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Then Comes Marriage

Heather Wallace

Would you do it if you knew that your marriage would be legal for just five days?

One weekend in early December 2013, dozens of same-sex couples from Canberra and around the country stood together, declaring their love and being joined in marriage.

They didn’t have much time to get things organised. The ACT Legislative Assembly had introduced its Marriage Equality Bill on 19 September 2013, passing it on 22 October, allowing couples to wed from midnight on 7 December, 2013.

Just five days later, as a result of a challenge by the Abbott Government, the High Court held unanimously that the whole of the ACT’s same-sex marriage act was “inconsistent” with the federal Marriage Act 1961 and
“of no effect”. Two years on, marriage equality remains a divisive issue and there has been little progress towards a non-gender specific Marriage Act. But what did those five brief days of marriage mean to those who took the plunge? Three Canberra couples share their stories.

Glenda and Jennifer on their wedding day

Glenda and Jennifer on their wedding day

Glenda Lloyd was in the US for a conference, watching coverage of the ACT government bill
 on her phone, shouting in excitement when it was passed. Despite the rushed wedding preparations, she and her partner Jennifer had a secret weapon up their sleeves: Glenda’s choir group, The Brindabella Chorus, who rallied to put on a celebration
after their wedding in the rose gardens of Old Parliament House.

“It was so busy, we married in the morning, and our celebrant had three other weddings booked that day,” Glenda remembers. One moment stands out in her mind—when she and Jennifer walked into each other during the ceremony and clunked heads. “It made us laugh out loud.”

Their Canberra ceremony was actually their second wedding—they’d been married in Boston a few years before, wearing the same rings and dresses. This was special, though, because it was happening in their hometown in front of their loved ones.

Both women were in the High Court five days later when the ruling was announced, and though it wasn’t a surprise, it was a blow.

“It was bittersweet,” Glenda says. “The decision 
was devastating but at the same time there was such a strong community spirit in the court. We were surrounded by couples, and although we’d never met before we’d all seen each other in the media. There was hugging and swapping stories. Lots of people were going up to each other and saying ‘I loved your dress when I saw it on the news!’”

The couple’s decision to marry, first in the US
 and then in Canberra, came after Jennifer was admitted to hospital several years ago. Without a legally binding document proving their relationship, same sex couples can experience problems being recognised as next of kin and not have legal authority to make decisions on their partner’s behalf.

“Fortunately for us the hospital was very supportive. The truth is I don’t want to be married under the Marriage Equality Act, I just want to be married like everyone else in Australia,” Glenda says.

Having a marriage that’s legally recognised in only certain parts of the world has an unexpected side. “Every time we go somewhere where it’s recognised Jennifer turns to me and says ‘We’re married again!’” I ask does that mean they get another honeymoon every time it happens and Glenda laughs out loud, “Absolutely!”

Michelle and Annabel

Michelle and Annabel

It was only a couple of days before 7 December that Michelle Stockwell and Annabel Scholes found out for certain that they would be able to get married.

“We’d submitted the paperwork a month before but no one was certain if it would happen until Thursday that week,” Annabelle says. “We didn’t even have dresses for the wedding, and on the Friday before we were in David Jones looking for something to wear.”

There wasn’t time to invite family and friends from around the country so their ceremony was small. It was important to them, though, to take that step. “We were worried that if no couples came forward the rest of the country would think the gay community wasn’t interested in getting married,” Annabelle says.

Michelle describes how they stood together in their kitchen when the ACT bill was passed, deciding whether they should do it and knowing there was a good chance it would be overturned.

Given the chance, they say they will do it all again—this time with lots of music and loved ones all around them, and make it a real celebration of their life together. “We’ll take a moment, though, to remember our first wedding and we’ll reaffirm our vows,” Michelle says.

Dan Sanderson admits he was always a bit resistant to the idea of marriage, and didn’t think it was a step he needed to take to cement his life with his partner of 11 years, Paul Eldon. “Paul wore me down,” he says candidly, “And then it became important in the rights sense.”

Paul and Dan's wedding

Paul and Dan’s wedding

Paul explains that the tradition of marriage is 
very important to him as it means stability and commitment. His parents have been married for 40 years and Dan’s for 50. “It’s so frustrating to see the Australian Government dragging their heels on same sex marriage. The ACT government took the right steps but we were at the High Court when the decision was announced and it didn’t surprise us,” he says.

As Paul is British and same sex marriage is legal
 in the UK they had the option of marrying at the British High Commission, and in March this year they were legally married. That ceremony was brief, they were in and out in 15 minutes and could only have a handful of guests. They chose to follow it the next day with a huge ceremony, where they repeated their vows in front of a large gathering of family and friends.

When I ask them how they felt at their 7 December ceremony, they each talk honestly about how much it meant to them. Dan describes looking at their friends who had travelled from around the world to join them and how their vows felt so much more meaningful in front of their community than they had in the British High Commission.

Paul is very open about experiencing intense butterflies the day of their second ceremony. “I could barely hold it together,” he says disarmingly. “I was sick to my stomach with nerves. It’s not just about us, it’s about committing to our life together in front of everyone who means the most to us.”

You can read this article in full and more in our latest edition of Magazine: The Celebration Issue. Available for free while stocks last. Click here to find your closest stockist. 

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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