and I could get on with our lives without being hindered by the law and harassed by unnecessarily fearful members of the community.

In the end, of course, it’s just about love, isn’t it.  Two people loving each other the best way they can: fumbling their way through the great big tangly mess of it all.  The sex is one thing; the ability to accumulate cultural and material wealth is another.  But it’s love – companionship, intimacy, affection – that is a human being’s greatest task, a human being’s greatest legacy.

What is marriage if not love?

*

This story was first published in The Canberra Times on 30 March 2012.  In a slightly edited form, it has also been submitted to the Inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012 and the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 by the Parliament of Australia’s House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs.  The closing date for responses to the inquiry is 20 April 2012.  The Committee’s site has a survey that takes only a couple of minutes to fill in.

It’s a rare event for a dictionary to fail me but that’s exactly what happened a minute ago: my usually trustworthy Oxford Australian Dictionary (1992) couldn’t come up with the goods, and what a sinking feeling that was.  Then the unspeakable happened: my Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) failed as well.  I reached for the Pears’ Cyclopaedia (1932) but it too fell short.  I pulled my copy of Soule’s Synonyms (1904) off the shelf – at last there was hope.

What have I been looking for? A definition of lane.

Where I live, a town dating from the 1820s, we have many lanes; in fact, we’re cross-hatched with them.  I adore them.  Consisting of two roughly parallel lines of compacted gravel or dirt bordered by knee-high grass, those narrow throughways between old houses.  I walk the dog down them.  I take them when going to the mainstreet.

I remember being a little boy and visiting cousins out at Young and they had a rear lane; how lucky I thought they were.  For two years in the 1990s I lived at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, and there was a lane behind my flat; how lucky I thought I was. I’ve named the on-line literary journal I co-edit Verity La after a lane in the Sydney Building, Canberra, and in Hong Kong recently my camera regularly found itself pointed towards backstreets and laneways.

These days, I might walk the lanes of my home-town because they offer protection from the winds, but mostly I take them because you can peer into backyards – wild veggie patches, saggy chookyards, an outdoor dunny turned into a wood-store, a rusted metal seat in the sun, a broken cricket bat…

When walking a lane there’s a sense that words like private and public don’t matter, that life can’t be categorised by what is yours and what is mine.  Lanes are semi-places, they’re reserved, they’re reticent.  That’s why dictionaries struggle with them.

The best the Oxford could do was “a narrow road or street”, which is downright wrong.  The Roget’s was able to suggest words like “short-cut”, but in the end this is clutching at straws.  Perhaps in 1902 there was a better understanding of these things, because the Soule’s got as far as “alley, narrow passage or way”; as definitions go it’s prosaic but at least there’s accuracy.

How would I define lane?

I wouldn’t, I can’t; I too would fail miserably.  I’ll just keep walking them, being with them, because their elusiveness makes me feel whole.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 March 2012.  This is my fiftieth piece for the First Word column; many thanks to Gillian Lord)

Cowan Creek, Kuringai Chase National Park, Sydney, 1986

‘Don’t do it,’ she said, ‘they’ll eat you alive, you’ll regret it, you might not write another word.’  We were in a cafe and I’d just told my friend that I’d been invited to attend a Canberra book-club to talk about Fall On Me.  ‘They forget that you’re the writer and it turns feral,’ she explained.  ‘I certainly won’t be attending one ever again.’  So I worried about it, whether I should go or not; I became more and more nervous as the evening drew closer.  I seriously considered cancelling my involvement, or perhaps I could come down with a very rare but completely depilating illness.  Which, thankfully, never had to happen.  Because my evening with a book-club turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in 18 years of doing this; in fact, it’s in my Top Three Writerly Experiences of All Time.

For a start, the host was an old high-school friend, and we’d not seen each other for 25 years.  I knew this already, which is why I would never have cancelled, because Rosy was wonderful at school, so kind and generous and good natured, and I had no doubt that she wouldn’t have changed, and I was right.  Secondly, how often does a writer have an opportunity to discuss his/her book for three hours with people who’ve read it so closely?  Even to the point that they picked up a mistake: in the book, two characters – Lou Bard, a single father and cafe owner, and his enigmatic housemate Anna – are having a deep and meaningful discussion in the kitchen over a bottle of red: large wine glasses are used, and the wine is poured out three times, which the book-clubbers said was unlikely out of just one bottle.  (I really should know these things, shouldn’t I.)  But how lovingly – have I mentioned that the group comprised only women? – this observation was made.  In fact, it was a great laugh.

Thirdly – and here’s the truly amazing thing – what really clinched it for me was this: each book-club session someone volunteers to bring food inspired by the book.  One of the women made a pizza based on the favourite topping of Lou’s son Luke: potato, fetta and chilli.  With a huge smile on her face she said to me, ‘It must be very yummy for you to put it in the book!’  And I said, ‘I have no idea – I just made it up!’  That’s fiction for you.  Thankfully Luke has excellent taste, and we all woofed the pizza down, and I’m going to make it, too, life imitating art.  She also made caramel slice, because there’s mention in the book of Lou having caramel slice in his cake display at the cafe, but it must have been there for a while because it’s started to get that slightly unsavoury dew on top.  So she put her home-made slice in the fridge for an hour to replicate the effect.

How good is that.

It makes me want to do it all again, which is handy because, as reported earlier, it is all happening again: Blemish Books is publishing another novella from me later this year, another of the Launceston novellas, the stories I wrote while I spent a month in that town as an artist-in-residence at the Cataract Gorge Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage courtesy of the City Council.

As a kid I loved writing, telling stories; the highlight of my week was the double creative-writing period.  I’d write and write and write, just made shit up really, but I loved how the pen seemed to get carried away on the page, except it was really me who was getting carried away, wasn’t it.  And I still get carried away, especially when writing by hand, as in handwriting, which is what I did in Launceston during those four weeks.  When school finished all that time ago, however, there was no thought – it simply never occurred to me – that I might go on to do something with this story-telling thing, so I enrolled in landscape architecture, because it seemed interesting enough, and it was.

But the boy in the photo above: though he’s hiding from you, though you can’t see his face, you know what he’s thinking: school is finished, I’m off to university, it’s all a great adventure, but what am I doing, what am I to do with this life?  It’s not until now that he knows.

Because the boy is me.

It’s been that weekend again in Sydney, that annual weekend, and perhaps it’s more than one weekend, a whole fortnight of it, maybe even a month, which would be a special kind of hell.  But it’s the weekend that I’m talking about, that’s been on my mind, the Saturday night in particular, it’s always the first weekend in March, which puts it smack-bang in the middle of my partner’s birthday week.  The Saturday night, the parade and party, all that dancing in the streets and in the great cavernous halls of Fox Studios, if that’s where the party’s held, as you can see I really have no idea about much of this Mardi Gras stuff.  Sydney Mardi Gras, they’ve dropped the ‘gay and lesbian’ bit, which, to me, is good and wise.

I always dread this time of year, a bit – a lot – like how I dread Christmas.  All the celebration, the public displays of some kind of joy and affection.  But it’s an empty celebration, both Christmas and Mardi Gras, because neither means anything to me.  If you wish me a happy Mardi Gras I’ll stare blankly at your face. If you wish me a happy gay Christmas, I may well bludgeon you with a baseball bat.

Have I been to a Mardi Gras?  Yes, twice: two parades (one of which was the 20th anniversary, in 1998), and one party.  Did I have a good time?  From what I can remember the parade was as it appears on the telly: so many guys in red Speedos and/or angel wings, so many drunk drag queens trying not to fall off the back of trucks, dykes on bikes, some political floats – it’s always good to see gay marriage getting a mention.  And the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, those men dressed up as nuns, which, if I’m to tell you the truth, never fails to give me a little chuckle.  And men in black leather, so many men in black leather, their butts hanging out.  And on the sidelines: thousands and thousands and thousands of people who come out to watch the show, the spectacular.  That’s what it seems to me: wheel out the funny sexuality people to entertain the drunk masses from the suburbs.

But my sexuality isn’t a show, it’s not a spectacular.

I became a teenager in the 1980s; I was in my own little world; music was my thing: The Cure, The Clash, New Order and, erm, Culture Club.  Early on, around twelve years old, thirteen, I knew I had feelings, strong feelings, explosive feelings for other boys.  I didn’t have a name for it, I didn’t want a name for it.  As scary as it was, how downright frightening, this thing, whatever it might have been, was mine, all mine.  I wanted to explore it; I wanted it to take me places.  Despite knowing that it wasn’t normal, whatever normal might be, might mean, I loved it, it was beautiful.  How good and golden it made me feel, how alive, blood-pumpingly alive.

I was shy, I was nervous, cautious.  I took little steps, just inched along, finding my own path, and never did I want a name for what I was doing, who I was, and if I did discover names for it I turned the other way.  Oscar Wilde may have infamously called love between men ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but, to me, it’s the love that doesn’t need a name, because it’s in my blood and bones, my DNA, in every breath I take.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, it’s been my absolute delight, despite the heartache, the shock and horror.  So I fell in love with a boy in Fourth Form (or was it Third?), it happened again at university, which took me into the post-uni world, that cliff that’s jumped off, and then, in my mid-twenties, I met another boy, who became a partner, my partner to this day, who too isn’t fond of this weekend that’s been, this Mardi Gras.

Am I proud to be gay?  What is pride?  Self-respect, dignity, self-esteem, honour.  Must these words relate to me?  It’s just who I am, just what I’m made of – my sexuality comprises me.  Of course, I live in better times; it hasn’t always been easy for people like me to say the sort of things I’m saying.  In fact, I’m frankly astonished to learn that homosexuality was illegal in my home state of New South Wales until 1984, the year of my first love affair, puppy-love for sure, sweet and innocent, but also rich and intense and beautiful and profound; I was none the wiser of how a brush of the hand could put me in jail.  And in Tasmania, that dark island state of my nation, it was illegal until as recently as 1997, though that place has gone from zero to hero in no time as it now has some of the most progressive same-sex relationship laws in the country – but not in the world, not yet.

Australian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, who was openly gay, said that he wished the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras would be stopped forever.  ‘A lot of screaming queens in Oxford Street will not help the cause for which we shall have to fight,’ he wrote.  Do I agree?  No, I don’t.  Like Christmas, it can go on, but it will have to go on without me, because it means nothing, it simply doesn’t represent my life.  Like all fair and decent people, I stopped wearing red Speedos in my last year of school, and even though I’m fond of angels, over-sized wings on me would look ridiculous – and hypocritical.  And drag queens?  Good for them, I say, but if that’s your thing and you come around to my place, well, please just be yourself, and cut the sarcasm, and that voice.

All I wanted when I was young is all I want now: beauty and love and intimacy.

I don’t need to dance in the street for these things.  I just want to feel it pulsing through my veins, as it always has, as it always will.

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