The court case behind Australia’s first recognised same-sex marriage
For a country that revels in a first of any kind, it’s surprising that Grace Abrams is not a household name. Her story is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which, she is one half of Australia’s first federally recognised same-sex marriage.
Abrams and her partner, Fiona Power, had been talking about tying the knot for months. Despite a previous civil commitment ceremony, they were looking forward to attaining a legal and formal recognition of their relationship.
Saturday, September 3, 2005, was one of those iconic Sydney spring days. Having just broken free from the depths of winter, the city was warm and bathed in sunshine. It was a perfect day to get married.
Friends, who also acted as witnesses for the marriage, arrived to drive them the short distance to the city from the couple’s home in Erskineville. Abrams, dressed in summery short sleeves of pink and white, and Power, in her favourite layers of black, were holding identical bouquets of flowers. With accents of lavender, the floral arrangements provided the final touches to their wedding day ensemble.
Arriving at the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages they joined the many other nervous and excited couples about to take the plunge. But Abrams and Power weren’t just nervous because this was their big day, they really didn’t know what to expect when they placed their application.
“The registry office people were a little taken aback. You could kind of tell they didn’t really want to marry us but they really didn’t have a choice,” Power says.
“Grace is a very feminine girl, so it was clear that she was a girl. But technically under the law she was still regarded as a man, even though she looked much more girly than me and much more girly than half the girls in wedding frocks that were getting married there.”
Abrams, despite identifying as female, held a male birth certificate, which meant marrying Power, with a female birth certificate, was within the law. With the ceremony going off without a hitch, the bride and groom, their small entourage in tow, retired to Sydney’s Chinatown for yum cha and champagne.
Apart from the personal commitment, there was a pragmatic reason for the pair “frocking up” and getting hitched. The newlyweds were shortly due to travel to Thailand for Abrams to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Their marriage, under law, would give them the protection that married heterosexual couples take for granted should something go wrong.
Back then, and to some extent now, same-sex couples have had to fight administrative and legal hurdles at the most important times of their lives due to their inability to marry. Without marriage certificates, they have had difficulty proving their relationship status, which has led to many cases of property, family and estate disputes.
“While LGBTI couples largely now have the same substantive legal rights as de facto heterosexual couples, they are denied the legal status and social recognition afforded by marriage,” says Anna Brown, director of advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre and a co-chair with Australians for Equality.
“Without marriage equality, it’s too easy for service providers to ignore or misunderstand the law and deny same-sex partners recognition as next of kin or beneficiaries.”
With the marriage certificate hurdle out of the way, Abrams obtained an interim passport for their trip to Thailand, temporarily identifying her as female. These are routinely given to prevent Australians being locked up or harshly interrogated as they travel home on male passports.
The surgery a success, Abrams’ full recovery took six weeks. “I remember it being like having a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was of course incredibly painful, but I remember my ears kept getting wet with tears running down my face as I laid there in hospital crying because I was so happy and relieved.”
Landmark court case
Then, after returning home, everything changed. The administrative clear run they’d experienced came to an abrupt halt. The then foreign minister, Alexander Downer, stepped in and denied Abrams a permanent female passport for fear it would recognise Australia’s first same-sex marriage.
A landmark court case ensued and, in 2007, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal overturned Downer’s original decision and granted Abrams a female passport. A cardinal document, correctly identifying her gender, it ultimately created Australia’s first same-sex marriage.
Abrams smiles and rolls her eyes when recalling the “bureaucracy gone mad” events of a decade ago.
“How’s this for irony?” she says. “They give me an interim female passport when I have male bits, and when I get back they wanted to give me a male passport when I have female bits. I guess what it all shows is that the government may be able to deny same-sex couples a certificate of marriage but they can’t deny an Australian citizen a passport.”
The many administrative battles Abrams has fought are in addition to years of discrimination and isolation that she and others in the gender-diverse community suffer. Growing up in Sydney’s north-west she describes her mid- to late teens in a Catholic high school as the “worst time of my life”.
While the rest of her classmates were dreaming of first loves and a life not yet lived, she dreamt for it all to stop. Abrams suffered a daily barrage of verbal abuse, being called a “fag” and a “freak”; physical abuse; and theft. Being ostracised and ridiculed eventually took its toll.
Requests to the school for intervention and help, even from her mother, fell on deaf ears. Realising the futility, Abrams dreamt of standing at school assembly with a shotgun and committing suicide in front of them all.
“Why? Because fuck them, that’s why,” she says.
A common theme in the gender-diverse community, attempted suicide, suicide ideation and suicide occur at far higher rates than in the general community. The National LGBTI Health Alliance says attempted suicide rates can be up to 11 times higher than that of the broader community. Other mental health issues, such as depression, can be up to five times higher.
Leaving home, it took years before Abrams realised transition and sex reassignment surgery was her only pathway. After making that decision, she moved back to Sydney from regional NSW in 2000. Despite ending up unemployed and homeless, her journey to transition was under way. Amid the turmoil of hormone treatment, doctor’s appointments and being alone in a large city, she found a place that finally accepted her for who she was. It was the Sydney Hellfire Club, which bills itself as kink and fetish adult entertainment.
Club general manager Master Tom says it “prides itself as being a place of diversity and tolerance”. Abrams recalls it as exactly that: “I was homeless and I used to go there even when I couldn’t afford it. It was a place where I knew I had found my tribe. I didn’t have a roof over my head, but I knew I had found home.”
For the most part, recalling her past causes pain, often displaying itself as anger and resentment. But these times were different. Her defensive posture softens and for the first time she smiles.
It was where she met her future wife. During that time, Powers helped her through transition, with Abrams admitting if it were not for Power and her new community she “may not have made it”.
Coming full circle
Now 42, Abrams is in a new relationship after separating from Power. In many respects they have both come full circle. They have filed for divorce, thereby creating a second first: Australia’s first divorced same-sex couple.
The one silver lining: Abrams can change the last remaining cardinal document identifying her as male, her birth certificate.
Despite the Marriage Act being a federal jurisdiction, documentation around births, deaths and marriages are state based. While all states have slightly different legislation, they all deny anyone the right to change a gender while married. Most of these state laws are under review.
Sitting in her home, just south of Brisbane, Abrams’ dining table is strewn with documents detailing a lifelong struggle to find her place in society. When asked how long it will take for her divorce to finalise, completing the last part of her administrative journey, she smiles and says: “I’m just waiting on the paperwork to come through.”
Lifeline 13 11 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Legally bonded". Subscribe here.