“How many ‘suicides’ were actually gay hate murders?”: Michael Burge

Michael Burge's latest book, "Tank Water", explores themes that are dear to his heart: respect, fairness and justice for the LGBTQI community. Photo: supplied.

Michael Burge’s debut novel Tank Water explores a world in which one lonely farm boy in every generation kills himself – and turns up something few have discussed: being gay in the bush. It has also brought fresh attention to his first non-fiction book, Questionable Deeds, which documents his attempt to change a system rigged with inequality against same-sex widowers. He spoke to editor-at-large Gary Nunn

It was winter of the year 2000 and Michael Burge was at the Blackheath Dance, in the chilly upper Blue Mountains, making eyes across the dancefloor at the man who’d come to warm his cold nights: Jono, a talented choreographer.

Having just returned to Australia from an extended stint in London, the journalist turned author was delighted to meet a man with whom he could be himself and find happiness.   

Four years of coupled bliss followed. 

Then, one day, whilst in rehearsal for a work he was directing and choreographing, Jono collapsed and died instantly of an undiagnosed heart-related condition. He was 44.

What happened next became the subject of Burge’s first non-fiction book, the self-published Questionable Deeds. 

“I was almost completely disenfranchised from my position as Jono’s next of kin,” Burge tells The Sentinel.

The couple weren’t able to be married – it was 2004 – but they’d been in a de-facto, cohabiting relationship.

“It was insidious – I was removed from all documentation and decision making,” Burge, 52, says.

“It was incredibly disrespectful and difficult to deal with at the same time as being in grief. It was a really confronting couple of years. The situation politicised me as a journalist.”

The investigative narrative Burge wrote made an eloquent argument for marriage equality and laid the ground for the success Burge is enjoying today as a journalist and writer: a position as deputy editor of Guardian Australia’s rural network, and a publishing deal for his debut fiction novel, Tank Water.

“A lot of gay hate crimes were made to look like suicides”

Burge’s novel continues the themes he’s passionate about: fairness and respect for LGBTQI people, but from a new angle.

In the book, his protagonist, James, a gay journalist who has moved from the country to the city, returns to his rural home to investigate a death. It’s being claimed as a suicide, but James suspects it could be something else, something the community is perhaps conspiring to hush up: a homophobic hate crime. A murder. 

Michael Burke (left) with his former partner, Jono who passed away at the age of 44. Photo: supplied.

The novel transports us between two time zones, 2005 and 1985, with the young James finding a coming-of-age mutual same-sex attraction in an unusual and potentially dangerous place: within his own extended family.

With the recent high-profile conviction of Scott Johnson’s killer, the novel’s themes couldn’t be more timely. But this has been a long-time labour of love for Burge.

“It has taken 10 years to go from the idea to holding the book in my hand,” Burge says.

“Most of that time I was writing a gripping rural family saga, but the new idea opened of it being a crime novel, so I pivoted to that.” It now sits in a genre known as ‘outback noir’.

It follows the 2018 announcement that an inquiry would be set up by the NSW Government to re-investigate 88 deaths that were potential anti-gay hate crimes.

“I realised a lot of gay hate crimes were made to look like suicides,” Burge says.

“That’s what made me change my book. It was a pivotal year in the history of the journey to justice for the survivors and families of those crimes.” 

To write fiction on such a loaded and sensitive subject, Burge knew a mammoth task was ahead of him.

“I knew, if I want to do that, I have to do lots of research to ensure it’s not only believable, but it actually honours the families and survivors and also the men themselves, who, in many cases, their cases are just sitting there, uninvestigated.”

The novel gives one of those victims the investigation he deserves. Is the gay journalist of the book, James, based in any way on Burge?

“It’s not really my story directly, although it has reflections around my story. This is my first novel – you write what you know!” he says.

“Whilst he’s a journalist like me, James has a lot more guts as a young man than I ever did.”

The only closeted boy at NIDA

Michael Burge grew up in the rural New England area of northern NSW.

Escaping the country for the big city drama school, he won a place at Sydney’s prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) – but remained closeted.

Tank Water has been described as ‘an unforgettable ride,’ as it transports the reader to two periods of history, 2005 and 1985. Video: Michael Burge/YouTube.

“I must’ve been one of the very few NIDA graduates who was closeted throughout!” he says, adding he doesn’t think he was fooling anyone.

“I don’t want to be flippant about those still closeted or considering coming out – it’s a very personal choice.”

During this time he felt he had “two families” – one each in the city and the bush – and never the twain did meet. “There was never a bridge between the two,” he says.

And so, he packed up and left for England in 1992.

“Really, it was to run away and release myself from this fear of being discovered,” he says.

“England had decriminalised homosexuality in 1967. NSW didn’t do so until 1984, so I thought I’d be more liberated there – although I still remained deeply closeted for a long time, even when there.”

He attributes this to coming from the country.

“In Australia’s bush history, gay people face a terrible choice at the farmhouse dinner table: either lie, to keep your place at the table, or leave,” he says.

“That stays with you long afterwards.”

When he returned to Australia, he came out by writing letters to everyone who mattered to him.

“I’ve always expressed myself better through writing,” he says. Shortly after, he met Jono. 

Disenfranchised and lumbered with debts

What surprised Burge about the disenfranchisement following Jono’s sudden death was that Jono’s family had accepted his sexual orientation and, seemingly, the couple’s relationship.

“Some of them had stayed with us and we’d done all the regular family things: visits at Christmas and birthdays. So it was such a shock,” Burge says. 

“But in hindsight, I could see all the signs of the difficulty with the reality of their gay son. He was completely infantilised by them. They never really allowed him his own life or self-determination.”

The main way he was disenfranchised was being denied Jono’s death certificate.

“Jono left far more debts than assets. And those debts were over my head while I couldn’t even prove that he’d died without his death certificate.”

He says it’d have been a “terrible time” to lash out at the family, who were also grieving, so he poured his anger over the injustice into the book instead.

Further surprises awaited.

“I discovered a journal he’d written,” Burge says.

“It contained revelations about his family’s reaction to him coming out. Some things he had told me, but I think the extent of their denial, he never really told me.”

Burge’s writing has explored themes such as marriage equality and the rights of same-sex couples. Photo: supplied.

In addition to challenging the system himself in court, Burge also meets others disenfranchised from their same-sex partners during death – particularly during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Writing Questionable Deeds a decade later wasn’t only cathartic; it was political.

“It was a manifesto about why marriage equality was required because so many commentators including, I hasten to add, in the gay community – believed that de facto laws were enough to protect surviving spouses in certain situations of death.

“My case proved otherwise.”

“To writers in the LGBTQI+ community, I want to say: don’t despair. Keep pushing. Our time has come.”

– Michael Burge

The publication of Tank Water has brought fresh attention to the 2015 self-published book.

“The first edition, I published myself because I couldn’t find an agent or a publisher in this country who was willing to take it on,” he says.

“I got some very close bites. But a publishing contract is a commercial deal; someone’s got to put up the money.”

The writer expresses optimism for queer writers of today.

“It’s changing: we have a wave of queer fiction, nonfiction and journalism rising up in the country,” he says.

“To writers in the LGBTQI+ community, I want to say: don’t despair. Keep pushing. Our time has come. It’s a critical period of change. There is a home for your writing.”

“These were real people with dreams and hopes”

Tank Water brings Burge full circle, back to his country roots, and redressing the balance of justice for gay men there through his fiction.

“It’s profoundly sad to know a number of men met their deaths without them being investigated as crimes, and a lot of people died waiting for justice for their loved ones,” he says.

He’s cautious about the upcoming NSW inquiry: “We’re waiting on the terms of reference to see how effective it’ll be.”

Tank Water explores the impact on such families.

“It’s very easy for people to forget that these were real people; they had unrealised dreams, hopes, loves, ambitions which were cut cruelly short,” he says. 

Rural families, especially, don’t have access to the millions of dollars and resources (such as hiring a private investigator) which Scott Johnson’s family did.

“There’s still very little justice,” Burge says.

A happy ending

Through Guardian Australia’s rural network, Burge is able to amplify less heard voices, such as LGBTQI people in the bush.

The cover of Burge’s latest book, Tank Water. Photo: supplied.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily had much intention placed on it journalistically, so we’ve got more in the pipeline,” he says, citing Audible podcast The Greatest Menace about the world’s only known prison for gay men in Cooma as an example of the refreshed focus on this area. 

The poignant impact of such attention on a neglected area has been felt by Burge himself.

“The very first rainbow flag I saw was flying above a general store in Bingara in 1995, twenty minutes from where I grew up,” he says.

“The more I talk about that lone flag, the more emotional I get. Really, that began my journey of coming out.”

Such increasing visibility fills this debut fiction author with optimism.

“If one person’s experience like mine can be assisted just seeing a rainbow flag, imagine what exponential change, growth and self-respect is coming from seeing entire queer communities and allies walk along the high streets of country towns,” he says.

Burge’s own story contains that rare thing in queer fiction: a happy ending.

Many years after Jono’s death, Burge returned once again, on another chilly night, to the Blackheath Dance in the upper Blue Mountains. 

This time he made eyes across the dancefloor to a man named Richard.

Today, the two men are legally married.

“I say to people, if you’re gay and looking for love in the Blue Mountains or Central West, and you don’t go to the Blackheath Dance, you’re not really trying!”

Michael Burge will be appearing at the 2022 Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival from Friday, 10 June to Sunday, 12 June. For more information, visit www.bellingenwritersfestival.com.au/people/michael-burge/ .

Tank Water is published by Midnight Sun Publishing.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney SentinelTwitter: @garynunn1.

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