It felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.
WHEN the South Australian government was caught out by the world’s media for its lax approach to recognising overseas same-sex marriages on death certificates, the justifiable outrage about Marco Bulmer-Rizzi being documented as “never married” to husband David resonated with many readers.
One small voice of disagreement came from Marriage Alliance, a grassroots anti-marriage equality movement with a presence in Australia, in the form of a tweet defining the Bulmer-Rizzi disenfranchisement as “unusual” and criticising Australian Marriage Equality for politicising the issue.
This was news to me. From where I sit, the negative treatment of same-sex spouses at the crucial and highly-sensitive time of death certification is so commonplace it’s time Australia admitted this kind of homophobia is the norm.
I should know, because it happened to me.
When my name was removed from my partner Jono’s death certificate in NSW in 2004, it was the result of illegal and underhand action by his blood relatives.
Long after his funeral, I was left to work out for myself what had taken place when Jono’s death certificate was not issued to me but to his mother. My name and any reference to our relationship was missing, and the offensive phrase “never married” inserted.
It hurt deeply to be coldly cut off from my own life. Legally it made wrapping up Jono’s affairs impossible. Meanwhile, his mother was busy collecting assets in her son’s name that were legally mine.
Since my name was not on the document, I couldn’t apply for one independently. I sought help from a lawyer and she too was unable to extract the certificate from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. The funeral company sided with Jono’s mother’s version of our relationship and challenged me to “do my worst” in fixing the miscarriage of justice.
But I was in shock and grief, the kind it takes years to recover from, the kind I still feel when I see the same thing happen to others.
I heard anecdotal evidence about incorrectly-created death certificates in NSW, from the pre-1999 era, before the state’s de-facto laws were amended to recognise same-sex spousal rights. The majority of these stories were about community warriors of the HIV-AIDS crisis, when deceased long-term spouses were routinely listed as “never married” on death certificates.
Almost two years after his death, I managed to get Jono’s death certificate re-issued and our relationship acknowledged. In order to ensure the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages ceased to operate in contravention of the state de-facto laws, I wrote to the NSW Attorney-General, the ALP’s Bob Debus, but I never received more than a staffer’s reply that the matter was being looked into.
That wall of political denial is what ultimately assisted me in making a submission to the Human Rights Commission in 2006 when it was investigating its Same Sex, Same Entitlements report.
Years later, when what happened to me eventually happened to someone else, I felt a terrible mix of validation and guilt. Having a potential ally was great, but for the worst of reasons.
Australian academic and LGBTI activist Dennis Altman’s partner Anthony died in 2012. The couple lived in Victoria at the time of death, and Altman wrote: ‘There was no provision on the death certificate to list Anthony as my de-facto partner.”
In his heartfelt account of life after his partner’s death, Altman outlined several of the challenges all surviving spouses face, although I didn’t realise at the time what an opponent of marriage equality Dennis Altman was, whereas since my disenfranchisement, access to our strongest, most legally-binding, irrefutable symbol of relationship became one of my driving forces.
By 2013, although five successive governments had enacted a range of laws since Jono’s death, recognising same-sex attracted relationships after the death of a spouse in everything from equal superannuation access to social security benefits, only Kevin Rudd had publicly acknowledged the need for marriage equality. His reason: to end “such unnecessary angst in the gay and lesbian community, it just shouldn’t be the case”.
I recognised that word, ‘angst’. It spoke loudly to the dreadful mix of apprehension and fear that I’d endured. Rudd never publicly named the LGBTI staffer who’d communicated so effectively to him the need for marriage equality, but if anyone else was feeling the angst of disenfranchisement, it wasn’t apparent.
That was until Dennis Altman appeared on a special episode of the ABC’s Q&A – Between a frock and a hard place.
When the Reverend Fred Nile made the point that marriage equality was not necessary, he said: “All the laws were changed a couple of years ago to give de-facto, homosexual couples exactly the same rights as married couples in Australia.”
“But you are wrong,” Altman said. “You are wrong and I will tell you why you are wrong and it happens in a very important area. When my partner died, the death certificate could not record that he’d been in a relationship.”
“And I’m happy to change a death certificate arrangement if that’s what happened to you,” Nile casually replied.
Altman said: “Good. Go talk to the Government of Victoria.”
At that point I threw a tea towel at the television. Obviously, Altman knew the angst but had kept it under wraps. A month later, he begrudgingly declared a shift in his thinking and came out in support of marriage equality.
There’s a misconception that same-sex couples and married heterosexuals have equal legal rights.
The issue of de-facto laws vs marriage equality came into sharp focus in the wake of another tragedy, the sudden death of Tasmanian Ben Jago’s partner Nathan in January, 2015.
Journalist Tracey Spicer reported on the case for Fairfax Media in November. “There’s a misconception that same-sex couples and married heterosexuals have equal legal rights,” she wrote. “It’s an urban myth.”
Removed from his position as Nathan’s next of kin almost instantly, and replaced by his partner’s mother, Ben’s story had strong resonance with mine, although he was made to endure the added indignity of having to sit at the back of the gathering at his partner’s funeral, with no public mention of the relationship during the service.
Jago had trouble with the Tasmanian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, who gave him conflicting information about what he could do about his situation. His case will come before Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Tribunal this year.
I read that news with a sense of camaraderie for Ben. Good on him for having the courage to seek some kind of recourse.
Another Fairfax journalist, Monique Farmer, reported in December on the difficulty in creating a correct death certificate for her Aunt Julia, who’d lived for thirty years with her partner Annie, already dead by the time of Julia’s death.
“They were married, or at least they seemed that way to me. Their lives were as inter-mingled as my parents’ were, perhaps even more so,” Farmer wrote.
“Had they been de-factos for those 30 years? Well, legally yes – they lived together in a sexual relationship, their finances were combined, they owned property together. But it felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.”
Faced with what Farmer later described in a tweet to me as “a daze of grief”, she ultimately selected the descriptor ‘never married’.
And she felt the angst, also: “With a heavy heart I ticked that box. This meant that the next section of the death registration, asking for her partner’s name and other details, was left sadly blank. As if she’d never loved or been loved.”
I tweeted Farmer to let her know I’d been able to amend Jono’s death certificate some time after he died. She replied: “Since writing the story I’ve been thinking the same.”
The legal trap that David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi entered when they chose to honeymoon in Adelaide in January was set long before they arrived. Why would any Australian citizen assume their relationship – particularly a marriage – was not enshrined by every law of the land?
In his grief-stricken interview, I got the sense that Marco Bulmer-Rizzi felt duped by a terrible system that compounded his shock with its inability to be real about what love between any two people means. That system has been supported by plenty of mixed messages and slow realisations within the LGBTI community, but it will take well-formulated, national marriage equality legislation to sweep away the mess our unequal state laws are currently creating.
Marco Bulmer-Rizzi left Australia hoping what happened to him would never happen again. What denial and obfuscation has this country indulged in that my case – twelve years prior – was not enough to change any laws or draw an apology from Bob Carr, NSW state premier at the time Jono and I were labelled “never married”?
Marriage Alliance is way off the mark. Australia has been caught out with homophobic anomalies in our relationship legislation at least five times. The Bulmer-Rizzi story is bringing more disenfranchised same-sex spouses out of the woodwork.
The question Australian politicians need to ask themselves is how many more painful miscarriages of justice they require before allowing a marriage equality free vote on the floor of parliament?
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.