WE ARE A gay couple considering getting hitched. Many intimate relationships of course already come with this tradition of public affirmation: gifts and ribbons and cake and speeches follow solemn vows between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life. For most, the social ideals of wedding and marriage are conflated as though they are one and the same. Other relationships, such as ours, tend to inch along in a linear fashion, unmarked by pomp, although the signifiers are clear to those who care to notice the detail.
There are certain delicious, subtle things about being a gay couple. Hands furtively held on the armrest in the cinema, or a covert brush against one another in the street. My partner and I, also named Steve, moved house from Melbourne's Prahran to Sydney's Darlinghurst three years ago and, in doing so, gained such liberties. Public affection between persons of matched sex is not the done thing in Chapel Street on a Saturday night. That is Oxford Street behaviour, on dedicated Mardi Gras evenings.
Steve and I have been together for more than six years. We've never been much for bouquets. But contemporary same-sex marriage debates, even when they are manufactured by conservative politicians edging for a political point of difference with their essentially conservative opposite numbers, do make me ponder if I would like that public approval, and moreover the legal protection of a piece of paper that confirms I hug the same guy on the couch every night.
Steve and I met one surprisingly sober autumn night in April, 1999 at the Sir Robert Peel Hotel in Collingwood in inner-Melbourne, during a men-only monthly dance party marketed as, ahem, Throb. Climate is something of a conduit for fidelity: Melbourne's winters can be unbearably long, so gay boys begin their annual hunt to partner up against the cold.
It was dark in the disco, but I chose well. He was dancing tall and alone with his shirt off in a corner, showing off his squarely constructed shoulders. Classic square jaw.
"Hi," I might have said, ingeniously.
"Hi." He smiled.
"Want some water?" I asked, proffering my half-full bottle, which I suddenly no longer saw as half empty.
We danced off centre stage together. A cheap date, even taking into account the five-dollar door charge. He'd seen me some weeks earlier, marching up and down Peel Street, preparing for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, torso exposed with fairy wings strapped to my back, a little white wrap around my butt. A Melbourne Marching Boy in miniature. Somehow, he was able to resist approaching me at that point.
We barely fitted in his small one-bedroom South Yarra flat that first year, but we were happy. He quickly dubbed me Mini Me, after the dwarf in the Austin Powers films. Naturally, I named him Bigger Me. It's the closest we edge to tactility as a public couple. I can't tell you where my wings flew.
"HOW'S YOUR FRIEND?" my father back home in melbourne asks over the phone. "Oh, good old whatsisname, he's fine," I am tempted to say. Like all of us, my father needs to label participants in relationships according to life-conditioned codes. His late-in-life parents determined much of his frame of reference for intimacy. His mother, for instance, never wrote "love" on anyone's birthday card, when "from" would always do. Legend has it that she recycled those grim cards between her two children. This approach to parenting has since been fashionably rebranded as the teaching of resilience.
Our family is an Australian suburban version of the royal Windsors: dysfunctional to the core, with unspoken but formal rules around relationships, even where the spectre of divorce – my parents' – has exposed the folly of such inflexibility. Big Steve has a clear lineage to Camilla Parker Bowles in this picture: years in waiting, with a greater shot at princess than Queen.
However, at my younger brother Paul's wedding in March 2005, a point was made of including my lover in the official family portraiture. As Steve clicked away with a digital camera alongside the appointed photographer at our little nuclear family unit outside the chapel in Berwick, south-east of Melbourne, Paul called out that Steve should ditch his camera and join in. I looked up to my little brother that day.
Paul met his future wife, Kerry, when he edged close to losing his life. Paul took ill, with a terrible bug infection in his blood, a few years back. He was hospitalised, multiple tubes about his person, hallucinatory from a lack of sleep while the Frankston Hospital doctors grew the bug in the laboratory and tried to figure the name of this thing that had poisoned him. It was not the first or last time this problem would lay him low.
Eventually, they realised the first line of medication was doing little to stop his system collapse. His lungs were filling, and he was inching toward kidney failure. A facemask was shooting oxygen directly into his nose and mouth. One day, nurse Kerry walked into the ward.
"Get out of the bed," she said brusquely. "I need to make the bed." He pursued her around the ward in the coming days.
Kerry is smart, young, brunette, shy, and attractive. Indeed, my brother had chosen the best hospital to fall ill: he had been well overdue for a dose of happiness, and at last joy had arrived. A soothing human balm. Paul was still living at home at the time, and returned to tell our mother he had the phone number of a nurse at the hospital. "What are you going to do with that?" she asked, perhaps resigned to her son's singledom throughout his 20s. He intended to seal the deal with a certificate of marriage, was what.
SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS, by contrast, tend to gain their social affirmation from friends, or queer characters reflected back on television, a la Queer Eye, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under and The L Word. To acquire any legal footing, we need wills, solicitors' documents, City of Sydney-style significant others' partnership programs performed before a town hall official. Tuxedos optional. We're thinking about a snappy march to the clerical counter, once we get the mortgage sorted. We need to do all we can to prove our relationship exists.
For more intimate relationships, however, there is not only footing, but also exquisite footwear combined with great arch support. Last October, my brother's wedding invitation arrived: a handsome ribbon-wrapped red document, accompanied by a Bridal Registry Card from a travel agency.
The separate little blue folded card featured a bride and groom on its cover, atop a multi-layered white wedding cake. Inside was the script, We would like you to be part of our Honeymoon. An attractive generic man and woman were photographed holding hands, strolling along the sand of some gorgeous sun-drenched isle. There was a space on the return zip-off card for how much we'd like to donate to the honeymoon – in Hobart – and a deadline about a month before the wedding. I appreciated the card's call to punctuality: I'm not strictly marriage material, but I can be prompt with a gift.
The travel agency that produced the card was located at Fountain Gate, south-east of Melbourne. Fountain Gate doesn't at all resemble where Big Steve and I live. Fountain Gate is where those favourite Australians, Kath and Kim, like to shop. It is an aspirational region adorned by McMansions squeezed onto McNugget-sized blocks of land. The neighbourhood sprawls forever – you can of course opt for the shopping mall if you want a bit of a P and Q and a cino – and the place is filled with small people known as children. The pets there are usually quite big, like Toby, the loveable black mongrel with bandy legs who guards Paul and Kerry's roomy house with puppyesque affection.
By contrast, Big Steve and I are happily over-caffeinated in the high rise sphincter of the Sin City buggery belt of Darlinghurst, complete with tight singleted guys, the type who cleanse, tone and moisturise, promenading the narrow, broken footpaths, pondering whether they should Botox above, or bleach below. We dream of one day adopting a pug to walk alongside their standard issue white, fluffy dogs, if only because our cramped inner-city aesthetic holds that dog ugly equals beautiful. Our substitute child will hold its head high, just like its two daddies.
I e-mailed a married girlfriend in New York, pondering the phenomenon of the Bridal Registry Card. She warmed to the theme. "Remember the Sex in the City episode where Sarah Jessica Parker demanded a pair of Manolo Blahniks from a straight friend – just because?" she wrote. "Because she'd bought expensive presents for the engagement, the wedding, the baby shower, the christening, the birthdays ...
"Singles get nothing. Gay people, too."
Well, this is not strictly true. I am sure that if Big Steve and I opted for one of those commitment ceremonies, then we would get presents, too. What intrigued me was the institutionalisation of weddings and presents alongside marriage, rather than the literal pile of toasters at the reception or gilt-edged bridal dowry boxes. I donated some bucks. I wasn't jealous, I swear. Or maybe I was. Perhaps I'd summoned my latent drama queen.
THE PRIME MINISTER of course announced the honeymoon was over for same-sex couples last September. John Howard had been egged on by a vocal cast of right wing Christian characters who bussed in support from Sydney to Parliament House's Great Hall in Canberra to rally against gay marriage. He rammed through Parliament the Marriage Legislation Amendment Act 2004, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others.
This amendment in total was little different to the legislation as it had stood for circa 40 years – the law always specified a strict quote of one bloke, one sheila per ceremony – but there had been an extremely slight argument that held that same-sex marriages performed in, say, Canada, might gain legal standing here in Australia. The local evangelicals might think they were ultimately responsible for this extra, barely discernible layer of legal discrimination, but Howard's real influence was a Texan fella named George, whose ten-gallon hat had popped off his head at the sight of gay couples lining up to get married in liberal enclaves such as San Francisco.
There had been, until very recently, little actual long-standing significant agitation in Australia for marriage among the gay and lesbian rights lobby groups, as opposed to a lot of work poured into seeking rights in superannuation, property rights and the like for gay couples. More recently, however, the grass roots of the gay community have started realising what has been unceremoniously whipped away.
Overseas experience remains heartening: in September 2005, California's state parliament passed a bill to legalise same-sex marriage (though unlikely to get final assent from its Terminator Governor), and gay couples are already tying the knot in Boston. Several Canadian provinces recognise gay marriage, and New Zealand passed a law in late 2004 allowing same-sex twosomes to register their civil unions. The mayor who was at one stage sanctioning gay marriage in San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, is being tipped as a potential Democrat presidential candidate. The next Bill Clinton, suggests the US edition of GQ magazine.
Among some gay people – its hard to say how many – marriage is viewed suspiciously as a conservative tradition, the franchise's aims of monogamy and associated social strictures at odds with long-fought lifestyle freedoms, though this view is changing: as the overseas experience shows what's possible, suddenly the options open to others become objects of desire. Given a 40 per cent divorce rate in Australia, too, the conservatism argument is looking a little creaky: it takes a radically romantic counter-cultural view of the institution to see marriage as a viable vehicle. Its daily demise still has the capacity to shock and awe in celebritydom: witness Brad and Jennifer's split sharing the front page with tsunami victims.
One day a few years ago, my mother told me more discreetly her marriage was over. My father had called around to the family home to ask for a divorce. She told him she wasn't going to object. Lying back in the recliner rocker, she casually slipped this vignette into her usual conversation about her bingo trips and theatre excursions. My mother's ambitions in life were to get married, and to have children. We've flown the nest, and he's gone for good.
The moral panic about same-sex marriage – that it would weaken heterosexual marriage – seems a trifle late. Still, the imprecations thunder on. Australian Family Association vice-president Bill Muehlenberg, for instance, helpfully argues on his website that gays and lesbians can in fact get married – just not to our own kind. Nature itself discriminates, he reminds us. Thus, a "girl cannot marry her pet goldfish, no matter how much she might love it", or "a father cannot marry his daughter, regardless of his affection for her".
So that's it then, as confirmed by the Catholic ideology shop masquerading as all things family: man and woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life. But realistically, that's often not the way it works out, is it?
I revelled in my brother's wedding. The ceremony was held in the chapel alongside the Old Cheese Factory in Berwick, a two-story structure built of local handmade bricks in the 1860s. That day in March, Kerry kept her wedding dress secret from Paul, as is tradition.
The chapel itself was understated. A dozen rows of wooden benches, with a raised stage at the end, on which my brother stood, a smile fixed on his face as his bride walked down the aisle on her father's arm. There was a veil, a long train flowing behind her, a strapless, beautifully embroidered dress. Pure happiness is a joy to watch, no matter how traditional its form. I enjoyed my brother's smile.
The bride's parents – divorced – sat together. The celebrant recited the recipe: man and woman, all others excluded. Steve and I sat alongside my mother in the front row. I looked two pews behind to see my father, sitting alone. His lip quivered, and then came the torrent. I had never seen him cry.
On the way along the dirt road from the chapel service to the wedding reception and lunch, I looked at Steve as he drove the hire car.
"Would you marry me?"
"Not marry." His wrap-around sunglasses made it impossible to read his face. He thought for a moment. "Commitment ceremony."
As I settled back into the passenger seat, on our way to the baked chicken and shepherd's pie, I contemplated what seemed a lifetime's best offer.