Farmer does not want a wife
Margaret Court’s letter to The West Australian, proclaiming her outspoken views on marriage equality, made news around the world. In a subsequent interview, Ms Court raised more eyebrows when she said many “normal people” in Australia, including “farmers”, shared her view that marriage was between a man and a woman. But is that generalisation fair? Ray Chan spoke to a number of farmers breaking down stereotypes and barriers in rural WA.
In the shadows of the picturesque Porongurups, the farming life could not be better for producer Darren Moir.
All the crops are in, the last of the cereals already starting to sprout thanks to a good bank of subsoil moisture from generous summer showers.
Firm wool and meat prices provide the icing to the cake, with the farm planning to expand the current flock of Dohne sheep to capitalise on the rising market.
This week’s rains have helped kick-start the season. Even given recent parched conditions and an unfavourable meteorological forecast, Mr Moir treats his operations with the same sort of optimism that has guided him throughout his 42 years of life.
Mr Moir’s family is from hardy farming stock. Five generations of the Moirs helped settle the Amelup district, 400km from Perth, clearing original sandalwood country to make way for farms.
Today, the property he works on — Amelup Estate — is run as a happy family commune, managed by Mr Moir’s parents Greg and Kerry, with brother-in-law Paul and sister Michelle Richardson looking after the livestock.
Mr Moir is in charge of the cropping side, and he too has someone to help him with the chores: his partner Nigel Lock.
Growing up as a gay man in rural WA, Mr Moir struggled to reconcile his sexuality with the masculine stereotype of beer-swilling, hardened, no-nonsense country folk.
An active member of the local football and cricket team, he said he was a typical “repressed” homosexual trying to fit in with “expected” community standards during a time when anti-gay sentiment was rife, both in the city and rural towns.
“I came out to my family and friends in my early 30s, after wasting my youth in binge drinking and unhappiness,” Mr Moir said. “But everyone was absolutely fine, and my mum was even upset that it took so long for me to tell them.
“I had an online dating profile and I put my farming photos up. It was there that I met Nigel, who had a business in Albany; he contacted me and we hit it off pretty well.”
Mr Lock, 39, sold his business to move in with Mr Moir on the farm, where he had to learn the ropes quickly, jumping straight on the chaser bin for his first harvest.
“I grew up on a farm, so I knew what to expect and the adjustment has been easy,” he said.
“I help out on the farm work where I can but mostly, I am a stay-at-home dad.”
The light of the couple’s lives is undoubtedly 21/2-year-old son, Andy, conceived via a surrogate in Thailand.
Each father devotes equal amounts of love and care towards the bubbly and energetic boy, and the results are evident in Andy’s cheerful, confident demeanour.
“Gay parents love their children as much as any others,” Mr Lock said. “Andy is a very happy boy by nature, because we raise him in a loving and happy household.
“He feels right at home on the farm, and as we all know, a farm is a great life for a kid.”
When Andy was brought to Amelup for the first time, the local community was overwhelmingly supportive, with many thrilled at seeing the new baby boy with two dads.
And it’s this atmosphere of acceptance which makes Mr Moir feel that times are definitely changing.
“When we got engaged four years ago, there was not a hint of homophobia,” he said.
“We were inundated with good wishes, congratulations and presents. We enjoyed the same reception and acceptance when we introduced Andy, perhaps even more so.”
Mr Moir feels the increased visibility of gay people within the agricultural sector, plus a new generation of young farmers, have led to a gradual shift in attitudes.
“What’s different with the beef we produce, the lamb we sell or the crops we grow?” he said.
“We’re all the same. We share our lives with our partners with the intention of growing old together. We contribute to the community as much as anyone else.”
And as such, Mr Moir feels angry that he is denied the rights of any “straight” couple when it comes to marriage.
“It’s a free society and people can say what they want. But they should not push their philosophies on to others, especially when it comes to religious beliefs,” he said.
Mr Moir acknowledged that some within the farming community would not change.
“You’re always going to get back-handed comments. It’s still a blokey world in agriculture,” he said.
“But, you know, the millennials have no problem. It’s the older generation which have an issue — it’s just the way they are.
“We’re in a brand new world. We are moving on.”
As a farmer who was open about his homosexuality, Mr Moir said he had met many others of his peers who were also gay and wanted advice about coming out.
“With the increasing use of social media, it’s much easier to meet with or communicate with fellow farmers; or some of them might come to me after a livestock sale or at a field day to discuss their issues,” he said.
“It’s a golden age of new opportunities, for blokes like me and Nige, that previous generations didn’t have. We have to be true to ourselves and get on with things. The politicians will catch up eventually.”
Caitlyn Hmeljak was born and raised in Gnowangerup, on the outskirts of Katanning. It’s the sort of place where gay teenagers would have found it difficult to gain acceptance, and indeed, the young Caitlyn was no stranger to physical threats after word had got around of her sexuality.
But today, the world is a happier place for 27-year-old Ms Hmeljak, a farmhand at renowned Poll Merino stud Willemenup.
“It wasn’t easy to come out but I did so at the age of 14, even after some said I shouldn’t do that in a small rural town,” she said.
“My best mate was from a farm, and he didn’t have a problem with it. Mum and Dad were also great.”
Ms Hmeljak admits growing up in an environment of intolerance was hard, but believes attitudes have improved in recent years.
“When I was younger, people were questioning my motives. Was it a phase? Was I trying to seek attention?” she said.
“But my friends don’t care about my sexuality. And these days, no one really bats an eyelid anymore, not even in Gnowangerup. Even the older people are fine with it.
“Some people just feel the need to stand on a soapbox and make a statement to tell the world what they think (about gay marriage). I don’t really care.”
After meeting her partner Kristi last year, Ms Hmeljak is now happily ensconced in her farming duties, and is looking forward to preparing the stud’s show team for this year’s ram sales.
For his part, Willemenup studmaster Collyn Garnett couldn’t be more supportive.
“When it comes to work, it’s never about sexuality, but about what they can do,” he said.
Mr Garnett admitted to growing up in a less receptive era, but said it was probably due to a fear of the unknown.
“People today, especially the younger ones, are more accepting. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, there are those who still try to spread divisiveness,” he said.
MUCHEA ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Mark Brunini and his partner Frank Blanchfield are stalwarts and well-respected members of the local community at Muchea, where they run a 2.4ha hobby farm.
Once a full-time Arabian Pony and Pinto stud, today the property hosts five horses, several geese and chickens, a couple of Dorper sheep, various cats and dogs, and several aviaries of rare and exotic birds.
Both men work in the city: Mr Brunini as a laboratory technician and Mr Blanchfield as an engineer. For them, the farm provides contentment and a welcome break from the hectic urban life.
Mr Brunini came from an agricultural background, having been raised on a poultry farm in Beechboro, and riding horses since he was 14.
He established the stud in the 1990s, with Mr Blanchfield moving in after they met 11 years ago.
And for both of them, there has never been a moment of negativity towards their relationship.
“It’s all been positive. There’s been no small-town mentality. This is a good community and we have blended in,” Mr Brunini said.
The couple don’t force their lifestyles into anyone’s faces, and have never actively pushed the gay marriage agenda. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have strong views on the subject.
Their hackles are especially raised at the thought of others who claim to be arbiters of what they perceive as proper moral behaviour.
“Everyone has a right to be married: straight or gay,” Mr Brunini said. “People shouldn’t be telling others what to think or lead them down their personal religious paths.”
Mr Blanchfield said such proclamations by public figures were “counter-productive” and only served to segregate people.
“As a society, we’ve moved on,” he said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some of the comments are out of keeping with what society expects.
“All these sorts of arguments do is create divisions in society. Not everyone shares the same religious viewpoints, and not every mature person has that same ideal.”
Mr Blanchfield said there was no difference between same and opposite-sex couples with respect to marriage.
“Couples who marry — gay or straight — want to express their commitment to each other and to their family and friends,” he said.
Yet by virtue of their exclusion from that institution, he said same-sex couples were denied the sundry benefits straight husbands and wives enjoyed.
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