‘Our religion and culture kept us both in fear’

by Phineas Hartson
Sun 24 Sep 2017
5 min read
  • Phineas and mum

Australians are being asked to vote on whether same-sex marriage should be legalised in their country — a move New Zealand made in 2013. As in New Zealand, conservative Pacific Islanders (like Wallabies player Israel Folau, a devout Christian who voiced his opposition in a controversial tweet) are among those most against a law change. Here Phineas Hartson, an Auckland-born Sydney-based lawyer, writes about why change is needed.

 

I was in a relationship for more than 20 years. We both came here to Sydney, Australia, in 1992.

My partner was so afraid of people finding out his sexuality that I was kept a secret throughout. To the outside world, I was his flatmate, his friend, his cousin, but never his partner. Only a small circle of friends knew.

In private, we loved and supported each other through the best and worst of times. We were as tight as any married couple. He is still my best friend even though we’re no longer together. 

His family knew about me, and mine him, and they loved me like a member of their family. I loved them, too, and still do.

But they were never allowed to celebrate our relationship because of the ignorance, misunderstanding, fear, and, yes, hatred that exists in the Pacific Island community and the church.

Our religion and culture kept us both in fear. He felt so ashamed of what the world might think. We both were Christian. He was a Mormon but not "active". He loved his church and I loved him for loving it. I still do. 

He feared excommunication because he dared to love me. He couldn't fully participate in his church because of our love for each other, but he couldn't give me up or publicly show his love for me.

We were very happy through those years in our safe little cocoon. But we were not free to show our love or share it with our friends and family. We couldn't celebrate our fifth, tenth or twentieth year anniversaries with anyone. 

Sadly, I knew that even if marriage was an option, our fear would have stopped us from taking the one step that would have validated "us" and me. Marriage would have secured us under the law. If something had happened to him, I wouldn't have been able to be there with him at the hospital because, under the law, I wasn’t his next of kin. I knew his blood type, his medication, the type of food that made him throw up — and how to calm him down when he was stressed. He knew my medical history as well.

I lived in fear also. I foolishly accepted this secrecy as my fate. I didn't want my family to be ashamed of me. How dare I expect any different? I dared to be loved by a man and live in "sin", not because I wanted to but because I had to. 

No one can understand what this kind of secrecy does to someone’s mental health, to one's sense of self-worth over the years.

I had to lie and hide my relationship status through the years. I never went to any of his work functions, nor he mine. If I did, I was introduced as his cousin — one good thing about both of us being Pacific Islanders. When people used to say that we looked alike, we smiled and played along, but inside I felt invisible. 

I just wanted to be able to hold his hand in public just once, to kiss him on the cheek like other couples were allowed to do.

We changed our behavior as a couple to suit the outside world because we didn't want to offend anyone. We didn't want to be judged, ostracised, and even physically hurt. I remember being outed one time by a straight guy, another diner at a cafe in Kings Cross, Sydney, of all places. He suspected that we were a couple. It was a scary situation. We tried to ignore him, ate our food and quickly left.

We did that for 20 years. It was tiring, so bloody tiring. There were three of us in that relationship: my partner, me, and fear.

But now I am open about my life as a transgender woman, and it has been a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I don't really have a choice. I can’t hide my status from anyone. I am an open book and this has brought its own set of new challenges and real dangers — including finding work, finding a decent male partner, and making sure that I’m safe when I walk the streets both day and night. 

Even as a pre-op transgender woman, I still would not be able to marry a "cis-gendered man" because of laws that don’t recognise me as a "woman". Only when I have surgery downstairs will I be considered a "woman" under the law. 

So, same sex marriage does affect me, more now than ever.

When same sex marriage became legal in New Zealand, I asked my then partner to marry me. He said "no". The fear in him was greater than his love for me, despite our 20-plus years together. 

We ended our relationship, not only because of that, but for other reasons including my transition. 

Thankfully he is in a new relationship with a new man. But, sadly, the fear continues in him today, and both he and his new partner remain in the closet. The cycle of fear continues. 

Now in 2017, we are given a chance to change this. Not through a responsible government taking into consideration the rights of all of its people. But through a government that has shirked its responsibility by letting a national poll decide what my life is worth.

A poll, for goodness sake. And a non-binding poll at that, which angers me no end. 

Complete strangers voting on my worthiness as a human being, as a parent, as a married partner. Advertising campaigns defaming me as a suitable marriage partner because I am transgender.

In my profession as a lawyer, I have many married clients who are ending their marriages. Some should never have married to begin with, but I respect the choices they made as adults. I would equally fight for their right to marry if that was ever challenged. So how come I don't have that right? 

Sadly, even if same sex marriage becomes legal in Australia, this will not end the discrimination that I experience because of who I am and who I love as a transgender woman. But it will protect my legal right to marry the man I love. 

Voting "yes" is one step towards a new Australia, rid of one kind of discrimination. After that we can chip away at the other bits of discrimination that burden our great country. 

Please just vote "yes".

 

Phineas Hartson is a lawyer based in Sydney. She was born in Auckland and moved to Australia in the early ‘90s. This piece is an edited version of her Facebook posting.

 

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