It was at iconic Oxford Street gay bar Midnight Shift that Sydney couple Bill and John met in 1982.
At the time, homosexual relations were illegal in NSW, and it would remain so for another two years. Bars like Midnight Shift were “the few places gay guys could socialise in without having to worry about harassment,” according to Bill, 64.
Thirty-five years later, the couple don’t go out quite as much – but they are still quietly defying government restrictions on their relationship.
While the Midnight Shift closed its doors earlier this month after 37 years in business, Bill and John’s partnership is destined to outlast the venue where it all began. On Friday, the pair were married in a boardroom overlooking Circular Quay, at Sydney’s British consulate.
They were able to do so because John, 69, holds dual Australian-British citizenship after emigrating from the UK in the 1970s. He and Bill took advantage of a so-called “loophole” that has seen more than 445 same-sex couples tie the knot on Australian soil since June 2014, despite same-sex marriage remaining unrecognised by Australian authorities.
The “loophole” is really a service Britain offers its citizens, who have the legal right to marry their partner regardless of gender, in countries where same-sex marriage has not been made law (but local authorities agree to it). The marriages can only take place at diplomatic offices.
According to a spokesperson for the British Consulate-General, the service is popular and there are marriages booked “at least until the end of this year”, although with the postal vote drawing to a close this week, there is uncertainty over how much longer it will be needed.
John told Fairfax Media he and Bill would have married 20 years ago or more if it were possible, but they particularly wanted to marry this year to mark the milestone of 35 years together, and their retirement.
“We thought getting married this year would be the icing on the cake. Unfortunately the government hasn’t moved with the times.”
Neither Bill nor John have faith that the government will pass marriage equality any time soon, despite latest polling on the non-binding postal vote suggesting the “yes” side has more than 60 per cent support.
“The opportunity for us to marry could still be years away,” John said. “We wanted to make this a special year, and we hope that millions of people around the world will have the opportunity to feel as happy as we did on our wedding day, and that our marriage will be recognised in Australia soon.”
The couple were never interested in a civil partnership. “It very much seemed like a second class offering and we weren’t going down that path,” Bill said. Nor were they keen to tie the knot overseas, since both men’s families are in Australia and they wanted to celebrate with them.
John said they had both found preparing for their wedding day amid the ‘No’ campaign “upsetting”.
Despite both being raised in Catholic families, the couple said they personally hadn’t experienced much homophobia over the years, but had observed others being treated badly and learned the best way to avoid conflict was to keep quiet.
“If you behave like a ‘normal’ person and you’re not out there shouting about your sexuality, then you’re accepted by people,” John said. “It’s been like that since we were quite young; if you shut up and don’t shout from the rooftops what you are and what you believe, people accept you… so you learn to keep in the shadows. You don’t open up.”
So when John, who admits to “getting more emotional than Bill” saw the wedding cake, he said, “it just occurred to me that, here we are, and it’s just like a normal wedding.
“It sort of touched me a bit, and then I thought, well why am I talking about being normal? We are normal. We just wanted something like everybody else, and now we’re getting that.”