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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.

Well, you wake up one morning, kiss the partner, put on a cup of tea, and… discover that it’s federal election time yet again.  Was it really three years since the last one?  It seems the answer is yes – us Antipodean folk are careering towards an August 21 poll.  Luckily we live in one of the world’s most stable democracies, so we vote for a local member of parliament who we think (we hope, we pray) will best represent our views.  However, since the 1970s election campaigns have been more presidential in style, with people being encouraged to vote on the personalities of the leaders of the two main protagonists – the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Liberal Party.  Yes, they’re both called the ALP, and what’s more both have red, white and blue in their logos.  No wonder many Australians couldn’t give a rat’s arse about what our leaders do and say, though this might also have something to do with our general anti-authoritarian approach to life because of the country’s Irish heritage and good weather – we really would rather be drinking beer at the beach and perving on the hotties than worrying about political shenanigans.

So how’s the fight shaping up?

In the left(ish) corner there’s Ms Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, although it must be said that she’s been in the job all of three weeks – she  toppled Kevin ‘07’ Rudd in a dramatic midnight coup.  But there’s a fact here that can’t be ignored: Kevin was going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers and someone had to do something about it.  It was Ms Gillard, a proud red-head born in Wales (she’s also unmarried although does have a partner, and she’s an atheist), who stepped up to the plate.  Julia’s a no-nonsense kind of person who could easily be a minor character on the TV comedy series Kath & Kim, but she’s smart and tenacious.  She’s kicked things off by floating a pitch based on ‘Moving Australia Forward’.  As election slogans go it’s a bit on the prosaic side, but after 11 years of ultra-conservative rule under the very easy to hate John Howard and then the wobbly period with the Ruddster at the helm, it’s at least a nod in a better direction.

In the (extremely) right corner is Tony ‘The Mad Monk’ Abbott, a former minister under Howard, who seems to be pinning everything on ‘Practical Action’ (he loves that word action because he’s a budgie-smuggler-wearing marathon runner, so he sees himself as a political GI Joe) and ‘Turning Back The Boats’.  By ‘Turning Back the Boats’ Abbott is trying to score votes by saying that – with some kind of Superman sweep of his hand – he’ll stop anyone fleeing political persecution and poverty reaching our shores.  We’re essentially islanders and have a deep-rooted fear of invasion, particularly by people who have different hair and skin and languages to us, let alone use funny cutlery like chop-sticks, so there’s a good political reason for pursuing this strategy.  Never mind that the numbers of these ‘boat people’ are actually extremely low.  Never mind also that Abbott’s on the record as telling us that we can’t believe everything he says, and that only what’s written in his speeches is fair dinkum.  At least he’s warned us, I guess.

Of course, there is a third option – the Greens, who are lead by the irrepressible Bob Brown.  (Dear old Bob has become such a part of our political furniture – one day he won’t be doing politics anymore and we’ll all wonder what happened.)  For many, the Greens are crack-pots keen on issues like legalising marijuana and euthanasia and other supposedly nutty things like saving our natural world from going to hell in a hand-basket.  For others, however, the Greens have finally got their act together and the party is becoming more and more attractive to the thinking element of the middle class.  At least their logo isn’t red, white, and blue – that’s got to be something.

What does all this mean to simple, dreamy folk like this humble scribe?  It means jackshit, because the issues I care deeply about – the arts, the environment, and marriage equality – won’t get the attention they deserve.  The Greens will have a stab at it, but they’ll be drowned out by the lumbering political machines of the Labor and Liberal parties.  You see, we’re a bunch of Neanderthals when it comes to a genuine political conversation about the value of the arts and creativity.  The really tough environmental issues – climate change, reinvigorating our rivers, and saving our old-growth forests – are dealt with in a jingoistic, if not patronising fashion, never with the long-sightedness required; these are complex matters that require complex but decisive solutions.  And marriage equality?  Both the Labor and the Conservative parties have reconfirmed that only men and women ‘to the exclusion of all others’ (according to our very modern Marriage Act) can have their relationships taken seriously.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Abbott would rather gay and lesbian just drown in their chardonnays, whilst Julia would be more than happy to see people with minority sexualities tie the knot, just not at this very moment.

Thankfully, luckily, miraculously, grass-roots activist organisation Get Up!, which came to life in the last few years of the Howard Government, enables those who really do care about Australia becoming a better and bigger country to have a sliver of hope.  In 2007, completely dispirited at the lack of progressive political gumption on offer from the main parties, I volunteered for Get Up!, handing out How to Vote cards at a country-town booth.  To this day it was one of the most life-affirming actions I’ve ever taken: not only were people genuinely interested in hearing a different perspective, but it also felt bloody great to do something real and positive beyond just putting a tick or a number in a box.  Will I volunteer again?  Or might I just hide away in my little house with ear-phones clamped to the side of my head and listen to great music by great bands and read great books by great writers?

Right now, who knows.  But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Thirty more days to go.

PS Thanks to Ampersand Duck for the Abbott ‘Nope’ image.  Brilliant.

I’m going to put it out there: I’m not a fan of weddings, not in the slightest, in fact the older I get the more I don’t look forward to them, and despite being a gay man I don’t cry when the couple finally gets to snog and then walks down the aisle with grins the size of tuna fish.  Whilst I’m always (well, almost always) happy for the couple involved, and won’t hesitate to knock off their booze and food at the lavish receptions, and maybe, just maybe, if I’m sufficiently stonkered, I might dance with a grandma to some bad 80s tune, it’s rare that I’ll get into the true celebratory spirit.  It could be that I’m jealous of the couple who’s just tied the knot, or I have a problem with all the attention they’re getting (why can’t I have just a bit of that?), or it might be that I’m wearing a suit that no longer fits.  Yes, it could be these things.  But it’s not, not entirely.

The first reason I’m not a fan of the whole wedding caper is the insistence of couples continuing to use the words husband and wife.  According to my beloved Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a perfect resource when researching things about marriage), husband is derived from the Old English ‘husbonda’, from the Old Norse ‘husbondi’, which combines ‘hus’, meaning ‘house’, and ‘bondi’, ‘one who has a household’ (clearly not the famous Australian beach).  So a husband is a man in his capacity as head of the household.  Is this what women really want when they declare in front of a couple of hundred people that they take said bloke to be their ‘husband’ – please rule over me for all eternity?

The origins of wife are not as easy to trace, though it’s believed to be from the Old English ‘wif’, meaning woman.  The original meaning may have been ‘the veiled one’.  Make of that what you will, but again is that what men really want when they declare in front of a couple of hundred people that they take said lady to be their ‘wife’ – I’m going to keep you away from the gaze of the public for all eternity.  Mmm, perhaps that’s exactly what they want.  But the lack of thinking and challenge around these words and their meanings – meanings overt, subtle and subliminal – is what gets me all hot under the collar at weddings.  (I must admit that although I use it all the time the word ‘partner’ can often seem so vacuously PC to be vomit-worthy, but at least its meaning is inclusive.)

The second and probably main reason that weddings really get my goat (one day I should look up the meaning of that phrase, ‘get my goat’), is the fact that Australia’s former government, lead by the cunningly conservative John Howard, who always looked like the uncle everyone has though everyone hates, except lots of people actually liked John Howard, which distressed me and many others senseless, amended the Marriage Act to include a definition of marriage as being ‘a union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’.  It’s worth noting that the Opposition at the time, the Australian Labor Party, backed this amendment.

I don’t want to get lost in the politics, but it is a bitter pill to swallow when my long-term partner (there’s that word) and I dutifully take our seats at yet another marriage ceremony to be informed yet again that, despite thirteen years in duration, our relationship doesn’t count, that it isn’t valued, that it’s second-class, that there’s no place for it in contemporary Australian society.  So I put this challenge out there: if you’re about to get married and you think the Marriage Act in your country sucks the big one, then be a revolutionary: just before you tie the knot pause proceedings and turn to your family and friends and say something along the lines of this: “We love each other and want to commit to each other in front of you all and the law, but we want all those who love each other to have the opportunity to commit in front of their family and friends and the law, so we make this stand right here, right now, that we believe the Marriage Act discriminates and find this unacceptable – we look forward to this situation changing sooner rather than later”.

Or just quote Gwen Stafani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’: ‘Let me hear you say this shit is bananas/B-A-N-A-N-A-S’.

How good that would be.  I might actually cry at a wedding.

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