July 2009

The Nation Reviewed

A gay old time

By Benjamin Law
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

If the huddled group of males gathered outside on the kerbside were teenagers, you’d say they were loitering: hanging out after dark; warming their hands in a circle; talking in low, conspiratorial murmurs. But as it happens, all of the men are in their late fifties and sixties, either already in their senior years or about to collide with them. When I approach them, they acknowledge me with polite smiles at first, until I get closer and they see I’m in my twenties. That’s when the jokes start. “You’re a bit young to be here, aren’t you?” they say. When I make a quip about simply using the right moisturiser, they all start hooting in response, mock-scandalised. “Oh stop,” one man drawls, before shaking his head and lighting a cigarette.

What these men have in common are two things: their age, and the fact that they’re all gay. Tonight, they’re also all waiting for the same thing to begin: a seminar called ‘Getting Ready for Retirement: Age Pension and Your Choice’. Tonight’s talk is one in a year-long series of similar sessions arranged by QAHC – the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities – that specifically caters for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people approaching their retirement years. Upcoming seminars have similarly informative-sounding but vaguely sad titles, such as ‘Wills, Advance Health Directives and Enduring Powers of Attorney’ and ‘Elder Abuse and Financial Exploitation’.

One of the men waiting outside tonight is Ross, who recently turned 60 but looks younger, like a friendlier, more handsome version of Alan Jones. Contrary to everyone’s smart-talk about my youth, Ross says I’ll probably benefit the most from the seminar. He should know: he used to be an economist. “The best time to start thinking about retirement is actually when you’re in your mid twenties or thirties,” he says. “Then you might actually stand a chance. By the time you’re our age, it’s usually too late.”

Once we’re inside, another man, named Colin – tall, spectacled, in his sixties – keeps dropping comments that suggest it’s already too late for him. After piling cut sandwiches and fruit onto his plate, he sighs. “Free catering’s definitely good for poor bastards like me,” he says. “Never in my life did I ever expect I’d be this poor. Never.” After selling off his business during the last recession, in the early ’90s, Colin says he had no choice but to live off the government pension. He was deemed too old to get a new job, and didn’t have a boyfriend to rely on. He keeps asking me to repeat myself, until we both realise I’m talking into his bad ear. He jokes that he probably needs to invest in an ear trumpet or something.

When the talk begins, there are around 15 men in total, all but me over 50. One bearded man in flannelette wears diamond studs like an aging rocker; close by, a regal businessman in polished leather loafers takes notes on the in-house stationery of a five-star hotel. A mixed bunch, they’ve also come bearing mixed feelings. The pressing issue tonight is federal reforms that, from this month, will see same-sex couples recognised for the first time in tax, superannuation, welfare, immigration, citizenship and veterans’ affairs. On paper, it is a cause for celebration. But for couples relying on the pension, the consequences of the new legislation will be swift and cruel. Their pension entitlements will now be calculated by taking into account both partners’ incomes. For many, this will mean a cut to their benefits. Everyone is armed with pen and paper.

Tonight’s speaker is a Centrelink representative called David, who leads us through 90 minutes of PowerPoint slides. With his moustache and serious eyes, David has the look of a small-town sheriff. For most of the evening, he is kind and gentle, as when he’s discussing the importance of disclosing income and assets to Centrelink.

“We had a couple who still rented out a chalet in France,” David says, “and they just neglected to tell us about it.”

“Oh, poor things,” someone says sarcastically.

“We kept asking why they were going overseas regularly,” David continues, “and where they were staying. Turns out, it was a proper chalet, worth quite a bit, and they were getting good income from it too.”

“Oh, it makes you cry, doesn’t it?”

But David’s resemblance to someone in law enforcement helps when he wants to emphasise the importance of disclosing your same-sex relationship to Centrelink. “We won’t know if your circumstances change unless you tell us,” he says. “But be aware that we can do data matches with authorities. We have authority to force anyone to disclose information. We can write to a bank, an employer, or a next-door neighbour, and extract information if we need to.” As he says that, part of me feels as though a witch-hunt has just been announced: Come out, gay couples, or you will be punished. You have been warned.

Later, Paul – a dark-haired man who is 60 – admits that it did initially cross his mind not to disclose his own relationship, despite having been with his partner, Don, for 24 years. But the pair attended another QAHC seminar earlier in the year, where the speaker outlined exactly how a couple is defined by Centrelink. They went through a series of questions: Do you consider yourself a couple? Do your friends, relatives and neighbours consider you a couple? Do you sleep together? How is your household organised? Do you consider your future together?

“Based on all of those questions,” Paul says, “I’d have to say, ‘Yes, we are a couple.’ If someone dobbed us in, and they asked us those questions, it would be only too obvious.” Although Paul has superannuation, Don receives a Centrelink pension which, after July, will change from a single’s to a couple’s rate: a cut of $2500 a year. Paul says he fully understands that equality comes at a price: in his case, literally. Now they plan to pool their money. A cut to Don’s finances, Paul reasons, should also be a cut to his.

These legislative changes have been in the works since 2007, when the Australian Human Rights Commission published the report Same-Sex: Same Entitlements. Over 400 pages, the report highlighted 58 federal laws that discriminated against same-sex couples. The report was presented to Philip Ruddock, who was the attorney-general at the time. In April 2008, the new attorney-general, Robert McClelland, announced that changes were afoot: the Rudd government would change all the laws identified in the report, as well as 26 others.

After those changes were passed into law, Centrelink advertisements began to appear, slathered across gay magazines and newspapers. The ads pictured two identical twin-sets of bath towels or toothbrushes: one labelled “gay”, the other “straight”. “Couples are couples,” the text read in bold, coloured caps. The campaign grated on many queer welfare groups, who argue that gay couples have not been given enough time to reassess personal-finance arrangements that may have been in place for years – sometimes decades.

In any case, many gay and lesbian seniors don’t even read gay magazines, which tend to target younger people. Tellingly, most of the men here tonight have never even heard of Newstart before. When David from Centrelink mentions it, one man asks, “Is this ‘Newstart’ in any way comparable to the dole?” Gently, David smiles and explains that Newstart is the dole. “Oh, I wasn’t aware,” the man says, embarrassed. Then everyone else starts chuckling: they’re truly out of the loop, they realise.

The only other man under 50 in the room is Paul Martin, 37, QAHC’s general manager. He has been lobbying the government to introduce a ‘grandfather’ clause, a compassionate phasing-in period that has applied to every other major social-security change in the past 15 years. Those calls have largely been ignored.

Still, Martin remains philosophical, and says most of the legislative changes are good for same-sex couples. Young lesbian couples can now save money by submitting joint tax returns; old gay seniors can more easily inherit their partner’s superannuation. And Martin knows that whatever happens, the gay community – especially its baby boomers – have grown up taking care of one another. “They did it with HIV,” he says. “We need to activate that approach now for older people.”

Afterwards, the other Paul – the 60-year-old who has been with his partner for over two decades – assures me they’ll be fine. When I ask how $2500 less a year will affect them in practical terms, he’s very cool about it all. “Well, I’ve always been frugal with money, and we still intend to have holidays,” he says. “You can’t keep putting those things off. One of you might die.”

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


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