As marriage equality becomes law, we remember those for whom the legal reform came too late

REMEMBRANCE: Max Primmer holds a picture of him and his late partner, Ken, who passed away 17 years before same-sex couples were given the opportunity to wed. Picture: MARK KEARNEY
REMEMBRANCE: Max Primmer holds a picture of him and his late partner, Ken, who passed away 17 years before same-sex couples were given the opportunity to wed. Picture: MARK KEARNEY

When Max Primmer first heard on Thursday the Australian Parliament had given its approval to marriage equality, he was at the home of a lesbian couple for whom he does some cleaning.   

The three of them danced in the kitchen to celebrate.  

But later, when he was driving home and alone, the Bendigo radio presenter realised the moment was a bittersweet one.  

His fiance, Ken, died in 2000, years before same-sex couples would be given the right to wed and four days before their 30th anniversary.

“We did talk about it and we said it would be great if we could get married,” Mr Primmer, who has hosted Phoenix FM program Rainbow Radio for 13 years, said.

“We would’ve done it just for the fact of being able to do it after all those years of being second class citizens.”

The pair met when seated at adjacent tables in a Melbourne cafe in 1970 and their conversation continued onto the street. 

“I was going up Elizabeth Street, he was going down Elizabeth Street, and he said to me: ‘Do you want to come out tonight? Do you want to come to the drive-in tonight?’” Mr Primmer remembered.

He said yes and one week later, they moved in together. It would last until Ken succumbed to a heart attack three decades on.

Over that time, the two men ran several businesses – a video shop, a tea room, milkbars –  and even though they spent their days with one another, there was always more to talk about once they got home.   

Remembering Ken

Speaking about Ken in a Bendigo cafe, Mr Primmer produces two photos of the pair. In one, they can be seen holidaying in Perth. Ken’s bold, woollen jumper puts the date at some time in the 1980s. 

The other shows the couple ready for a fancy dress ball, with Mr Primmer unrecognisable in drag. A blonde wig crowns his head and eyebrows arch up towards his hairline. 

“On that particular night, Ken actually proposed,” he said.

“I walked out of the bedroom just like that, and he was waiting for me, and he actually said: ‘do you want to marry me?’” 

They would never get that chance.  

But while marriage laws were not on their side, Mr Primmer said he and Ken were otherwise treated the same as other couples.

They never hid their relationship and it was that honesty that Mr Primmer thinks fostered a spirit of welcomeness in those they met. He and Ken were the first invited to every party, they were welcomed into the homes of their neighbours and, during a stint as owners of a Sandringham milkbar, they were entrusted with watching out for the wellbeing of the neighbourhood’s children.

Even when heart problems saw Ken hospitalised, Mr Primmer was never stopped from being by his partner’s side.

“I’m guessing we were pretty lucky,” he said, joking that all his misfortunate was used up when he was born on Friday, December 13.

“I would just sit with him, talk to him, take laundry home to do it, and never once was I told not to.”

Not everyone was so lucky, though. When AIDS ravaged their friendship circle, many men were not afforded the same dignity. Mr Primmer also recounted the story of a friend who lost his partner to bowel cancer only to be denied a final farewell. 

”By the time he got to the hospital, the parents had been in, taken the body, taken everything,” Mr Primmer said.

“He wasn’t invited to the funeral, all his stuff was taken out of the house.”

That was why marriage equality was important to his community, Mr Primmer said.

“They will know their property, their rights, are enshrined in law, and know their partner will never be taken away from them.”

That change was a long time coming. Mr Primmer’s father, Cyril, was a Labor Party senator in the federal parliament between 1970 to 1984, surviving the double dissolution of 1974 and the constitutional crisis of the next year to be among those that ushered in Medicare and free university education.

The younger Primmer said his sexuality was never used against his father and was adamant the man would not have tolerated anything of the sort.

Cyril would have been “totally devastated” it took so long to give same-sex couples a right others had enjoyed for years, his son said.  

“He would’ve been mad that it was such a roundabout way of doing it,” Mr Primmer said. 

“He just wanted the same for everybody in the same country.” 

It was a frustration Mr Primmer shared, asking why the reform could not have been passed with the same expediency John Howard used to change the definition of marriage in 2004.  

“It was just done with a stroke of a pen, so why couldn’t they have gone in with a packet of white-out and written it out?” 

He also thought the high participation rate in the postal survey was evidence the entire community – not only LGBTI people – just wanted the matter dealt with. 

Now that it was done, Mr Primmer said he would relish the chance to be married – if the right person came along.

“I would do it all again because it is the most wonderful feeling: to be able to wake up with someone, to go to bed with someone, to have someone else in the house,” he said.

“I think it would be nice to have someone like that as you approach the end of your life.”