My partner, who had been through this already, helpfully explained what would be happening next, while a rather arch elderly queen of our acquaintance emitted an occasional attempted witticism.
“See here, where it says you go up when your name is called and are presented with your certificate and an Australian native. I thought I going to get a little black boy,” he tittered.
“I was sooo disappointed!”
I smiled faintly.
Looking round the dreary institutional room, with stark fluorescent lights and utilitarian stacking chairs, we were a very mixed crew. Young and old, of every shade, from the glossy blue-black of Africa, to the near-albino white of Friesland. Some smiling, some anxious, some grim, some beaming.
The ceremony ground on. Like congregants attending our first service at a new church, we clutched our order of service: stood, sat, gave our responses, tried not to yawn during the sermon, and from time to time, sang.
I remember singing “I still call Australia home” quite early in the piece. It struck me as a tad premature. Likewise “My Island Home.”
Not yet. Not quite yet.
Finally, we spoke the pledge of allegiance, collected our citizenship certificates (and our little native plants), and returned to our places.
Prosperous individuals who had come to advance their careers; elderly couples who had finally decided it was “about time”; grateful, hopeful and above all, relieved families escaped from poverty, famine, war, repression; all so very very different.
Welcome, said the MP. Welcome, said the Mayor. Welcome, our newest Australians.
As we sang the final song, tears came and voices quavered. It was suddenly borne in on me that we were pledging allegiance, not just to a country, but more importantly, to each other. Whatever our pasts, whatever the differences, we were singing that from now on we were one.
“I am, you are, we are Australian.”
I cried because it was a beautiful, rare, and fleeting moment of unity.
I cried because I knew that for me, as a gay man, it wasn’t true.
Australia accorded only grudging tolerance to people like me. Not acceptance. I had already learned. Don’t ask for too much. Don’t push your luck. Don’t shout too loud.
I decided if the song were ever to be true, I would have to start shouting.
Several years later, I recall a Labor politician, allegedly an ally, patiently explaining to me that Labor would commit to one, and only one, LGBTI reform per government. But they didn’t know which one.
The problem, he said, is that you are so disunited. Please, form a national organisation and hammer out amongst yourselves which demand should have priority. And then let us know, and we’ll see what we can do.
I still recall the shock on his face when I replied, ‘I think you’ve got this backwards. At the moment we have to deal with one minister for legal reform, another for health reform, etc etc, and we get passed around like a parcel nobody wants.
‘What we need is one single point of contact, to which we bring all our concerns. And then you sort out which of them you will tackle, and in what order.
‘So here’s my one demand: a ministry for LGBTI Affairs, on a par with Aboriginal Affairs, or the Minister for Women. One Minister for all LGBTI to talk to. In every state and in the federal government.’
We still don’t have it.
But we did unite around a single issue. And push for it relentlessly. Marriage. Because more than anything else, marriage insists loudly and publicly: LGBTI are as good as anyone else.
More than mere toleration, more than acceptance, more than respect, more than inclusion, marriage demands and ensures that our lives and loves are celebrated. Exactly like everyone else’s.
As our opponents claimed, it is the foundation on which we all stand, together, regardless of skin colour, language, age and now, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Which is why I teared up once more as the marriage bill became law, when the people in the gallery sang, and the parliamentarians joined in. I thought once again, whatever our pasts, whatever our differences, we are one.
They sang, “I am, you are, we are Australian.” This time, maybe, it might finally be true.