Marriage equality debate deja vu for Bendigo man four decades after he first came out

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Warm is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about how to describe Drew Reid. 

It feels like a hackneyed choice but sitting opposite him at his dining room table, and having just been offered a hot drink, it is the most obvious and the most accurate word. 

I first spy him through the lounge room window. It is dusk and he’s silhouetted in the orange light of a table lamp. He appears to be reading. But when he hears a car in the driveway, he’s immediately on the porch to welcome us.

His eyes, rimmed by the dark frames of round glasses, are kind. There’s a small enamel pin of the rainbow pride flag attached to the pocket of his purple polo shirt. 

This is his family home, the one he grew up in and the one in which he came out to his parents some 40 or more years ago. It is the topic of sexuality – or the marriage equality debate, to be precise – that we are here to discuss. 

Gleefully, the 63-year-old recounts the joy of seeing a recent front page of the Bendigo Advertiser on which quotes from Christian leaders in support of marriage equality were written. His joy turned to sadness the following day when responses from other church figureheads, arguing against giving same-sex couples the ability to marry, were shared.   

“The conservative part of the church can be so destructive, and I wasn't prepared to let that go by without comment,” he said. 

For Drew, who was raised a Christian, the current debate about marriage equality feels familiar; it is transporting him to times past when same-sex attracted people – himself included – felt the sting of public judgment. 

He finds parallels between now and the AIDS crisis, when gay men were feared, reviled even, because of the virus decimating their community.   

Before then was the time Drew’s own church made him so feel so unwelcome there was no choice but to back away. 

Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Drew was a parishioner at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Myers Street, Bendigo. The same church that this week used its billboard to encourage marriage survey participants to vote according to love, not fear, was the cause of much consternation for his family in the 1970s. 

At the time, Drew was 19 and had postponed a move to Sydney while his mother underwent treatment for breast cancer. It was during this return to town he met the late Neil Roxburgh, with whom he would share a 16-year-long relationship. But most of St Paul’s congregation viewed their romance disapprovingly, Drew remembered.   

“There were some lovely people who hugged me as they always had, but others couldn't bear to even shake my hand - it was like I was contaminated,” he said.

“There was a whole lot of pressure placed on Mum and Dad to be doing something about me, and us, really huge pressure. 

“I stepped away because my presence in the church caused too much discomfort for many of the parishioners – there were far more of them than those who loved me just as always.”

Marriage meaning has changed 

His coming out and the church’s response were difficult hurdles for the family. While Drew’s father also stopped attending the church, his mother was torn between her faith and her love for her son. 

“She was really damaged by that dilemma, and was unable to stand up in that sort of environment and say, 'Hey, my son is a good man, don't talk about him in that derogatory way'.

“After about five years of a very rocky road, we all stabilised, and came to terms with my sexuality, new identity and relationship. Mum and Dad and my brothers were just wonderful.”

Religion no longer played a role in Drew’s life and the contradictions within Christian doctrines and practices still confounded him, particularly on the topic of marriage equality.  

In a letter to the editor this week, he explained although passages rebuking homosexuality were commonly used as arguments against same-sex marriage, parts of the Bible rarely used as evidence contained attitudes about marriage out of step with modern expectations.

“For example, marriage is lifetime commitment (Mark 10:2-12) or marriage is for procreation (Genisis 1:28 and Timothy 2:15),” he wrote. 

“Divorce is forbidden and a divorced man or a woman who remarries is commiting adultery (Luke 16:18, Matthew 19:9).

“[But] marriage can be ended, divorce is allowed, remarriage is permitted and married couples can choose not to have children.”

For him, it is the conflation of the debate with other matters – like gay mothers and fathers’ ability to parent, or the Safe Schools program  – that is most frustrating. 

“The vote no campaign relentlessly targets the notion that kids growing up in a gay environment are not getting well-balanced nurturing, that they miss out on so much and are second class  – all that sort of nonsense,” he said. 

But the survey should not be a vote on anything other than allowing two people, who love each other, the right to marry, regardless of their sex, he said.

He also cautioned the yes campaign to remain respectful, citing the treatment of tennis player and preacher Margaret Court, who was publicly lampooned this year for her opposition to marriage equality, as an example of how even LGBTI people and their supporters could play ugly. It was too spiteful and he is tired of hateful, hurtful vitriol.   

“Everyone has the right to have an opinion,” he said. 

New beginnings are cause for hope

It is a rule Drew has put to use in the relationship he shares today.  

After recently returning from several years living in Darwin, Drew reconnected with an old church friend, Noel Richards.  

When Drew departed from the church, Noel continued, was ordained and eventually rose to the position of Archdeacon. 

Noel had retired to Bendigo when the pair met again and over time their friendship has evolved into a loving relationship, one that has been warmly embraced by their throng of family and friends.

The strange symmetry – the humour, even – of a lapsed Christian embarking on a relationship with an Anglican priest is not lost on Drew. But he said it was of little consequence that his partner was of faith, and he was not.  

What was important was respect and equality; Noel’s words were among those of Christian leaders published on the Advertiser’s front page last month. 

Asked whether they would consider tying the knot if same-sex marriage was made law, Drew said it was something he once never considered. 

“I still see no need to be married, but it is about having the choice: if there is to be true equality, everyone must have the same choices,” he said.

He is cautiously optimistic that the majority of respondents will return surveys in favour of changing the law so same-sex couples can wed.  

That hope is born of his experience with young people, who he meets while working at Latrobe University; he previously worked with LGBTI youth at headspace Bendigo.

“Their attitude toward equality is amazing, and whilst a few may be grappling with their own identity, there are no issues for any of them them about sexuality, gender, race or religion, they're just so open,” he said.

Also comforting were memories of the Bendigonians who did not shun him and his former partner when he came out four decades ago.

“Most people, young and old, just accepted us as a couple. We lived and worked together as a couple, and were invited to things as a couple, just like any other,” he said.

“In some ways, we were front-runners and hopefully, made it easier for those who followed.”

It is dark by the time Drew finishes his story, 7.30pm perhaps. His glasses, which he earlier removed, again frame his eyes. 

He tells me Noel is coming for dinner and then he has some work to do, preparing for a fundraiser to support a local family who’s young son is battling a rare form of muscular dystrophy.   

As he shows us to the door, light catches on the rainbow flag pinned to his pocket. 

The reflection is golden.