Australia has long traded on its relaxed ‘fair go’ approach when spinning friendly, down-to-earth slogans to sell our easy-going holiday locations to the world.
But for one pair of British newlyweds who recently honeymooned in South Australia, a crucial danger lay completely hidden.
Why would the same-sex legislation of South Australia be of any concern to David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi when they planned their romantic getaway?
We’re an enlightened, first-world society, aren’t we? Neighbours and Home and Away have their share of same-sex attracted characters; South Australia even has a proud record of LGBTI equality, being the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975. It’s all good, right?
Wrong. Between all the wine tasting and surfing, it’s easy to miss the inequality of this sun-soaked nation.
Hearing about the South Australian legal system’s treatment of Marco Bulmer-Rizzi, who was subjected to the indignity of seeing his husband’s relationship status recorded as ‘never married’ in the wake of David’s accidental death in that state last week, I felt a familiar and frustrating pang of grief.
The international outrage was loud and justified. South Australia’s Premier Jay Weatherill quickly apologised, offering a guarantee that South Australian law would be changed to amend David’s death certificate. In an acute state of grief, Marco gave an interview, expressing his ardent hope that this kind of thing never happens again in Australia.
At that point I got very angry, because I have wanted exactly that ever since my partner Jono died in New South Wales more than a decade ago.
In 2004, despite NSW’s same-sex de-facto laws having been in place for five years, my deceased partner’s death certificate was issued to his blood relatives without my name on it or any reference to our relationship.
You read that right: Sydney’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages broke the state law to disenfranchise me.
The complicity of the funeral company I’d contracted meant the illegally-issued document took me two years to fix. Despite lobbying the NSW Attorney-General, no apology was issued by the state government, and no assurances were given that training would be put in place to prevent anything similar happening to others.
For 12 years, I’ve been communicating the dangers for LGBTI couples and death certification to anyone who would listen. In 2015, I wrote a book about my experience – Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love. My motivation was to increase our awareness about how vulnerable LGBTIs are in Australia, with inconsistent state and federal laws that allow surviving same-sex spouses to fall between the cracks.
But death is a hard sell. Same-sex death is even harder. Too many Australians are unwilling to believe such unfairness and homophobia in our organisations and government departments.
Even more difficult to communicate is the homophobia that leads some families to deny the existence of same-sex spouses. At least Marco Bulmer-Rizzi was spared discrimination at the hands of homophobic in-laws, who were the driving force behind my disenfranchisement.
Whatever the reason behind the silence about my story, right now, there are generations of LGBTI in Australia who remain completely invisible on their deceased partner’s death certificates and were thereby blocked from their spouses’ estates.
Who is to blame for this legal lottery that has been erasing LGBTI stories in Australia for decades?
Politicians, sure, but it has long been painful and depressing to me how slow Australia’s media and publishing industries have been to recognize and disseminate the message about this disconnect. It’s impossible to argue they’re reflecting audience sentiment, when all polling on marriage equality places community support at over 70%.
The solution is staring Australians in the face: a free vote of federal ministers on the floor of the nation’s parliament could enact marriage equality here in less than a week.
Yet national legislation that would sweep aside state anomalies is considered so controversial it put us in a holding pattern on marriage equality years ago.
We have a sitting prime minister – Malcolm Turnbull – who supports marriage equality, but the political deal-making when he ousted Tony Abbott saw him sign away the parliamentary vote he once publicly backed. Instead, he has a plan for a divisive referendum at a time and in a manner he’s reluctant to reveal.
In the fallout of the Bulmer-Rizzi case, South Australia’s highest-profile conservative politician, Christopher Pyne, was quick to call for overseas same-sex marriages to be recognized in Australian states and territories.
But his approach illustrates the problem in a nutshell. Although he is a supporter of marriage equality, Pyne would rather advocate for a piecemeal solution that would protect visiting international LGBTI couples long before Australians.
When our leaders start to campaign for the human rights of guests instead of residents, they have lost touch with exactly who they represent in parliament.
Pyne’s words also imply he thinks marriage equality in Australia is so far away we’d best jet off to countries that support our relationships and benefit from a legal loophole.
This behavior is far from isolated in Australia. Our tendency to overlook our creatives in favour of international artists – our ‘cultural cringe’ – is cast into the shade by this even stronger legislative blind spot for all domestic human rights. It’s only ‘bad’ if it makes world news. It only warrants a state premier’s apology when it happens to a foreign national. Fix it by sorting out the laws that the world is watching.
We were caught out treating Marco Bulmer-Rizzi with the heartlessness of our penal-colony roots, and, putting his confidence aside, Jay Weatherill will come up against plenty of homophobic politicians and public servants in his journey to amend David Bulmer-Rizzi’s death certificate. I’m anticipating the British media will track this Australian story closest.
Despite all our ‘fair go’ slogans – or perhaps because of them – there has just never been enough outrage about marriage equality in this country to drive the issue from a statistic into a legal reality. That we got a kick along only as the result of the untimely death of a young gay tourist is shameful.
Michael Burge is an Australian journalist and writer who publishes at burgewords.com. His memoir ‘Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love’ is available in paperback and as an eBook from Amazon UK Amazon US and Amazon Australia. Paperbacks are also available from LGBTI bookshops in Sydney and Melbourne.