The Price of Caring

"You can’t have your gays and eat them too."

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As Australians get surveyed on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, Matt Harnett reflects on watching the process from up close. 

Living as a foreign national in Australia is like looking up from the bottom of a shallow sea, trying to interpret tropical storms passing overhead. Or maybe it’s more like being chained up in a shitty low-rent version of Plato’s cave, where the shadows on the walls are half-formed cultural touchstones from back home, warped just beyond familiarity. I guess it’s like living in any country.

In Melbourne, most of the time it’s easy to forget you’re not the same as the people you work with, hit the pub with or live with. Occasionally, though, something drifts down from the surface to remind you that you’re a stranger in a strange land. The most recent jetsam’s a postal survey on gay marriage, open to Australian citizens but not us foreigners.

On its face, it’s not so different to the choice Irish voters had two years ago, when they were polled to amend their constitution to allow marriage equality. That’s not the case here, though: the definition of marriage isn’t baked into the constitution, like it was in Ireland. It could be changed, as in New Zealand, with a regular Act of parliament. But the government doesn’t want to do that.

The reasons for this are truculent and petty, and one gets the impression that ultimately they don’t matter very much; speaking about it through the horse-race prism of slim majorities of MPs and Senate decisions is a great way to not speak about vulnerable communities deliberately used as political footballs or dog whistles or other terms of art. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s credibility in particular has been shot by the decision. Once lauded as a pragmatic social liberal, he’s now reviled for pimping his principles to expedience, despite avowedly supporting marriage equality. Turns out you can’t have your gays and eat them too.

Meanwhile the Yes and No campaigns have ramped up, fired salvoes and made waves. Politicians have crossed the floor to campaign with their consciences rather than their parties; commercials and commercial skywriters have been unleashed; social media has become a minefield of weaponised memes, rainbow emojis and photos of friends’ ballots, ‘Yes’ boxes clearly ticked, headed for the post. You can’t walk down the street in Melbourne without seeing the YES posters in shop windows or stuck to traffic lights. 

I appreciate the sentiment in those Yes ticks, and watching them fill my social feeds is edifying and warming. It’s also frustrating as fuck.

A submarine life as a foreign national is usually pretty ambivalent. Sure, we may not get to vote; we may not get social welfare, should we need it, or representation at any level. But in return, we get not to care. For many New Zealanders living in Australia, myself included, this trade-off’s not so bad most of the time. While friends and colleagues despair at the wretched things their government does ­in their name – locking up refugees in offshore prison camps, beating Aboriginal kids, tip-toeing gently towards a police state – we empathise. We sign online petitions and go on marches, buy rainbow lanyards and hold candlelit vigils. We know the shoe could so easily be on the other foot; that only accidents of history and geography, not a surplus of humanity, stop our own government from behaving the same way.

Most of the time, that’s enough – but sometimes it’s like being kicked in the head.

Last weekend my boyfriend Drew and I were invited to a wedding in Canberra, Australia’s Capital Territory. In Australia, a marriage celebrant must say in order to officiate, “Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life" – or words to that effect. When I first heard this I thought someone was taking the piss, but apparently unions in Australia are so fragile that it’s bureaucratically imperative homos be categorically excluded.

This makes marriage ceremonies even more fraught than they already are. It’s a political statement to append a nullifying clause to this weird limiting “union of a man and a woman” verse, but that only means that of course it’s a political statement not to as well. Is a marriage ceremony really the right place to expect grand political statements?

As the bride and groom walked down the aisle, I couldn’t help but feel again submerged. I was watching the ceremony from three steps sideways, mediated by a culture and law that I was privy to but not part of. I felt overwhelmingly happy for them, and touched by the beautiful phalanxes of their families, but also somehow jealous.

Is a marriage ceremony really the right place to expect grand political statements?

So we didn’t expect much, as the celebrant continued “… but the couple would like the assembled to know that they look forward to the day when any two people in Australia can be married in the eyes of the law, according to who they love.” And my heart leapt to my throat and I was at once unsurprised and deeply, deeply moved. It was like looking up from the bottom of a shallow sea and watching the eye of the storm pass overhead.

Two weeks ago I discovered three postal survey envelopes in my mailbox. None of them had my name on them. Drew and I had moved house recently, and the previous tenants hadn’t yet updated their addresses. This isn’t an election. I could so easily, (surely illegally) open these envelopes addressed to other people, tick a non-binding box and send it back to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It’d be a drop in the sea, but it’d be mine.

I was still darkly considering this option a week ago when Drew and I sat down to be interviewed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for their Survey of Income and Housing. We’d been randomly selected to take part the national survey; it wasn’t compulsory, but after many ignored leaflets and letters and even a polite door knock from the interviewer, Norma, I’d finally acquiesced.

More than that: I’d signed up with enthusiasm. Drew was completely bewildered by my sudden interest in Norma’s mission. At one point I might’ve said something along the lines of ‘civic duty’ and changed the subject. I had no idea either.

On a Saturday morning at 11am, Norma sat in our living room and asked our names and occupations and then, just to utterly disambiguate our fairly straightforward living situation in the eyes of the government, asked our relationship to one another. I paused for a second and said “partners,” and then felt the need to clarify – “boyfriend.”

And then all at once I got it, like rising to the surface for a fresh breath. It might not make a difference, and I might be filed away in a spreadsheet, but I was being noted, marked down.

I might not be a citizen or straight, but for the first time in a long time, I was getting counted.