Once is enough

By David Marr
Reflections on weddings after the legislation of marriage equality – an extract

I am, of course, cock-a-hoop about the Marriage Amendment Act. Couldn’t be happier. Wept on television. How good it was to see the last division in parliament that afternoon – the Yes side of the house as packed as the Royal Easter Show and on the other side four lonely figures voting No. After all these months of ugly blather let’s never forget that sight: the forces we are up against can be counted on one hand with a thumb to spare.

By late that night my man and I had been offered a cake, a venue and a DJ for our wedding. But we’re holding back. We have no plans. I’m not proud of the reason for this. It’s not just the embarrassing prospect of Sebastian and me kitted out in matching tuxedos, with matching carnations and matching flowers. I’m terrified of the ceremony itself.

You see: I’ve been married, and that midwinter day in Queensland in 1975 remains the most troubling day of my life by a long, long way; the day I came face to face – not before time and not without chemical assistance – with the Inescapable Truth.

I was a bit embarrassed by the whole thing so the wedding was a small affair: just a few family and a few friends at a weatherboard church in Montville, which in those days was still a pretty village on a high ridge behind the Sunshine Coast.

It was not one of those Australian weddings where the best man is in love with the groom. Not by a long shot. But who has not heard stories of what goes on between grooms and best men on their last nights together in bush motels? Who has not noticed sidelong glances at the altar as best men and grooms wait for the intrusive arrival of the bride? Not for us. I was standing there in an old tweed jacket at St Mary’s Montville to set things straight.

Everything went perfectly: the ceremony, the photographs, lunch – a delicious spread – and then at about three o’clock our families disappeared, leaving Jennie and me and half a dozen friends on the verandah of what real estate agents these days call “a Queenslander” to enjoy the distant view, the afternoon sun and the wedding presents.

My wife of a few hours had an old schoolfriend from Firbank who turned hippie and was living with a man in the Dandenongs. They had come to the wedding not with Georg Jensen spoons but a little something for the bridal couple to while away the afternoon. “This is clearlight,” she said, handing us little shards of gelatin. “It’s just a taste. Just a taste.” A few of us washed them down with warm champagne.

LSD was starting to seem old fashioned by this time. We knew about the music, the T-shirts, the catastrophes. But what we didn’t know about at this point – and would not learn for decades – were efforts by the CIA to use LSD as a truth drug. The aim? To break commie prisoners as a red tide threatened to sweep down through Asia. But after many years of scientific investigation the CIA abandoned Project MKUltra. I quote an internal report:

By disrupting defensive patterns, LSD may sometimes be helpful in interrogation, but even under the best conditions it will elicit an output contaminated by deception, fantasy, garbled speech, etc. No such magic brew as the popular notion of a truth serum exists …

All I can say to the CIA at this distance is: you didn’t ask me.

Like marriage, the drug was a first time for me. How perfect that name clearlight seemed when, after a little, the sun paused to illuminate the landscape spread far below us, to stroke the little towns and farms, the remnant patches of forest and the distant ocean with a soft yet intense light – a quality of light I’d never noticed in my life, certainly never on the many occasions I’d looked down on the Sunshine Coast from the heights of Montville.

I have an urge – an unfortunate urge – to point out beauty to anyone in my vicinity. It’s a compulsion I can’t fight. I feel the need to place at the service of others my remarkable eye for beautiful landscapes, beautiful books, beautiful people, beautiful everything …

“Look at Nambour,” I said. And there was gentle, knowing laughter along the verandah. Not yet celebrated as the birthplace of Kevin Rudd, the sugar refinery belching smoke into the late afternoon air, Nambour did seem at that moment ravishingly beautiful in the distance.

And then came the moment of truth. I had been married not five hours and with perfect clarity – yes, chemically assisted clarity – I knew what I had done was wrong. The wedding was a mistake. A life mistake. Yet I felt absolutely calm, almost relieved, as the certainty of my blunder settled on me.

In my research for this piece – for I was determined it would be more than confessional – I came across the words of an American psychoanalyst called Sidney Cohen, an early LSD researcher and mate of Aldous Huxley. He captured exactly my mood late on my wedding day: “The problems and strivings, the worries and frustrations of everyday life vanished,” he wrote. “In their place was a majestic, sunlit, heavenly inner quietude.” Exactly. And a heap of trouble.

The only drug I recommend to anyone these days is Panadol. I could never endorse LSD, not after all I’ve read and all that happened on that Montville afternoon over forty years ago. I didn’t have terrifying hallucinations. I didn’t see the world ending in a rain of toads. I didn’t jump out a window. I faced the truth that I was queer. It would have come, of course. Inevitably. But did it have to come on my wedding day?

Twenty years later I met the man who has been my partner ever since. We backed the campaign for equal marriage. And once it was all settled, all done and dusted, our friends assumed we would marry. For a few hours it seemed like the right idea. I would ask my straight best man to be best man again. I would insist on gifts.

But then I thought of the last time and hesitated. Jennie has died. That old Queenslander was demolished years ago to make way for a shopping centre. Nambour remains down there in the valley as ugly as ever. Even as the public gallery in the House of Representatives burst into song after the final vote on the bill I thought of Nambour. It just popped into my head: Nambour as a warning.

My man isn’t keen to wed. “We’ve had our ceremony,” he said and he was right. A couple of years after we met, we were on the dance floor at Mardi Gras. Who spoke first we can’t now remember. But in the face of that congregation of thousands and with the perfect sobriety that comes at about 3am on such nights, we agreed: “We’re married.”


This is an edited version of David Marr’s speech at Queerstories, Sydney, 19 January 2018, and is included in My Country, an anthology of Marr’s work, published by Black Inc ($39.99), available now.

David Marr

David Marr is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the award-winning Patrick White: A Life, Quarterly Essay 38, ‘Power Trip’, and co-author of Dark Victory. He has been a reporter with Four Corners and the host of Media Watch.

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