Claire and Carol
By Chris Banks
19th February 2006 - 12:00 pm
Auckland couple Claire (40) and Carol (56) have been together for nearly seventeen years. They held their civil union at home with family over the Christmas/New Year break.
Did either of you propose?
CLAIRE: No. I think we both had it in the back of our minds, but we thought the other one wouldn't want to, so we never really discussed it until one of us said something really tentatively, and the other one said, I've been thinking that too. Then we just basically decided.
Was there anything special about that evening?
CAROL: We were just chatting over events of the day. I'd love to say it followed some steamy sex but it didn't (laughs).
So it was a case of, “I've been out shopping today, bought some potatoes, shall we get married?”
CLAIRE: We haven't really used words like ‘married' and ‘wedding' and stuff like that, because Carol's been married before, and I've never had a desire to get married. So it wasn't really about that for us. Maybe it's something that we wouldn't be doing if everybody's attitudes toward gays and lesbians were different...but I think it was something we wanted to do to recognise our relationship.
CAROL: I think that was really important. I chose a ring because I wanted a visible sign of that, and I want people to ask me about it at work. I'm a schoolteacher, I want the kids to ask me about it in class.
CLAIRE: I felt really strongly that our relationship was legitimate already, but I wanted a legal recognition of that.
CAROL: I wanted a public recognition of the fact that it was legitimate.
Do you both see it as something that's completely distinct from marriage?
CAROL: I see it as marriage but without the traditional tie-ins to church and religious philosophies, because there is no real difference in the legislation – or the form I signed.
CLAIRE: Is it any different from marriage? In practical terms, no. I still find myself feeling uncomfortable with the word ‘marriage' and the word wedding, just because that's not something that I feel I have chosen, and it carries all sorts of baggage for me. So I'm quite happy with the idea that this is a civil union. I think if I was heterosexual I might be doing a similar thing rather than choosing to marry.
How did you go about building your ceremony? You took quite an active part in it, talking to those gathered – that seemed quite original.
CLAIRE: Our celebrant was quite surprised. She felt, I think, that we had taken a much more active part than other couples. And I was very surprised about that, because I thought most people built their own ceremonies these days.
CAROL: We decided we were going to do it our way. We kept telling people it was not a wedding, and the only person I couldn't convince was my 5-year-old granddaughter who was coming up, “Hello Nana! I'm coming to your wedding! I'm going to be flower girl!” (laughs)
CLAIRE: We did manage to stop her being a flower girl. She became bubble girl instead.
CAROL: I tried to think of something where we could involve children, because we had a number of small children with us. I thought bubbles would be nice, because when you blow bubbles you get rainbows. So we bought the kids a bubble gun each, and the idea was that while we were signing the register, the kids could blow bubbles, and Molly as the bubble girl got a basket for the bubbles and gave every person who came a little bubble bottle and a wand, and an exploding popper.
Your exchanging of rings was rather original as well...tell us about that.
CAROL: Claire was very adamant that she didn't want a ring.
CLAIRE: I tried to talk myself round to having a ring, I really tried, but I'm not a jewellery person, and for me it was too much of a wedding kind of thing. So I had a brainwave – I could have a ring without having a ring on my finger. So, I gave Carol her ring, which was in a large chalice, and unbeknownst to everybody else there was a phone in the chalice as well. So Carol's brother-in-law rang the number of the phone in the chalice, and it had one of these ring tones that went “brrrrrrring” like an old-fashioned telephone. I picked it up, and I said “Hello?”...
CAROL: And I just said, (sings) “I just called to say I love you”.
CLAIRE: Everybody absolutely cracked up, including us (laughs). It was a pun, and it was silly, and it was corny, but it did actually have a meaning. Then Carol said words that I had written which were, “Claire I give you this “ring” as a symbol of our connection. Even unseen, our love exists and persists.”
You held your ceremony at home, what was behind that decision?
CAROL: It was at my insistence. Because the place that means the most in the world to us is our home. It's the place where the people who were invited already were part of our lives, and I thought to take the ceremony and what was happening for us away from this place was to actual fact devalue what we were saying, what was happening.
CLAIRE: I think the other thing that's important to mention is that it's another part of that whole affirmation of a same-sex relationship. On one side we have very homophobic neighbours, so in some ways that makes it even more important for us to affirm who we are, where we are, rather than taking it out to some other place.
Were you concerned about the homophobic neighbours ruining the day?
CAROL: We were concerned enough about it to ask my brother in law, who's an ex-Chief Inspector of Police in Britain and has the most wonderful negotiation skills, that if we had any problems with the neighbours that he would go round and try and sort it out.
CLAIRE: We actually said to our celebrant, look we've got this situation, what do you think we should do to prepare in case they do something awful to create a spoiler, so she came up with a couple of possibilities. But nothing happened.
How did your families react to your announcement?
CAROL: I have a gay twin sister, so she did all the hard work for me, with my family really. Then when I came out when I was 38 to my mum and dad, they were a bit shocked at the time but they rang me back within half an hour and said, whoever you are, it's fine. We love you. So my family are completely accepting, my daughers are wonderful...
CLAIRE: Carol's family are all overseas. Both Carol's daughters live in Australia, and they both brought their entire families. We had a caravan out the front, two tents, two adults and two children in one bedroom, Carol and me in another, Carol's sister from England and her husband (who've just emigrated) in another bedroom, and a whole family in the tents and the caravan. So there were 13 of us, and this is a three bedroom house! Two of the people were small children, and three of them were teenagers, and that's just Carol's family.
My family all live locally. My brother is really supportive, he's older than I am, and he brought himself and my niece and his partner. I had two sets of aunts and uncles come along, which is really great, I found that very special. But my parents have huge difficulties with our relationship, and it took me ages before I could work up the courage to invite them (I knew I had to invite them)...they didn't come along.
Did anything take you by surprise during the organising?
CLAIRE: Something took us by surprise in the ceremony itself. We had our celebrant say, ‘and who will be your witnesses', and we had arranged for our two witnesses to step forward and say, ‘we will'. But what actually happened, which was really nice, everybody there said ‘we will'. So it was like everybody there was witnessing our civil union. It was lovely.
Best part about the day?
CAROL: The vows.
CLAIRE: Actually having the ceremony.
Was there a worst part?
CAROL: I had a ball all day. I didn't have any worst parts. Nothing. If anything had happened, it wouldn't have mattered anyway, it was all fun.
CLAIRE: [to CAROL] There was the moment when you put on your trousers and realised you'd forgotten to turn them up.
CAROL: Even that was just funny...I just raided the wardrobe for an old pair. Oh dear, never mind. Everybody thought it was hilarious.
CLAIRE: There wasn't a worst moment for me either. I felt more stressed in the lead-up. We had all these lists – Carol and I operate totally differently. I operate with ‘to do' lists, Carol operates in a total absence of lists. So I was trying to pin her down, and she didn't want to be pinned down (laughs). But she compromised...we got there.
Did you have a honeymoon?
CAROL: We weren't going to bother. We knew we'd be exhausted, we thought we'll just go crash, go to our room, close the door.
CLAIRE: We thought, we've been together 16 years, we don't need a honeymoon, it's not a wedding anyway...
CAROL: ...but my family had different ideas. They all got together and shouted us a night at the Quay West, 22nd floor, a full suite, bottle of champagne...they gave us a heck of hard time when we were throwing things in a suitcase, last minute to go because we were packing books and they refused utterly to let us go with books to read!
CLAIRE: We had a tug of war!
CAROL: So I went and got the Lesbian Kama Sutra and said, well can I take this, and they said yeah! (laughs). My daughter drove us to this place in my little 4x4 and they filled the whole thing with balloons...
CLAIRE: They'd put a blue plastic bucket between us with a whole lot of ice and bottle of Lindauer...
CAROL: I'm still getting bits of the balloons out the car. (laughs) So they ended to do the traditional thing, that was fine.
CLAIRE: We actually had a fantastic time, it was a really good idea to get rid of us. It was really special, there was a fantastic harbour view, which Carol loves, and we met them all at the museum later the next day...
CAROL: ...after we had rung home and said, ah – we have got no cards and no money! Help! We had $8 on us.
Do you feel any different subsequently?
CLAIRE: I didn't expect to feel different afterwards. But I was walking really tall the next day, and I felt really supported by the law, to be honest. Now, we shouldn't need to feel that. But the fact is, there is homophobia out there, there are people out there who hate same-sex relationships, and will actively work against relationships of love that people have, and I felt really supported by the fact that we've now had a civil union.
CAROL: I feel connected more strongly to Claire. I have more confidence that we can cope with whatever's thrown at us, because suddenly I am Claire's legal next of kin. Kinship is what's really important to us. No longer can Claire's parents, should I lose Claire, come in and claim her body, they can't take half my home...there is legal protection for our relationship, for our property...I am Claire's next of kin, and we are far more responsible for each other than we were before.
Any advice to other couples planning a civil union?
CAROL: I'd like to suggest to people that they sit down and really consider very deeply how much energy and time they want to put into it. If they're limited for energy and time, they should get it catered...I'm lucky, I'm a teacher so I knew I had that break (at Christmas), I knew I could rely on my family. Enjoy your day – because it's just so great.
The other thing about civil unions – it's the couple who should decide what's happening. You've got to be pretty staunch not to allow people to say this or that should be better. Keep going along the vision you have, or you'll be dissatisfied with the day.
CLAIRE: We didn't have that kind of pressure from our celebrant. The first celebrant we spoke to said something very important. When I said, I don't think we should do X because so-and-so will get upset, she said – stop right there. It's really important that this is your day, and you don't limit the things you want to do just because you think somebody will get upset.
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