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Gay elderly couple want to marry in Australia during their lifetime


A devoted couple from Sydney, Australia want one thing in their lifetime — to marry each other.

John Challis, 87, and Arthur Cheeseman, 83, met and fell in love in 1967.

"We met at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on the 27th October, 1967," Challis told Mashable Australia, recounting the evening like it was only days ago. "It was a Sunday night, and Arthur and I just happened to be walking out of the art gallery together. We were standing near each other in the foyer and I just turned around and smiled at him and he smiled back at me."

Challis asked Cheeseman if he would like to go and have a cup of coffee, and the pair chatted and found they had many things in common — an interest in the opera, gardening and art. "We met again the next day, and we met again the next day, and we met again the next day... and gradually our relationship built up, and we grew closer and closer together, and the years went on and on and here we are," Challis said.

As their relationship grew, they never faced prejudice from those around them. "Everybody just accepted us as we were," Challis said. He worked as head of science at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, while Cheeseman worked as a pharmacist. Things began to change, Challis explained, when he retired and realised Cheeseman wasn't eligible to receive his Commonwealth pension if he passed away, due to the fact the couple weren't in a civil union.

Decade of campaigning for equality
The couple have spent 48 years together but due to marriage laws in Australia have not been able to wed. Now, the tireless marriage equality campaigners are behind a local push to get marriage equality debated in Australian parliament.

"In Arthur's case, if I had died, Arthur would have got nothing. It goes straight back to the government, so I was extremely concerned about this. The pension belonged to the both of us, not just me," Challis said. "It seemed completely unjust and unfair that he wouldn't get the same entitlements as a wife. So I started campaigning about that."

He began campaigning the Howard Government for same-sex relationships to be recognised as a defacto partnership and to remove financial discrimination against gay couples. This eventually happened in 2009, following a 2007 Australian High Commission report that highlighted discrimination issues faced by couples in Australia.

It was a few years before this passion transferred to the gay marriage debate. Something changed for Challis after reading an editorial in a newspaper in 2012, which stated marriage was no longer a religious union but was instead a civil, secular contract that should be available to everyone. "That was an eye opener. I thought: 'That's right, my relationship with Arthur should be given the same recognition as everyone else's relationships.' At that stage I became an advocate for same sex marriage," he said.

The latest hope for Challis came with the Irish referendum earlier this year, which proved religion could once-and-for-all be put aside for equality. "The Irish people were prepared to follow their own instincts, and their own conscience, and overwhelming voted for same-sex marriage in Ireland. If they have got it, we have to get it," he said.

On the day of the announcement in May, Challis and Cheeseman joined thousands of Australians on the streets. "It was a tremendous occasion, a great feeling of enthusiasm and euphoria," he explained. "Everyone thought: 'It won't be long now.'"

Australia's same-sex marriage situation
Months later, Australia has still not made any substantial progression towards a change of marriage law. Challis and Cheeseman's relationship was used as an example by Coalition MP Warren Entsch when he presented a same-sex marriage bill to parliament on Monday.

"The main purpose of this bill is not a complex one," Entsch told Parliament. "It is to give same-sex couples in Australia the same right to marry the person they love as that which is currently only granted by law to heterosexual couples.

"This bill is designed to promote an inclusive Australia, not a divided one. A divided nation is what we will be if we continue to allow discrimination in relation to marriage on the basis of a person's sexuality."

Last week, after a lengthy debate surrounding Entsch's proposed bill, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed the possibility of a conscience vote by politicians being undertaken during this term of parliament, and instead deferred it to a decision by the people, ultimately delaying any outcome in the immediate future.

Now, it seems either a referendum or plebiscite will decide whether same-sex marriage will be legal in Australia. A referendum is a vote by the people — it's successful when a majority of people in a majority of states vote in favour of it. While a plebiscite is a vote that is won by the national majority.

"The best chance now is that we have a plebiscite. I hope we will do what the Irish did, and vote overwhelmingly in favour of it," Challis said. "But I would hope it won't be a bitter, disputed thing. It has the potential to bring the worst out in people. There is still a lot of blatant homophobia just under the surface in Australia."


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