“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians.”
LONDON-BASED author Patsy Trench is the first to admit the workings of Australia’s farming history were not a natural subject for her to spend years researching. But her latest book A Country To Be Reckoned Withtells the story of how a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ got to grips with our rural past through the experience of her influential ancestor, George Matcham Pitt.
“As a ‘townie’ living in London, the world of Australian 19th century agriculture was about as far outside my familiar sphere as it’s possible to get,” Trench said.
“I got to know my great-great-grandfather G.M. Pitt while I was writing my first book (The Worst Country in the World) about his grandmother, our pioneer migrant Mary Pitt.
“He was obviously a great character – larger than life, with a passion for rhetoric and a fondness for quoting from Shakespeare and Burns, which I understood was rare among farmers.”
Despite much hesitation, Trench said she started from the knowledge that the stock and station agency her ancestor founded — Pitt, Son & Badgery — was well-known in country circles, even though the company was taken over decades ago.
“In the end I decided to turn my ignorance to advantage: like the ‘New Chums’ who arrived in New South Wales in the 19th century expecting to make their fortune on the land knowing not the first thing about farming.
“I came at the topic as an outsider and I make no bones about it.”
Trench made several trips to rural New South Wales with Australian family members during her research, which she describes as “mystery tours” that led to several revelations about her subject and family.
“I knew ‘GM’ had taken up land in the Gwydir district in the 1840s, but there was also evidence he visited the district ten years earlier, along with his de-facto stepfather William Scott,” she said.
“On our first visit to Moree we could find no trace of him in the 1830s, but further research revealed that Scott and he had acquired a licence for a property on the Gwydir River, which was taken from them after several years in complex circumstances.”
Patsy also discovered a possible connection with an Aboriginal Pitt family.
“There was a Tom Pitt born in 1838, the year my great-great-grandfather arrived at the Gwydir in search of land,” she said.
“There are no signs of Aboriginal Pitts before that time, but there are now hundreds living in the area and I’ve been in touch with them and hope to meet up with them one day. It’s believed they got their name from GM, one way or another.”
Bush character re-examined
A Country To Be Reckoned With is Trench’s second major work on her family’s Australian origins, and brings to life a relatively unknown ‘Bush’ archetype: the auctioneer.
“I could quote a poem I reproduce in the book, which appeared in a Pitt, Son & Badgery anniversary leaflet,” she said.
“They describe the auctioneer as ‘the fellow with his coat off in the pen’: a man of charisma and personality with a remarkable gift of the gab. A master at handling men and getting things going, often asked to MC events such as weddings; with a retentive memory, sharp wit and ‘captivating smile’, manipulative, optimistic and perennially cheerful.
“All that said, having witnessed an actual cattle auction last year in Wagga Wagga, the auctioneer’s job is to get the thing done as quickly and efficiently as possible, so not a lot of time for captivating smiles or clever jokes.”
“When I lived here in my hedonistic youth I thought Australia was paradise and the people the most friendly and welcoming people in the world,” she said.
“Now I know a bit about Australia’s colonial past I see things, and the people, a bit differently. It’s still a stunningly beautiful country with great people in it, but there’s this undercurrent of a dark past that has only really emerged in the past thirty years or so.”
Since her family was responsible for taking land that belonged to Indigenous people, Trench ruminates on whether she is complicit in this confronting history.
“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians and the attitude to their colonial history seems to change every time I come here.”
In the same way that Trench’s first book The Worst Country in the World led to the journey that became A Country To Be Reckoned With, her new book seems to be demanding more storytelling of this writer.
“It’s the Aboriginal connection I would like to get to the bottom of,” she said. “Who was Tom Pitt, born in what was to become the Moree district in 1838? He seems to have hundreds of descendants but nobody seems to know who his parents were, or how he acquired his name. I am hoping to hook up with some Aboriginal Pitts who I’ve been in contact with online. There are some great stories to be told.”
WHEN Australian same-sex couples were finally granted equal access to the Marriage Act in December 2017, the widespread expression of relief was tempered by a growing awareness of a legal minefield.
“Here we were on the other side of the world not being able to have clarified which of our relationships was valid.”
Brisbane couple Elaine Crump and Sharon Dane let the emotions in, but the status of their long-term relationship remained in limbo. Like many same-sex couples seeking legal documentation during the interminable wait for Australia to pass marriage equality, Elaine and Sharon had already taken their chances in countries where equality was accessible.
The pair first solemnised their relationship with a civil partnership at the British Consulate in Brisbane during 2006 — in fact they were the first lesbian couple to do so in this country — but neither could have predicted that was merely the start of an arduous legal journey.
“It gave us some credibility among our family and peers,” Elaine, a tradesperson, remembers.
“We were no longer just a couple living together but had some form of formal recognition, albeit in another country; and both our families are British.
“There was a level of excitement about it, as it was something we were finally sharing together that others were able to take for granted.”
Sharon, a psychology researcher, agrees: “There was no other way back then of us formalising our relationship”.
“The only thing we had to show we were a couple prior to that was a ‘stamp duty free’ declaration form from the Department of Transport.
“As we were British citizens, we felt that at least we were being legally recognised in a country that was part of our identity,” she adds.
According to Sharon, just before the couple were civilly-partnered, staff at the consulate required them to officially acknowledge that they understood the ceremony was not a marriage.
“That was hard to swallow,” she says.
“We were well aware of that, but to have it emphasised on our special day was upsetting.”
The ‘Best Wedding’
The ceremony attracted significant media attention during the Beaconsfield Mine collapse in Tasmania. Elaine and Sharon recall the sudden scrutiny brought on by the media’s need for alternate content during the lengthy wait before the trapped miners were brought to the surface.
“We allowed the media into that occasion and there was a sense of politics about it which somewhat detracted from the very personal nature of what we were doing,” Elaine says.
“For this reason, I drew the line in not allowing the media at our reception.”
Sharon believes the spotlight came as a result of being one of the first same-sex couples to enter into a UK civil partnership in Australia.
“Interestingly, we weren’t allowed many people to attend the ceremony at the consulate, only immediate family and our witnesses,” she says.
“So there wasn’t that sense of celebration you would normally experience at a wedding.
“Instead, the media filled the room taking photographs.
“While this took away from some of the personal nature of it, it also gave it some sense of celebration, with it being acknowledged as something historic and special.”
According to Elaine, the bulk of the ceremony was at home with close friends and family: “I do remember my mum saying it was the best wedding she had ever been to.”
By 2008, overseas civil partnerships between same-sex couples were still not recognised in Queensland. That process would not begin until 2011 or be settled into law until 2016.
Elaine and Sharon’s relationship recognition had therefore reached an impasse, but they saw an opportunity in another country.
“Part of it was opportunism, as Sharon had to go to Rhode Island for a conference and I decided to go with her for a holiday,” Elaine recalls.
“We decided we would use the opportunity to drive up to Canada to marry, as it was another step in our journey.
“Marriage felt far more normalising. It would allow us to say we are married couple now, not civilly-partnered.
“We could come home and say that at least somewhere in the world we are a married couple.”
Sharon remembers her critical concern was about she or Elaine dying before they had the opportunity to marry or have a civil partnership recognised at home.
“If that happened, you couldn’t turn back the clock,” she says.
“There would be no way of the surviving partner showing we were ever married.
“I felt it was like putting it in a time capsule, ready to pull out once the laws had changed.
“It was also because people got it when you said you were married, they didn’t get it when you said you were civilly-partnered.”
By the time of Elaine and Sharon’s 2008 marriage in Toronto, Canada, the couple had become involved in marriage equality activism, although both remember how entering into their second relationship certification was not in any way political.
“We were doing it for us,” Sharon says.
“However, letting the media tell our story was politically motivated, as we wanted to get the message out there that we were a normal couple that just wanted to be treated like everyone else.”
Elaine agrees: “From a political perspective it was great that our ceremonies helped highlight the issues in the press.”
Sharon’s role as a psychology researcher working on the relationships and wellbeing of LGBTIQ Australians was extended into her activism, which strengthened her views on why having the choice to marry was so important.
“As the research strongly indicated, it was simply about being respected and included in society,” she says.
“The desire to marry was a personal one, but to have the choice was critical in terms of feeling treated as an equal.”
Elaine and Sharon met through the Brisbane entity of the social group Older Wiser Lesbians (OWLS).
“I was away in Darwin on a work trip and when I came back Sharon was a new member and we became friends,” Elaine says.
“Eventually, and when I was no longer in a relationship, we found a mutual attraction to each other.”
Sharon recalls the pivotal weekend the relationship began: “A group of us women went camping at a lake. Elaine had a small sailing boat which you could sleep in. Everyone was deciding what tent they were going to sleep in and Elaine said ‘I’ve got a spare bunk in my boat’.
“Well I quickly put my hand up for that offer, and just as well, as it was in that boat where we expressed a mutual attraction,” she adds.
“That was almost 17 years ago. We no longer have that boat but a picture of her hangs proudly in our house as a reminder.”
According to Sharon, their interest in laws regarding civil unions and same-sex marriages across the world made the couple aware that it wouldn’t be possible to have two formal relationships — even if to each other — recognised in the same country.
“As the UK later changed its laws in 2014 to recognise overseas same-sex marriages, we started to wonder which of our two relationships — the civil partnership or the Canadian marriage — it would recognise,” she recalls.
“To complicate matters further, Canada changed its laws in 2014 to recognise an overseas civil partnership as equivalent to a marriage, with a Canadian lawyer advising us that our civil partnership would be viewed as the true marriage because it happened in 2006, two years prior to our 2008 Canadian marriage.”
The couple quickly realised they were in the same position as countless other same-sex partners in Australia: in need of legal and/or consular advice about the status of their relationships.
“We first contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK government,” Sharon says.
“They told us that it was complicated because we didn’t live in England and therefore they weren’t sure which of our relationships was valid.
“This meant we were not allowed to have our civil partnership converted to a marriage in case the Canadian marriage had rendered the civil partnership void in the UK.”
The couple corresponded with the United Kingdom Government for over three years while remaining in what they describe as “legal limbo”.
“Finally, they agreed that if we could seek the expert opinion of specialists in English family law, they would consider our case,” Sharon recalls.
“This was a costly exercise that we feel we should not have had to go through.
“We felt we had no choice but to pay for the services of a London lawyer specialising in same-sex marriage law.”
Sharon did an internet search for “Family Law, England, LGBT”.
“Luckily we found A City Law Firm, a wonderfully supportive and knowledgeable legal firm in London,” she remembers.
“They, with counsel on the matter from a barrister, made it clear to the UK government that it was our Canadian marriage that was void under English law, not our civil partnership.”
“The reality set in: Were we really legally married?”
In late 2017, the Turnbull Government conducted a compulsory postal survey to gauge public sentiment on allowing same-sex couples equal access to the Marriage Act.
Sharon was present in the House of Representatives at Parliament House, Canberra, when marriage equality was voted on and passed on December 7 that year.
“I remember calling Elaine right after and us crying over the phone, and that we were ecstatic this had happened,” she says.
“I think the passing of the law at that time was when I experienced the huge emotional outpouring.
“But then within a week of that, the reality set in: Were we really legally married?
“That put a real damper on things.”
According to Sharon, words can’t adequately describe the frustration and powerlessness that she and Elaine went through while they waited on a response from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“Here we were on the other side of the world not being able to have clarified which of our relationships was valid,” she says.
“This meant we couldn’t confirm if we were already married, nor could we get married in Australia in case the Canadian marriage was deemed valid.
“I couldn’t help but feel bitter, as if we had the right to marry in Australia in the first place we would not have had to have gone through this unnecessary stress and expense, which was of no fault of ours but as a consequence of same-sex marriage laws changing around the world.”
When the news finally came through from the UK government in February, 2018, that the couple could convert their civil partnership to a marriage, Sharon and Elaine recall being overwhelmed with joy and relief, particularly because the certification was back-dated to take into account the total number of years of their marriage.
“This was the relationship we entered into first, 12 years ago, and the one that involved all our friends and family in Australia,” Sharon says.
“It was the one with a wedding album, flowers, a cake and our loved ones.”
Sense of Peace
This year, Elaine and Sharon returned to the British Consulate in Brisbane to have their 2006 civil partnership converted to a marriage that was automatically recognised in Australia.
The certification was likely to have recorded theirs as the first lesbian marriage in this country.
For Elaine, the overriding feeling was relief: “It’s been such a battle for so long,” she says.
“We finally know it’s legally binding and recognised in the place we call home.
“When we go out now and introduce each other as ‘this is my wife’, I don’t get that feeling that people think ‘oh yeah that’s nice, but they are not really married’.
“After all these years of exclusion, I’m able to say ‘yes I’m part of this, I am legally married, you are my wife’.”
Sharon recalls the conversion as an experience of happiness on two fronts, the “huge relief” of ending a drawn out legal battle, and that having the marriage recognised in Australia gave the couple “closure and a sense of peace”.
“All the boxes are now ticked,” she says.
“There is no more fighting on an Australia level, no more fighting on a British level, or any other level.
“We are now like any other couple who can say ‘okay we are married’ and that’s the end of it.”
I WASN’T going to write about Ian Thorpe’s coming out. What more can there be to say about this moment in his life, which has huge ramifications for him but should have none for us?
But then I read one article which got me angry, the kind of piece I’d hoped to avoid but which I knew would surface: the ‘Ian Thorpe Lied To Us’ type article.
I also wanted to watch the interview he gave to Michael Parkinson before forming too many thoughts.
The only unexpected moment was when ‘Thorpie’ recalled being asked about his sexuality at the age of 16. Parkinson picked-up on Thorpe’s affront at this and ran with it, creating the sense that 16 was just too young to be asked such a question.
Thorpe then qualified his view: that to ask anyone about their sexuality is unnecessary, but went on to assert that had he not been asked at that young age, he would not have stayed closeted so long.
If it was a nosey journalist who asked him as a 16-year-old, then I agree, it was an affront, but I don’t believe it’s enough to leave this pivotal moment in Australia’s same-sex attracted history at that.
Still feel like Thorpie shouldn’t have been tempted to lie, or are you starting to ‘get’ the self preservation which drove his denial?
Let’s look at the world Ian Thorpe inhabited at ‘Sweet Sixteen’. I don’t mean his swimming career – he was well on the ascendant at that age. I want to illustrate the world for a closeted 16-year-old gay man.
On October 13, 1998, Ian Thorpe’s 16th birthday, the age of consent for gay men was 18. Ever since 1984, when the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men resulted in an age of consent for straight people and lesbians of 16, the law had remained unequal.
That legislation – The Crimes (Amendment) Act 1984 – would not be repealed until another nasty-sounding law – The Crimes Act 1900 – was amended in 2003.
In October 1998, for two men to live together in a de-facto relationship was still a political act. The Property (Relationships) Legislation Amendment Act was not created until the following year, requiring further amendment in 2002, 2008 and 2009 to remove discrimination against same-sex attracted people financially in almost 100 other pieces of state and federal legislation.
There was no form of legal coupling for same-sex attracted people in 1998, a situation which has not altered in NSW, or anywhere in Australia, to the present day.
In 1998, same-sex adoption and surrogacy were illegal and would remain so until 2010.
In 1998, any person who decided to bash, abuse or kill a gay person in NSW would have had the ‘Gay Panic’ defence at their disposal.
This is the most recent piece of law reform for LGBTQI people in NSW, having been abolished in May this year. In Queensland and South Australia, ‘Gay Panic’ is still a legal form of defence.
We know that Thorpie didn’t limit himself to swim-meets on home soil – he competed in places where widespread marginalisation of same-sex attracted people was and remains common, including Japan and Greece.
But the most dangerous destination Thorpe travelled to in his 16th year was Malaysia, where he won four gold medals at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games, but risked deportation, prison terms, fines and public whippings if he had acted on his same-sex attraction whilst in that Muslim country.
There was some good news for the millions of HIV/AIDS patients in 1998 – many of them were returning to work, despite the often crippling side effects of anti-retroviral drugs. No longer the short-term death sentence it had been, there were enormous question marks over the long-term effects and efficacy of combination therapies on the epidemic. Survival time after contracting HIV was simply unknown.
So, asking the 16-year-old Ian Thorpe if he was gay was tantamount to asking him if he was attracted to the proposition of engaging in illegal sex which could never result in a legally recognised relationship with no hope of creating a family unit, including children.
If Thorpie had said yes to the sex, but found himself the victim of homophobic attack, his attacker would likely have gotten off or received a lesser sentence. There was also the fear of contracting HIV/AIDS in the mix.
Is this an attractive proposition, or one which even you, in Thorpie’s position, might deny?
Another young man said yes to the sex a week before Thorpie’s 16th birthday. His name was Matthew Shepard.
Taking into account the time difference between the US state of Wyoming (where Shepard was bashed and left to die on a barbed wire fence by a pair of homophobes, later dying of his wounds), and NSW (where the Thorpe family celebrated Ian’s 16th birthday), the two events would have occurred at about the same point in time.
Sexual acts between men had been legal in Wyoming since 1977, and Shepard was over the age of consent at the time of his death. He had it better legally than Thorpie, but Matthew Shepard still ended-up suffering and dying as a result of his sexuality.
Still feel like Thorpie shouldn’t have been tempted to lie, or are you starting to ‘get’ the self preservation which drove his denial?
Laws do not change everyone’s behaviour, of course, but consider the impact of legislation on one of Australia’s highest-profile gay men – Justice Michael Kirby – who did not come out publicly until he was 60 years of age, during the same year as the The Property (Relationships) Legislation Amendment Act NSW (1999).
Kirby had lived with his de-facto spouse Johan van Vloten for thirty years prior, during part of which time they hid their relationship from family, friends and colleagues. Kirby came out by simply listing his partner in Who’s Who once their cohabitation and all its rights and responsibilities were legally protected.
Then there are the ‘unofficial laws’ which encourage same-sex attracted people to remain in the closet – ‘The Laws of Nature’ – as hard for young people to argue against as invisible faith, yet so often cited by homophobes, and so powerful they kept generations of lesbian women closeted in places where there were never laws against homosexual acts between women, and still impact on gay people everywhere.
This issue clearly goes beyond legislation, but could Kirby have risen so far in his profession without being closeted? Could Thorpe? Those of the ‘They Lied To Us’ team could do with answering such questions. Thorpe’s query to Australia last night challenged us to consider how much we wanted and needed him to lie.
Ever since seeing Ian Thorpe interviewed during the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics, I have known he was same-sex attracted. It was simply his demeanour, the same way of patting his solar plexus with a bent wrist as I do when using myself to illustrate a point.
It’s a subtle but giveaway gesticulation.
Whenever I witnessed people speculating about Thorpe’s orientation, I challenged their determination to claim him for ‘their team’, because a team is what a male Australian sports legend must declare a position on: he is never his own man, his countrymen feel like they own him.
By the mid-2000s it became painful to watch Thorpe’s slow-motion train wreck, without being able to do, say or write anything to help in the journey every out same-sex attracted person must endure.
Some journalists reached out to him. One open letter by founding editor of DNA magazine Andrew Creagh stood out for me. It was assertive enough to get to the truth, and empathetic enough to express what was needed despite Ian Thorpe’s closeted situation.
A journalist who asks a 16-year-old swimming star of either gender whether they are straight or gay should rightly come away looking like an idiot, not only because it’s a dumb question, but also because these days a 16-year-old (gay, straight or anything else) is considered a self-determining adult as far as sexual orientation is concerned.
Same-sex-attracted 16-year-old boys were not considered adults prior to 2003, we were considered a danger to ourselves who needed ‘protection’ from wand-waving homosexuals trying to recruit us onto the ‘wrong’ team.
Such fantasies are laughable now, but in their day they were nails in the closet door.
Congratulations and best wishes to Ian Thorpe. His coming-out is a far greater achievement than any gold medal. It’s a life-changing validation for teenagers batting for the same team, and their families; and it means that when he manifests the relationship and new career last night’s interview hinted at, at least he won’t have to come out again and again.