You & me, can we be partners?

It’s a romantic story. They met in 1948 in a queue outside a theatre in Exhibition Street, waiting to see Vivienne Leigh and Laurence Olivier in The Skin of Our Teeth. Mark Rowan was a shy country boy who really rather liked the look of the tall young man with blue eyes who seemed so urbane standing near him. Later, inside the the theatre, a mutual friend introduced him to the young man, Robert Jeffrey. “It was somehow important to have an introduction,” Rowan recalls.

They have been together now for 50 years. Their life together has been like that of any other longstanding couple. They own a suburban house together and have joint bank accounts. They used to love to share the gardening and the book club membership. They have grown old together, Rowan losing his hair, Jeffrey, his health.

For them, the Equal Opportunity Commission’s proposal to offer gay couples the option of formally registering their relationships, submitted to state parliament today, has come too late.

“For many years, I would have wanted that,” Mr Rowan says. “Robert didn’t care a fig. But there are so many weddings to which we have taken gifts and good wishes, and we have never been able to have that for ourselves. Just the other day, I had a cousin who had been married for 25 years, so I called him up and congratulated him. But I thought, ‘I’ve been with my partner for twice as long as you’ve been with yours’.”

He believes the length and closeness of their relationship is its own testament, there would be no point in formalising it.

“Now that we are in our seventies, it’s not a significant thing. What is significant is that we have loved each other for so long. We don’t need marriage to codify that.”

But the commission’s proposals to recognise same-sex relationships are about more than emotional fulfilment and social recognition. They will change the legal rights and responsibilities of gay couples, to bring them into line with the standard that already exists for heterosexual de facto or married couples.

The commission’s research suggests there is considerably more common ground between conservative lobby groups and homosexuals on the issue of gay rights than there used to be. Commissioner Michael Gorton says that, for the most part, even conservatives who opposed such options as gay marriage and adoption supported the general notion that same-sex couples should not be discriminated against in other ways.

“If you remove ‘marriage’ from the equation, it takes away the sensitive religious issues,” he says.

“We take great heart from this report,” says Janet Jukes, co-convenor of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. “I think society has made enormous shifts in the past 10 or 20 years.

“I think gay men and lesbians should have the right to marry in the same way any other couples can . . . but I think the committee has been very pragmatic, recognising that this is a very emotive issue, and that many of the same aims can be achieved in other ways.”

The proposal seems to have satisfied most parties to the debate. Mary Helen Woods, national vice-president of the Australian Family Association, feels that what she sees as the special qualities of heterosexual marriage have been protected, as have the rights of children to a mother and a father: “I think there are plenty of single parents who do a wonderful job, but I think when it comes to IVF and adoption it is important to consider the needs of the child and limit it to the ideal.”

Lesbian mothers “Sally” and “Jenny” are pleased to see any step forward in gay couples’ rights. They each have two children from previous heterosexual relationships. The children still see their fathers, but Sally and Jenny are effectively co-parents of all four, who are aged between nine and 14.

“Jenny” is delighted by the proposal to extend de facto recognition to gay partners. “That sounds great. One of the problems we have as a couple is that, because we are not recognised, if one should die with no will in place, we would have big problems over the property rights and over the children.

“And something that worries both of us at the moment is that if one of us is injured and in hospital, the other one won’t have the right to be next of kin. If a fuss is kicked up, that means that the person I love may not have the right to be beside my bed.”

Greg Brown, president of Homo De Factos, says his group’s objective was to obtain equality for gay couples, and this had never meant aiming for the right to marriage. He says the Equal Opportunity Commission proposals adequately address the main concerns.

“It gives legal protection to those who register and a safety net (de facto recognition) to those who don’t. There had been concerns, all the way through the inquiry, that people who chose not to register would be left legless, but that won’t be the case.”

The changes should help eliminate or minimise problems such as those Brown suffered when his partner of 10 years died in 1994. “I had assumed that we were covered under superannuation, but we weren’t,” he says.

His partner had been a federal public servant. “I took the Commonwealth to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and I lost. The court decided that we had lived in a marital relationship but that they couldn’t give me the payout because we were the same sex. Heterosexual relationships are recognised automatically and rubber-stamped through.”

Jamie Gardiner is a long-time gay activist who was instrumental in getting homosexuality decriminalised in Victoria. He says the report has achievable aims, which is important because “social change is about persuading people” but, at the same time, it does not compromise any future claims, which he believes must eventually include marriage and access to adoption and IVF.

“It’s not a question of whether rights should be granted but a matter of justifying continuing to deny the legal form of marriage to same-sex couples,” he says.

He is optimistic about the long-term prospects. “It was only 30 years ago – in 1967 – that the US Supreme Court ruled that there was no ground for continuing to deny the legal form of marriage to mixed-race couples.”

Gardiner says recognition is very important on an emotional level for gay couples, because it means society acknowledges and respects the reality of their relationship ties instead of denying them: “It’s the sense of not being derided as outlaws.”

* Fictional names have been used for some people to maintain their privacy.

First published in The Age.