The price my family paid while marriage equality stalled

"I was always looking forward to celebrating marriage equality with my sister. I imagined saying to her 'thanks Gis, ...

"I was always looking forward to celebrating marriage equality with my sister. I imagined saying to her 'thanks Gis, your struggle has been worth it'." Photo: Stocksy

The year was 1996. I wore leather pants and a lime green Bonds ringer T-shirt to my 21st birthday. I was dating my first ever woman, a bisexual with a bob who wore a brown corduroy A line skirt. She lived in a house with lino floors throughout every room... even her bedroom. It was freezing and awful.

But kissing her in the sub zero temperature of her dimly lit hallway brought me to my knees. Most queers have a story like this. They may have tinkered with heterosexuality at some stage but the gale force emotion behind one's first gay kiss is a one off. It can often be a complete aligning of the self. A truth that is so life-defining you never forget it. 

"It's going to be OK for me" I thought. Not just because of the kiss, but because by the time the late nineties rolled around being gay seemed to be less of a big deal. I felt lucky. I was gradually beginning to see that coming out to the wider world was a definite option. Ellen DeGeneres had just declared that she was a big ole dyke. Lesbian chic was a thing. KD Lang was shaved by Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine and Madonna was hanging out with her 'gal pal' Sandra Bernhard. 

These signs were like a gentle breeze propelling me to tell my parents who I really was. It was actually so OK when I came out that my Dad said to me "well, two out of three ain't bad."

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He was referring to the fact that out of his three daughters, two were lesbians.

It was my eldest sister who paved the way for my own coming out process. She came out twelve years before me. The year was 1985. Homosexuality was still illegal in a number of Australian states. Gay rights weren't even on the national agenda. It would be another ten years before activist Rodney Croome walked into a police station in Tasmania to challenge the police to arrest him because he had just had sex with his boyfriend.

In the mid '80s my sister had a blonde peroxide flat top and a horrific leather jacket. She looked like - and was - the biggest dyke in town. She often had all these short-haired women over to our house. I didn't quite know how to place them but as a nine year old I knew I didn't like them, that they were different and didn't belong. My sister and I never really got on during that time. In fact once I had a fight with her and shouted 'you fucking lesbian'. She turned around with such hurt in her eyes and said "don't you ever criticise me for that Ali... don't you dare."

She struggled with finding acceptance for who she was. In my sister's teens being gay was something you never talked about, nightclubs were an underground affair and HIV/AIDS was a very real worry. I remember on one family holiday she went to the doctor because she was scared she had AIDS. This was the era where the virus was ravaging gay communities across the globe. Can you imagine living with that kind of worry?

Back to my 21st birthday in 1996. A crowd of about sixty people sang me Happy Birthday... roughly a quarter of them were lesbians. My sister said to me at the time "I don't understand... your lezzo friends are mixing with your straight friends... and you are out to all of them". 

You see, it was a vastly different prospect coming out in 1985 than it was in 1997. That period marked a massive social change for gay visibility, and in part it was down to my sister and her friends getting out there and being brave in what was a socially conservative time.

I know that I couldn't have come out if it wasn't for her. I have always been grateful to my sister for doing the hard yards for her younger lesbian sibling.

I think my sister would have been furious at how the same sex marriage debate played out this week. She would have ranted and raved, not just about the Coalition, but Labor too. Labor is just as much to blame for pussy-footing around on an issue that is about basic human rights.

I was always looking forward to celebrating the legalisation of same sex marriage with my sister. I imagined saying to her "thanks Gis, your struggle has been worth it."

She won't be around for that moment. In January she took her own life. She was 47. We'll never know precisely why.

One of my greatest wishes was that together my sister and I could have celebrated an Australia that recognised who we are and the people we love.

That never happened, and this week I'm mourning for what could have been. 

Ali Benton is a writer and producer. These are her personal views. @bentobox

Crisis support information: Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au.