A few hours after I came out to my mother in person, she called me crying on the phone. She was not upset at the news, nor overly shocked, but she was worried. What kind of life was I going to have, she wondered aloud.
For my mum, who was raised in a coal-mining town in West Virginia, and who raised her kids in a blue-collar suburb of southeastern Sydney, being gay seemed like a kind of sentence: a lifetime of being treated differently, and – because it was what she had seen in so many gay men of her own generation – a lifetime of loneliness.
A consensus, cross-party senate report has clarified issues surrounding same-sex marriage, including religious exemptions.
She's a mother; she didn't want that for her son.
That phone call sprung to mind this week as I was read reports about a US study of the health and financial benefits of marriage for those in the LGBT community.
In 2014, University of Washington researchers surveyed 1800 LGBT people, 50 and older, in US locations where same-sex marriage is legal; roughly a quarter were married, a quarter were in long-term relationships, and the rest were single. The results released this month show that the married LGBT people were in better physical and mental health, had more financial resources and greater levels of social support than both their single counterparts and those couples who hadn't made it official.
It turns out that – as it is for heterosexuals – marriage is good for the health and wellbeing of lesbians and gay men.
This is not surprising. Aside from tax exemptions and other governmental goodies to which marriage opens the door, the LGBT demographics that have taken the greatest advantage of same-sex marriage in the US are already those best positioned to prosper in the first place. That is, they're mostly healthy, wealthy and white.
But back to mum. For my mother, and many people like her that I know, these findings, and the very existence of a study like this, challenge long-held perceptions about what it is to live a "gay life" and to grow old as an LGBT person: the lonely life of a "spinster" or the much-gossiped about life of a "bachelor" (best pronounced with eyebrows knowingly raised, whispered to a friend as the "bachelor" in question passes you in the Woolies aisle). Being married well into middle age – let alone prosperously so – did not seem an option.
For many in mum's generation, raising their sons and daughters in the suburbs, the common narrative around older gay life – even if it veered wildly from the reality for a lot of the people living it – centred on difference and, frankly, suffering. Ours was a group ravaged by the AIDS crisis, under threat of violence, and one who often worked hard to keep our identities hidden. The long-held joys of gay life – finding identity in a community, the celebration of fabulous difference and creativity – were not always at the forefront of our public image.
As the LGBT community takes its place in the mainstream, the idea of a "gay life", from early adulthood to death, is changing. Many older gay men I know tell me they would never have imagined that the day would come when they could marry the man that they love; now they're the subject of the kind of bland "is marriage beneficial" studies that fuel morning-TV segments. The normalisation is racing towards completion.
As the study itself notes, for some, this is no great thing. Difference, so often cast as a negative, has long been a point of pride in the LGBT community; marriage is a construct of the very institutions, religious and governmental, that have been key forces of oppression. I admit that when I walked down the aisle myself two years ago, this thought weighed on me: should I be so happy to be doing something so normal?
The key thing is: I had a choice – I was able to ask that question.
As the LGBT community gains more rights, grows more visible, and as attitudes towards us shift, the possibilities for our futures expand. We can live as open bachelors, or in long-term couples, or get married, or do anything in between. Just like everyone else does. And as we live those various iterations, the stereotypical idea of a "gay life" will change, because there will be too many types – lived openly – to bring into a single focus.
I think my mother's response, and her concern, was fairly typical. But I think if I were coming out to her today, or in a decade, I wouldn't have gotten that follow-up call. She would be curious about the life I would lead – the possibilities are growing – but not concerned.
Joel Meares is a Fairfax Media columnist.