'It has never been about love before': This fight was different for veteran activists like me

Saturday, 18 November 2017, 04:02:29 AM. I wondered if anyone else was feeling like me — not quite sure how to encapsulate the impact of same-sex marriage, writes Heather Faulkner.

Portrait of Heather Faulkner Photo: Wednesday morning was a mix of nerves and relief for Heather Faulkner. (Supplied: Isaac Brown )

Where were you on the morning of November 15, 2017?

I was up at 4:30am, half an hour before my usual waking time.

In my Brisbane kitchen, I make coffee in a stupor, take my vitamins and write a few prosaic lines on social media, linking to a video of "High Hopes", an old favourite tough-times song by Frank Sinatra.

Shortly after, I am back in bed, dizzy and nauseous.

By 8:15am I'm at work, prepping for a meeting, wishing I could take the day off. I make peppermint tea from my stomach and wait.

At 9am my phone buzzes in the news: the nausea disappears. I feel strangely light.

Colleagues burst into my office, interrupting a meeting to sheepishly mime love hearts and whisper, "Congratulations! Ooh, meeting, sorry…"

I smile, say "thank you", and get back to business.

Eating lunch at my desk, I flick through messages from friends and the rainbow flag posts covering my social media. I post a simple, "Thank you."

I wonder if anyone else is feeling like me — not quite sure how to encapsulate the impact of this news.

Val: 'Maybe I feel a little bit more legitimised'

Val swims at the beach in Redcliffe Photo: Val swims at the beach in Redcliffe (Supplied: Heather Faulkner)

Val picks up the phone with a very chirpy, "Hello, Heather!" I ask her how she feels.

"Maybe I feel a little bit more legitimised."

In the years since retiring from her job as a civil servant, Val, a staunch LNP supporter, has taken up globe-trotting on ocean liners — a far cry from the shy young woman from Charter Towers who married young because that was "the thing to do".

After divorcing from her abusive husband, she found love with a close female friend.

The relationship broke up due, in large part, to homophobic interference from her partner's family. But Val went on to found Club Phoenix, 25 years ago, for women like herself, with discreet dances, social events and sports activities.

"I doubt very much if I would ever marry again, regardless of circumstances," she says, "but I welcome this.

"It will become more mainstream and people coming up will not feel so ostracised."

The suicide rate of LGBTIQ people, which is six times the national average, will go down, she hopes.

"Hopefully they won't consider it in the future."

Ros: 'Being married is not going to change anything'

Ros Prosser in her garden Photo: Ros Prosser in her garden (Supplied: Heather Faulkner)

On a roll, I ring Ros, an academic in Adelaide. Ros is originally from Queensland. She was arrested three times in the Right to March movement during the Joh Bjelke-Peterson years.

"It's just politics and that's the problem," says Ros of the survey.

She's impressed by the extensive TV news coverage: "The whole day has been interviews and crosses to journalists, including one to the cattle yard in Dalby."

She is not impressed by the cost of the survey — money that could have gone to many other social services.

I ask her if she thinks that things will get better for LGBTIQ people if the same-sex marriage bill is passed in Parliament.

"Being married is not going to change anything. It will bring institutional kinds of recognition but it won't change society's recognition. People that are homophobic are going to stay homophobic.

"Trans people are being murdered every day on the streets in the US and in other parts of the world; gay men are being murdered in countries where homosexuality is seen as a social problem. I don't think marriage is going to change that."

I ask her why she voted "Yes".

"You know, it's very troubling to people like me, because we are reconstructive feminists, however we all voted Yes. You can't vote No, because it actually isn't about marriage in the end.

"The question should have been, 'Do you think homosexuality should have been legal or illegal?'"

Ros and her partner Veronika won't be getting married — they have the option of registering their partnership in South Australia.

Ros is well aware of the next-of-kin issues same-sex partners face.

"Lots of people I know in Australia have not been able to go into medical facilities to say goodbye to their dying partners or have not been given recognition in hospital situations. The marriage thing could change that."

A cold shudder runs through me as I remember being with my partner Luisa in ICU three years ago, when she had a heart attack on Christmas vacation in Canada.

So, what do we do now? Ros's tone softens.

"Attitudes are changed by hard work and constant educating, not through a simple act of people being able to get married. I don't believe it, but I'd like to believe it."

Brian: 'I felt grateful for being gay.'

Brian and Carol in Maleny in 2012 Photo: Brian and Carol in Maleny in 2012 (Supplied: Heather Faulkner)

I catch Brian in the backyard of the house he shares with Ian, his partner of 35 years.

"I was just thinking as I took the washing off the line — and washing is a good time to meditate — that the same-sex marriage discussion has had a real emphasis on love," he said.

"The gay rights stuff has never been about love before."

When Brian was young, the gay rights movement was focussed on sexuality.

"It was illegal to f---. It was about AIDS. But love is the fundamental part about who I am," he said.

"It's made the discussion about my reality easier. People are understanding we're not just f---ing machines — it's not just about our social psychology or our biology or any other notion.

"The fundamental thing is that I love Ian."

I ask Brian how he felt hearing the "Yes" vote won the survey. "I'm exhilarated. I was having a cup of tea with a friend and started to get, 'Wow, wow!' But the big feeling that came in, actually, was gratitude.

"I felt grateful for being gay. It was really intriguing," he said.

I tell Brian that his mantra, "Gay is Good", has been buoying me since the survey business began.

Brian is 77. I ask if he will marry Ian, who is 79. "We have a civil partnership — people who don't acknowledge us aren't friends anyway. But at this stage, the answer's no. What about you?"

I am silent. He's brought me out of my torpor.

Brian was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2016 for service to the community through social welfare advocacy. He was once an activist with the C.A.M.P. (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) Club on George Street.

"Particularly with the men's stuff leading up to the AIDS crisis, there were times when we'd take one step forward and 40 steps back.

"This one feels like there's no going back. It's forward all the way."

Carol: 'The children were waving rainbow flags'

Carol at her home in Maleny Photo: Carol at her home in Maleny, where she is an active member of the local community. (Supplied: Heather Faulkner)

Carol picks up the phone after a few missed calls. Her ringer is on the fritz and she can't find her charger. She's readying herself to go out to the Brouhaha Brewery in Maleny, where the town's IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia) committee is throwing a victory party.

"I felt a huge amount of relief, which I was very surprised about, and burst into tears. Relief, gladness and gratitude. It was overwhelming," she said.

Carol, 73, was a significant figure in Brisbane's women's rights movement in the '70s, and raised her daughter Emily in a lesbian-feminist household.

"I was here on my own and then straight away my daughter rang me from Brisbane. She and the children were whooping and hollering — the children were running around waving rainbow flags," she said.

"It was just lovely."

I ask Carol what she thinks the survey means.

"We feel so affirmed by the Australian people, like it's OK. Which is quite profound because I grew up in the '40s, '50s and '60s as a closeted lesbian."

Carol says that though she expects the opposition to start making conditions to the legislation, "It's not an opportunity to dampen down or reduce our anti-discrimination laws".

The survey win offers activists courage to move forward.

"There's a lot of young people who've been thoroughly involved and schooled in how to get the community going. This gives me a great sense of hope for the future."

'A shaky tenderness'

I wrap up this piece in the quiet darkness of Wednesday night.

The legislation has started to make its way through Parliament. I try not to let pessimism creep into my thoughts. I will endure this period of uncertainty with what some Buddhists call, "a shaky tenderness".

I still don't know how to contextualise this survey win, but I know now that I'm not alone.

Somewhere in Maleny there is music playing. Meanwhile in Brisbane, my phone is buzzing with messages from family in Canada.

They are asking if we've set a date yet.

Heather Faulkner is a senior lecturer and program director of photography at Griffith University and the author of the documentary project A Matter of Time which documents the lives of eight lesbians who lived in Joh Bjelke-Peterson's Queensland. Val, Ros and Carol are from this project and their stories can be found in the related book North of the Border: Stories from the A Matter of Time Project.

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