When I was a kid, I hated the idea of marriage. Marriage meant I would have to cook someone’s tea every night, wash his clothes, share a bed – all of which seemed like a lot of work. Second-wave feminism had shaken things up in the world, but my household, in Rockhampton in the 1980s, was yet to feel the effects of the tsunami. We were the first people in our street to get a microwave, but it would be years before my dad could use it.
Marriage didn’t seem to be a transition, or a rite of passage. It seemed to mark only an endless repetition of how things were: women doing women’s work, men doing men’s work, and life going on with a kind of inevitability. As a child, I didn’t know what I wanted for my future, but I knew that wasn’t it. If I could somehow have glimpsed the future, and seen myself marrying a woman, I might have fallen from my tree house in surprise.
Marriage equality has made some remarkable advances over the past year. The United States’ Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had enshrined unequal treatment for same-sex couples in regard to federal matters. In France, same-sex marriage was legalised – despite violent clashes between supporters and opponents. Closer to home, New Zealand’s parliament also legalised gay marriage before bursting spontaneously into a Maori love song in what must have been one of the most genuinely moving scenes in political life anywhere in recent times.
In Australia in 2013, despite high levels of public support for same-sex marriage, and social media campaigns urging people to be on ‘the right side of history’, the law remains unchanged. As I write this, the federal election is fast approaching. Kevin Rudd has promised to introduce a marriage equality bill within a hundred days if he’s re- elected, while Tony Abbott remains in opposition to marriage reform, despite his lesbian sister strongly advocating for change. Abbott says he wants to focus on ‘bread and butter issues.’ For me, and for the millions of Australians who want the chance to marry – or to see their sons and daughters or brothers and sisters marry – this is a bread-and-butter issue. What could be more ordinary and everyday than marriage?
Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover was one of my favourite books when I was in high school. It’s about a teenage girl, Laura Chant, who rescues her tiny brother from a supernatural force that is slowly killing him. She does this by transforming – ‘changing over’ – into a witch, in a transition that is dangerous and unpredictable and frightening. My friend Egg and I both madly loved the book because it was smart, sexy and scary, and because Mahy managed to treat her young characters as whole and complex people, people tasked with real and serious challenges. With the help of a family of witches, Laura Chant transitions to save her brother. This involves a ritual, a physical change, and danger. Afterwards, she looks at herself in the mirror and sees that ‘through the power of charged imagination, her own and other people’s, [she] had made herself into a new kind of creature’.
Now, years later, I can see why this idea appealed so strongly to my 14-year-old self. Surely this process must appeal to every queer child: the passage through harsh terrain. The changing over that leaves you forever altered.
My friend Egg was with me in 2005 when I married my girlfriend Heather in Toronto City Hall. While Heather and I exchanged rings and promises, ice-skaters outside carved circles in a rink beneath a clear blue December sky.
The plan had not been to marry, not at first. Heather is American, and we had planned the journey initially as a holiday, a longish stint in the United States to spend time with Heather’s parents and extended family. At the time, Canada was the only English-speaking country in which same-sex marriage was legal. When it occurred to me that we could get married if only we drove up to Canada, it suddenly seemed perfect and urgent and necessary. We would marry. Of course. Elated, we told everyone we knew. We made invitations, bought rings, planned receptions in the US and Australia.
Because of the distance, my family and friends couldn’t travel over for the wedding, and we reassured them we appreciated that Toronto was expensive and far away. In truth, my parents were still uncomfortable with my sexuality, so the prospect of the wedding didn’t fill them with festive cheer. In the months leading up to the wedding, I was torn by emotion. I wanted my parents to be proud and present. I wanted them to be supportive of my wedding. Their resistance meant that what should’ve been a time of joy was actually a time of mixed feelings, of sadness and heartache. They wanted me to live a normal life, to be married to a man, to have kids. I was trying to show them that this was a normal life. But for my country and my parents, the wedding didn’t exist.
In the end, the only person from my past who was there for the ceremony was Egg, who flew in from her new home in England. (In the years since we finished school, she had been doing some changing over of her own, falling in love with an Englishman, and becoming a UK resident.) Her presence was the most wonderful gift, one that I would appreciate even more in years to come. Just like in The Changeover, I needed not just this ritual, not just the wedding, but also the power of imagination – mine and Heather’s, and that of those around us – to shift us into this new thing, this new state.
Surveys show that younger people tend to be more accepting of same-sex marriage, while older people are less accepting of it. Most Australians agree that it’s inevitable that the law will change. Even so, marriage equality opponents, such as Liberal politician Cory Bernardi, are comfortable enough in their prejudice to suggest – as he did last year, and again earlier this year – that same-sex marriage will lead to bestiality, and to people wanting to marry animals. When such arguments can even be imagined to play a part in the national debate, it’s hard to know when we will ever move forward.
Opponents of same-sex marriage often demand its supporters consider the plight of the children affected by same-sex marriage. But what about the children of same- sex parents who know that their parents can’t marry if they want to? What about teenagers who know that regardless of whether they might want to, they themselves won’t be permitted to marry a same-sex partner in the foreseeable future? Marriage is an incredibly powerful symbol. So is the withholding of it. It means that in the national imaginary, it’s impossible to see homosexual relationships as equivalent to heterosexual relationships. It’s a failure of the imagination that has very real effects on the lives of queer Australians.
The anthropologist Victor Turner says that, for the subject in the liminal state, and who is about to go through a rite of passage, biological, social and cultural processes ‘give an outward and visible form to an inward and conceptual process.’ He also says that the subject, before the ritual, is ‘structurally, if not physically, invisible.’
As Heather and I stood before each other that day in Toronto, the celebrant reminded us that our wedding rings were an outward and visible sign of our love. As we exchanged rings, he said, ‘May these circles be the sign and seal of a pure and imperishable love, now mutually pledged.’
I clung to those words, because I knew that when I left Canada with Heather in just a few days, our marriage would become, in legal terms, a phantom.
But back then, I was hopeful. I thought the law would change soon. Surely, I thought at the time, it will happen within a couple of years at the most. How wrong I was. As I write this, my eighth wedding anniversary is approaching. Heather and I are still married, and still ghosts. Every time I go to my straight friends’ weddings, I hear the statement, ‘Marriage in Australia is defined as the union between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others.’ Celebrants are required by law to make that statement now. Every time I hear it, I burn with sadness and fury, and grip Heather’s hand even tighter.
Anthropologists like Turner saw marriage as an important transition, a rite of passage. For many contemporary Australians, though, transitions and rites of passage aren’t so important. Some of my friends are married, some divorced or separated, while some never have and probably never will marry. Some of them will happily spend their lives single. Wanting to know why some of us prefer to formalise our relationships, I asked my friends about their decision to marry, or stay unmarried.
For my friend Chris, marriage was an important public assertion of his commitment to his wife. In addition, marriage as a symbol was important to him.
‘Having moved around a lot all my life,’ he says, ‘I was attracted to the idea of stability that marriage represented. I didn’t want to settle down permanently, but I wanted to feel at home in a relationship. To have something that was a given in a life full of change.’
I know what he means. For me, I needed the assurance that Heather planned to stay put. I was used to relationships failing and people disappearing. A public commitment to sticking things out was reassuring for me. Of course, people divorce all the time, but for me, just the thought that Heather might imagine a life with me was what mattered.
My friend Helen tells me that she and her partner Nikolai have never actually spoken about marriage at all, despite being together for 13 years and living together for 12. ‘He has,’ she tells me, ‘some kind of objection to marriage as an institution, but I actually don’t know much about the nature of his objections, because we’ve never discussed it.’ I am surprised and impressed when she tells me that it took 10 years for her to learn that Nikolai had any opinions about marriage at all. But I can imagine them in that first decade, talking about the things that really interested them – things like Doctor Who and Neil Gaiman and how to make a really excellent risotto.
While rites of passage are perhaps of less importance now than they were historically, that shift isn’t an argument against marriage equality. Rather, it means that those who wish to marry – or would prefer not to – should do what is right for them.
Helen would hate it if she and Nikolai were somehow required to marry. ‘But if I’m not forced to marry,’ she reasons, ‘I’m not entirely sure why other couples are forced not to. Perhaps my sister would have chosen to marry her girlfriend, if she had the choice? I don’t know, because, unlike my brother and I with our opposite-sex partners, it was never an option for her.’
In 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the first time collected census data about same-sex couples who reported being married. Heather and I were one of the 1338 same-sex couples who ticked the box to say they were married. Another 32,377 same-sex couples reported that they were in a de facto relationship. These figures are dwarfed, of course, by the numbers of heterosexual couples in de facto relationships or marriages, who together totalled 4,650,986 that year.
We don’t know much about those 1338 married same- sex couples, not whether they went overseas to marry, or had a civil partnership ceremony here, or whether they simply consider themselves married.
What is certain is that none of these couples have had a legal same-sex marriage in Australia. Those of us who were married overseas can’t claim that our overseas marriages are legitimate here, either – federal parliament changed the Marriage Act in 2004 to ensure this. The wording of the Act was altered to state that marriage in Australia means the union of a woman and a man, to the exclusion of all others. When Heather and I returned after our wedding journey, we were as unmarried as when we had departed, according to the law.
In the years after my wedding, I wrote a memoir about the journey that Heather and I made to get married. The writing and the marrying went hand in hand, in a way. As I say in the book, Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance:
Confronted by all this silence and denial, Heather and I decided to make our own kind of noise, find our own kind of visibility. If my country wouldn’t allow the wedding, we would go to another country to marry. And if Australia and the United States refused to acknowledge the wedding certificate, fine. I’d document what happened in an irrefutable way: I’d write about the wedding and the journey leading up to it. It would be a permanent record. A testament. Proof.
I also wrote the book for my parents, in the hopes that they would understand, at last, why I had married Heather. I had hoped that the marriage, as a rite of passage, would be self- explanatory. But my family hadn’t witnessed the wedding, so I had the impression that in some ways, it didn’t really happen, as far as they were concerned. If the marriage itself – so far away, so ghostly – couldn’t be the transformation that would work, perhaps the book could.
Years earlier, The Changeover had made me think about transformations. Maybe now, I thought, my book could explain to my parents what my international marriage could not.
There are only a handful of moments in your life that you know, in advance, will be life-changing. Graduations. Marriages. Having children. It’s a strange thing when these moments arrive. They are all, in some form or other, thresholds. They mark transitions from one phase of life to another.
For me, marriage was definitely a transformation, but that transformation didn’t happen like flicking a switch. It took years, and it continues. For me, being with Heather has enabled me to trust that she isn’t leaving, and that I can build a life with her. We aren’t naïve about the possibility of the relationship breaking down, and we know we might not be together forever. But the marriage enabled me to stop worrying so much about what the future might hold, and to start building the future as if the two of us would be there. Now, when I imagine myself in forty years’ time, I imagine Heather there beside me, the two of us wrinkled as Shar-Peis and wearing old-lady hats, and Heather grinning at me like she always does, like she always has, like I hope she always will.
When DOMA was struck down in June 2013, my marriage to Heather was recognised federally in the US for the first time since we were married. Now I can apply for a green card based on our relationship – which I could have done eight years ago had we been in a heterosexual relationship.
This change brings with it some major decisions for me. Heather and I love Australia. But she is an American, and misses her family, her friends, and what she has left behind. As for me, I am curious about what it would be like to live in the US. As I write this, Heather and I are in discussions about the prospect of an international move. The more we talk about it, the more likely it seems that we’ll go through with it, if my green card application is approved.
My fear glimmers bright and sharp at the thought of this kind of upheaval. What about our cats, and our beloved friends, and our careers? And, especially, what about my ageing parents and my brothers? I don’t want to make a move that I later regret. I know that change is often frightening, and sometimes that’s what makes it the best thing we can do.
For Australia, too, it is time to make a change. It is time to acknowledge that queer relationships are just as valid as heterosexual relationships, and that the institutional denial of marriage rights reinforces the second-rate status of homosexual relationships. Regardless of where you stand on marriage, refusing marriage rights to one sector of the community enshrines inequality. Gay and lesbian youth are four times more likely to kill themselves than heterosexual youth, for a variety of reasons, but surely a lack of acceptance – from family, friends, and the society at large – is a major motivator. Marriage inequality is just another form of rejection.
Australians are ready for change. We know it’s time. Same-sex marriage takes nothing away, certainly not the ‘sanctity’ of marriage. All it will do is make Australia a kinder, more equitable place, a nation in which queers, too, can be imagined more fully as part of the community – as married or unmarried, parents or not. All it takes to change is for us to see that this transformation started a long time ago. Now it’s time to acknowledge it, legalise it. Margaret Mahy was right: when you change into something new, you get there through the power of charged imagination. You get there on the strength of shared belief.