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Aroha. (Maori)
1. (verb) to love, feel concern for, feel compassion, empathise.
2. (noun) affection, sympathy, charity, compassion, love, empathy.

“We want to make a happy wedding day for them, to show aroha and compassion… they are two elderly ladies and one is very sick… we want to show them that no matter who or what we are we are all family… they are family.”

The speaker is Wetini Mitai-Ngatai, a leader of the family which operates the Mitai Maori cultural experience village on the outskirts of Rotorua, New Zealand, and he’s speaking of the embrace that increasingly surrounds Australian women Lee Bransden and Sandra Yates as the moment of their wedding service nears.

The pair, with the terminally ill Bransden rugged up in a wheelchair, have braved hours of jet travel from Tasmania to Wellington and on to Rotorua alone. A desire to be legally married amidst the spirituality of Maori culture and New Zealand’s primal forests has drawn them here.

Expense and extremely short notice have prevented their Australian friends and family joining them. However, since their arrival they have been looked after by a new-found New Zealand family of local well-wishers as they settled in for two days. Bransden’s increasing frailty and near-exhaustion meant their sight-seeing programme was scaled down.

But, finally, here they are, at the edge of a cool, shady forest, with the musical notes of tui and native pigeons filling the evening air, about to realise their dearest wish. To become a legally married couple before Bransden succumbs to cancer. That they have had to fly all the way to New Zealand where same-sex marriage is legal is a source of frustration, but they were determined and with the financial backing of a host of donors their dream is becoming a reality.

Surrounded by a posse of media, fussed over by a wedding planner, new friend and drag diva Miss Ma Ma Laid and doting Mitai centre staff they are now inching their way down steep and winding paths to an idyllic glade surrounded by crystal clear springs, rushing waterfalls and the secret sounds of the forest.

They pause for photos with strapping Maori warriors on guard, then descend further. Thirty years of friendship and devotion to each other show in Bransden’s tired glances up at Yates and in Yates in her turn fussing over her frail partner. “We’re blown away by all the support and friendship,” a moist-eyed Yates whispers. “All our dreams are coming true.”

As cameras click the pair are nudged into a picture-perfect spot beside a stream. In the distance male voices take up a powerful chant of defiance and up the stream glides a paddled waka, a war canoe. Flaming torches reflect on the water as the tattooed and traditionally-clad men provide a symbolic escort. The women beam and clutch each other’s hands. The paddlers manoeuvre the waka back and forth as the cameras record the scene from all angles.

Looking on, Matron of Honour Miss Ma Ma Laid, about 6ft tall in heels, all dolled up in a 1940s fur cape and wedding hat, smiles. “They really are wonderful ladies, so strong and yet so sweet. We’re so very lucky they chose Rotorua for their wedding.”

Further down into the forest they descend, into the domain of Tane, Maori god of the forest, where mythical taniwha lurk in the cascading waters and bubbling springs. Tania, their wedding planner, produces matching posies of red roses, chrysanthemums and native ferns. For a moment Bransden hesitates to hold one … too girly for her perhaps. But Yates cheerfully insists and with a good-natured and barely perceptible shrug of the shoulders Bransden holds them in her lap.

In her wheelchair Bransden is tiring. Her head droops a little but when Yates speaks she looks up with tenderness and determination. All is still except for the shimmering waters, all is quiet except for the bell-like calls from the unseen birds. The air is cool and moist, the luxuriant forest embraces and protects.

‘I guess we’re very traditional …’

Gently, with calm authority, the celebrant guides Lee Bransden and Sandra Yates through their vows, reciting the legal formalities and blending in words of love, respect, commitment and united spirits. They commit to each other forever and take each other as husband and wife.

Of their decision to be husband and wife, they later quietly explain that Bransden, the older of the pair, has always been the protector, “the provider… that’s the husband’s role and that’s what I do,” she says. Yates agrees: “I guess we’re very traditional.” Unspoken is the change in roles. Bransden, for all her past strength and capability, is now vulnerable and unsure of herself. Yates has stepped up to the mark and is taking care of the love of her life – and will do so for the remainder of Bransden’s life, just a few precious months.

Time for the rings. Bransden has hers ready. She kisses it and slips it on her wife’s finger. Yates, flustered for the first time, frantically searches for her ring and with a sigh of relief produces it and slips it on Bransden’s shaking finger. They gaze into each other’s’ faces. Eyes moist they lean in and kiss. Hardened reporters, Maori warriors, and amazed tourists who have quietly appeared down the path all burst into applause. The women, slightly startled, look up and with a curious mixture of self-consciousness and pride acknowledge the show of support and aroha.

More formalities, the signing and witnessing of the paperwork. As they take turns to sit at a small white-draped table singer Maria Kapa serenades them, smiling gently as she sings Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain and then the traditional Maori love song Pokarekare Ana. The pure, sweet words of aroha surround the newlyweds, faint shafts of the sunset filter through the canopy of majestic trees.

Brandishing the marriage papers that their own Prime Minister and government continues to deny glbti people, a situation which both baffles and angers them, Bransden grins. “Stick that up you Tony Abbott!” Her voice is shaky but the challenge is heartfelt. “Shhh… there are reporters, you can’t say that” admonishes Yates. But they both grin mischievously. Everyone laughs with them.

A three-tiered white-iced cake decorated with the swirling, lustrous blue and green patterns of paua shell, is symbolically cut. More applause, more discrete, gentle tears. Then, as husband and wife, Lee Bransden and Sandra Yates, pensioners of Tasmania, lovers of women, partners for eternity, slowly work their way back up the winding paths, up out of Tane’s embracing underworld and into a complex, sometimes unfair human world.

From this moment on, surrounded by the generosity of those who respect and love them, they will always walk, as wedded women, as husband and wife, in life and in death, in aroha.

• Rodney Croome’s Media Release …

TASSIE COUPLE’S N.Z. CEREMONY FULFILLS THEIR DREAM TO MARRY

– TERMINALLY ILL PARTNER SAYS “IT’S BEEN THE MOST WONDERFUL DAY OF MY LIFE”

– ADVOCATE CONGRATULATES COUPLE, SAYS WEDDING HIGHLIGHTS URGENT NEED FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY

The dream of Tasmanian couple, Lee Bransden and Sandra Yates, to legally marry has come true.

The couple were wed in a moving ceremony in the New Zealand city of Rotorua this afternoon (for photos, see link below).

The couple wanted to legally marry because Lee is terminally ill with end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but they are prevented from marrying in Australia because of their gender.

A New Zealand marriage became an option for the two pensioners when a crowd sourcing campaign raised almost $10,000 in two days.

Speaking after today’s ceremony Sandra and Lee thanked everyone who helped make their marriage possible.

Sandra said, “We will use this inadequate word of “thank you” to everyone who has supported us in our fabulous journey to become married. Thank you for all the beautiful wishes and generous donations enabling us to succeed in our destiny to be wed.”

Lee added, “It’s been the most wonderful day of my life. I am married to the most wonderful woman. This should have happened in Australia. For any other Aussies wanting to be married, I can highly recommend the beautiful people of New Zealand.”

Sandra went on to say “I say wow, we’ve done it, we’ve tied the knot. Why is Australia so behind the world in this respect. We are supposed to be a leading-edge country. We really are not that advanced.”

Australian Marriage Equality national director, Rodney Croome, said Lee and Sandra’s New Zealand marriage highlights the urgency of Australia adopting marriage equality.

“I think I speak for many other Australians when I congratulate Lee and Sandra on their marriage and wish them every happiness in their time left together.”

“While today is a happy day for Lee and Sandra, there marriage is a reminder that marriage equality is an urgent reform that many Australian couples and families can no longer wait for.”

“For the sake of all Australian same-sex couples for whom marriage is an urgent priority, I urge our national law makers to make marriage equality an even more urgent priority.”

Lee and Sandra were married at Mitai Maori Village by civil celebrant Kay Gayton.

They thank Kay, as well as Tania Charteris from Mitai Village for helping organise the ceremony, her mother Glyness Charteris who supplied and arranging the flowers, Flora Wheeler who did their hair, Melissa from Lavish Beauty who did their make up, and Bill Hedges from Gotya Photos for taking wedding photos.

A further fundraising event for Lee and Sandra, titled “By Your Side”, will be held at 7.30pm on May 29th at the Waterfront Function Centre, 17 Devonport Road, Devonport.