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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Steve and Steve

Posted in: Civil Unions
By Chris Banks - 26th February 2006

Steve Auld & Stephen Attwood
Stephen Attwood (50) and Steve Auld (46) have been together six years, and both come from rural South Island families. Although they now live in Auckland, they held their civil union in Christchurch at the historic Warners Hotel.

Was there a proposal?

STEPHEN: For the civil union no, for living together yes. We're an internet couple, we courted for nearly three months without physically meeting, then met for the first time at Christmas. I had booked a campsite at Autumn Farm for the holidays, and Steve agreed to come with me. And on the 1st of January 2000, at about 3 in the afternoon, after sex (laughs) I proposed to him.

STEVE: I wasn't even out at the time.

STEPHEN: In fact, he came down to Christchurch, stayed with me for a few more days, went home to Dunedin, organised his affairs...

STEVE: ...came out...

STEPHEN: ...came out to his family, and wrote 74 letters to his family and friends telling them that he was gay and moving to Christchurch to live with a man (laughs).

How did the decision to have a civil union come about?

STEPHEN: We both come from very traditional, rural, salt-of-the-earth Kiwi families. I was having a discussion with my eldest brother at his place one day, about the difference in family reactions to the break-up of a marriage, and my previous partner and I breaking up. We had been together four and a half years, but when I announced to the family that we'd split up, it was hardly mentioned.

But when my niece broke up after only one year of marriage, the family put huge resources into trying to save it, to no avail. My brother thought about that for a while, because he was quite challenged by it. Then he said, it wasn't because you're gay – it's because you weren't married. It was that public declaration of marriage that made a big difference to the family. So he said to Steve and I, “why don't you two get married? You can have it here if you like.”

Which was where?

STEPHEN: At his farm, just outside of Geraldine. Which blew me away at the time, that was long before the Civil Union Bill came up.

But you eventually chose to have your ceremony in Christchurch. Why was that?

STEPHEN: We had 110 guests, which was far too many people for my brother's farm, most of our gay friends were Christchurch-based, and we just really liked the venue.

Tell us about that.

STEPHEN: Warners is a historic hotel, right in the centre of Christchurch, in the square. It has a really neat garden bar, that had become Steve's and my local. It was where we drank after work most days. It was a great venue. Warners is the bastion of blokiness really, it's got this huge history as one of Canterbury's oldest hotels.

STEVE: While we were having our civil union in the garden bar outside, there was a stag party going on inside for a straight boy.

Did people know what was going on?

STEVE: They couldn't really not be aware, especially when Miss Mole arrived!

What reactions did you get?

STEPHEN: We didn't see it, but we were told this afterwards... the garden bar is separated from the inside bar by a great big bi-folding door which is mostly glass. And apparently, they all had their faces to the windows... we found out later that the security guard actually moved people along, saying “this is a private function”.

STEVE: On the left hand side of the garden bar is a backpackers, and they were all hanging out the window, watching. You didn't know they were there, though...

How do you families view your relationship?

STEPHEN: For me, it was my second gay relationship since I came out, so my family had more time to get used to the idea. I think the fact that Steve was from a near-identical family helped. Less than a month after he moved in with me, he had to go to my mother's 80th birthday...

STEVE: And met his entire family in one night!

STEPHEN: And he fitted right in. Towards the end of that year, we had a portrait of us, and gave our respective mothers one each, framed. We were a little unsure how well it would go down, especially with Steve's mum because it was all still terribly new. But they were placed up with the other family portraits, and no apologies were made for it. I think also our families reacted well because it was obvious that we made each other very happy.

You wrote your own ceremony. Did you start from scratch?

STEPHEN: I went onto Google and came up with all sorts of different ceremonies, ranging from an Anglican ceremony which was quite religious but formal, through to a Wiccan one for some lesbian witches who literally danced over broomsticks...

STEVE: My stipulation was that it had to be short, and non-religious.

Are either of you religious?

STEPHEN: My spiritual side is quite important to me. He didn't mind if it was spiritual, as long as it wasn't religious.

STEVE: I don't have a religious bone in my body.

Did you sit down first and talk over the elements you wanted?

STEVE: There was no discussion at all until he'd written it (laughs).

STEPHEN: I just presented it to him and said, you can change this, it's the first draft, and he said it's perfect. Although I sat down and wrote it literally in one night, we'd had countless little conversations about different aspects of it over a considerable length of time.

Talk us through the ceremony.

STEVE: At the beginning of the ceremony, Stephen's eldest brother made a speech welcoming me to his family, and my oldest sister made a speech welcoming Stephen to my family.

STEPHEN: I was very conscious that for the first time not only were our two blood families coming together, it would also be the first time they had been exposed to gay culture, apart from us. So I was really conscious of those three “families”, and I knew I wanted a welcome. We had a gay friend of mine read one of Walt Whitman's poems. We had an exchange of vows, and we wanted an exchange of rings.

STEVE: When we decided we were going to have a civil union, there was only one person that I was going to have as my best person.

STEPHEN: And that happened to be a woman... so I thought it would be really cool to have two best women. I chose one of my nieces. So we had the welcome from the families, the exchange of vows, the gay poem, the rings, then the signing of the register – we had a George Michael song for that, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Then our two best girls made a joint speech in proposing a toast to the happy couple. The whole thing took 20 minutes.

What did you wear?

STEVE: I knew what Steve was going to wear, and that's not me...

STEPHEN: I'd always wanted a leather kilt. I love leather, I'm a leather queen. I approached some people in Tauranga who I'd bought some other leather gear off and asked them to make it, and it's a one-off. I had a white shirt with Scottish frills on it, and a Mackenzie tartan plaid. I didn't want to wear the shoes and the socks, so I had calf-length lace-up black leather army boots.

STEVE: And a sporran.

STEPHEN: Yeah, in the old tradition of something borrowed, I borrowed a sporran from one of Steve's friends.

STEVE: I always knew I was going to wear some kind of suit. Originally I wanted to wear a white one, but I got horribly told off by my favourite niece, saying I was not allowed to wear another white suit, because that's what I got married in the first time (laughs). So we went to a suit hire place and saw this gorgeous Matrix suit with the long jacket down to the ankles and everything. We ordered it, then thought we'd better go back the next week and actually try it on. I tried it on and it looked bloody awful!

STEPHEN: It didn't look anywhere near as good on Steve as it does on Keanu Reeves (laughs).

STEVE: So we wandered round the shop and saw this black and white gangster suit: black shirt, white tie, with a white handkerchief in the top, pinstripe suit with a waistcoat, and a black and white fedora hat. Tried that on...

STEPHEN: And it looked stunning.

It's interesting that there seems to be a convention for gay weddings that male couples dress similarly, which you didn't follow.

STEVE: We've been to several ceremonies before, and those couples did. They wore identical suits. We never even talked about that. We're so different and so individual anyway, it wouldn't have even looked right.

STEPHEN: He's not a leather queen for a start (laughs).

Some couples have been vehemently opposed to the use of the terms “wife”, “husband”, “marriage” and “wedding” because they see a whole lot of baggage coming with that. How do you guys feel about that? You've both been married before.

STEPHEN: We call each other husband all the time.

STEVE: I looked at the whole day as a way of confirming our love to each other, to confirm that to our families, and of course the legal aspects of it. All the way up to the day we kept on saying “marriage” instead of civil union simply because it's a bloody sight easier to say.

STEPHEN: We didn't go out of our way to avoid words like marriage or husband. The ceremony doesn't use those words, it talks about civil union and joining, but for me it's up to us how we interpret those things. I don't have to bring somebody else's baggage into my relationship, I interpret those words for me.

Did anything take you by surprise?

STEPHEN: Because we were exchanging rings, we were going round the jewellery shops and asking for two men's rings the same. That was really funny, the reactions we got. They ranged from a man who stood there gasping like a fish and then finally turning to a female staff member and saying, “Can you take this?” because he just couldn't cope. But most of the women loved the romance of the thing, and we got fantastic enthusiastic service.

STEVE: The whole day was a complete and utter surprise because we knew exactly what we wanted, but we didn't know how it was going to come off. Because it was a civil union, and in a lot of people's eyes not a marriage, I wasn't sure how the staff at the venue would handle it. Would there be somebody in the family who wasn't happy? You think about all those things. None of it happened, but it plays on your mind.

STEPHEN: If there was a surprise for me, it was actually the staff of the venue. The absolute enthusiasm, beyond professionalism, that the staff had for the day. They seemed to take as much delight in it as us.

STEVE: Probably the other thing was the emotion. Not just the emotion between Steve and I, which was a big part of the ceremony, but the emotion of our best women, of our families, and our gay family as well.

STEPHEN: When you put these things into words it sounds terribly twee, but honestly, there was a huge outpouring of love. That's the only way I can describe it. That's what our gay friends commented on, this overwhelming love from the families, that the families wanted this, and they made this very obvious from their words, behaviour and emotions on the day.

Did you feel a bit overwhelmed yourselves?

STEPHEN: Totally.

STEVE: I'm known for it in my family, I'm one of the most emotional people you'll ever meet in your life. I cried all the way through “ET” (laughs).

Best part of the day?

STEPHEN: It was just a perfect day. We had so many people come up to us afterwards – and it's still happening – people phoning, writing, emailing, saying that as a marriage ceremony, it was one of the most fulfilling they'd ever been to... Steve's mother, she's 70-something, has been to hundreds of weddings and she said she's never been to one that was as meaningful as that. The rural staunch Kiwi heterosexual blokes, we could see sitting there wiping away tears. It was obvious to them that this wasn't a gay politically correct thing, this was from the heart.

STEVE: For me, it was the ceremony and having Lee as my best woman, because we've been so close for 25 years. That, and the way everybody mixed. You didn't have to drag one person from this table to that, it just all happened. The leather boys were talking to my mother...

STEPHEN: Men who are not normally touch-feely and cuddly... it was almost as if it gave the straight guys the freedom to publicly express emotion, because the gay guys certainly were. We had a trannie as a marriage celebrant, and one of my favourite pictures of the night is my eldest brother, who's very staunch and very hetero just having a ball dancing with Joanne (laughs). I think he danced with her more than he danced with anybody!

Was there a worst part of the day?

STEPHEN: There wasn't really a worst part of the day.

STEVE: In hindsight, I wish we'd organised a video.

Did you get a honeymoon?

STEVE: We couldn't afford one (laughs).

STEPHEN: The hotel put us up in the honeymoon suite, the best room in the hotel, which had a big spa bath and balcony overlooking the square, and we were there for three days. That felt quite honeymoonish. We got lots of presents.

STEVE: We spent about an hour after the reception, at about half past two in the morning drinking wine and opening them. Then we had to go out on Sunday and buy more luggage so we could get the presents home!

STEPHEN: Fortunately, one of the presents we got was a fairly substantial amount of Farmers vouchers, so on the Sunday I went up there and bought this huge suitcase – big enough to fit a couple of bodies in! We packed everything very carefully, a lot of the presents were breakable. So here we are walking up to the Qantas counter at Christchurch Airport, and we already had a suitcase each plus hand luggage, and now this HUGE suitcase. So (laughs) there was this very pretty young woman behind the counter, and I walked up to her and said, putting on a bit of an act, “We've just had our civil union and we told our guests not to give us presents but look what they've done! That suitcase is full of wedding presents, so can you please put fragile vouchers on it, and how much extra is it going to cost us for excess baggage?”

STEVE: We were 49 kilos overweight.

STEPHEN: And she just went, “Oh congratulations, isn't that lovely? No excess baggage charge!” And unbeknownst to us she also put priority stickers on it so it got out of the plane first when we got to Auckland. All on the romance of the fact that we'd just had a civil union!

Any advice for other couples getting hitched?

STEPHEN: We set criteria for invitations, and we stuck to it. Our criteria for cousins, for example, was that they had to be people we'd both met, so they weren't coming to a wedding where one half of the couple was a stranger to them. Just little rules like that.

STEVE: We had to draw the line. Also, giving people freedom to dress how they wanted.

STEPHEN: We basically said anything from flash/casual up. But we also gave our gay friends permission to be gay. The leather guys asked can we wear our leathers? I said as long as I can see something underneath the chaps, I don't want to see a bare bottom poking out because my mother will be there (laughs). We had drag queens there, we had some of our more androgynous and flamboyant friends.

STEVE: And we'd already asked Joanne to do a number for us.

Do you feel any different now?

STEVE: Since the ceremony I haven't been able to take the smile off my face. Just because I can still remember it all... I feel different in that, although our families are close, it cements the fact that we are a couple.

STEPHEN: The legal stuff is important to us, partly because I've got three children and we've got quite complicated family trusts, so the whole legal next of kin status is very important. When I used to cover court cases many years ago as a journalist, I've seen the result of families squabbling over wills when things haven't been made clear. And while nobody ever expects their family will be like that, things like that happen. It's kind of hard to define, but our relationship has gone to a new level. It feels more cemented, that's the only way I can put it. It really meant something for me to stand in front of all those people and say, in the form of the vows that we took, that we want this to last forever. There's no escape clause. (laughs)

STEVE: And we can't afford a divorce anyway (laughs).

Chris Banks - 26th February 2006