How Are British Embassies Like Las Vegas Chapels?
By Clare BlumerFebruary 7, 2013
Two women wanted to marry — one Texan (no gay marriage there), the other Australian (nor there). So how did the British help them tie the knot in Cambodia (not allowed there, either), even before the UK vote this week that paved the way for gay marriage?
“Look, I don’t normally admit to being English,” says Trevor Mills, who has lived in Australia for 36 years. “In fact a couple of people earlier asked me if I was English and I said, ‘No, no, no.’’’
But it’s his British birthright that got him to this day in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, thousands of miles away from his suburban Melbourne home.
Without it, Mills’s 36-year-old Australian daughter, Dora, would not be here about to exchange vows with her partner of four years, Kristen Lowman, a 30-year-old from Austin, Texas.
There is no legal provision for same-sex couples to get officially hitched in Australia, Texas or Cambodia. Yet a quirk of British law brought Dora and Kristen’s families together in December last year for Cambodia’s first same-sex civil ceremony.
The same quirk has seen 490 civil unions for gay couples performed within Australia since February 2006 — despite that in Australia, motions for marriage equality have failed in federal and state parliaments.
“The government seems to be really conservative there, because they just seem to be 20 years behind public opinion,” says Dora, who left Australia 18 years ago. “Australia, I thought, would have been one of the first,” Kristen says.
Instead, Dora’s British heritage was the key for the couple — because while the British parliament’s vote on Monday cleared the way for gay marriage to become legal in the England and Wales, same-sex civil partnerships have been legal there since 2005.
The Civil Partnership Act (2004) is where the quirk comes in: it allows gay unions partnerships to be performed for British nationals by diplomats overseas — in countries where unions aren’t yet legal, and if the local government agrees.
So Dora and Kirstin could have had a civil ceremony in Australia, too, but only on ‘‘British soil’’ (that is, at the British embassy). It was likewise legally possible to have the ceremony in their new home country, Cambodia — but such a thing had not happened before.
KRISTEN AND DORA RUN A GUESTHOUSE on the south coast of Cambodia, about 250 kilometres from the capital. It’s the quintessential honeymooning spot, with the obligatory technicolour sunsets, white beach umbrellas, white sands and clear waters.
The British vice-consul, Amanda Cooper, regularly visits Sihanoukville, the closest town to the couple’s Otres Beach guesthouse, as part of her work. In the middle of last year, Dora and Kristen approached Cooper and asked, “Do you think this will be able to happen?’” Kristen says. “She was taken aback.”
Cooper agreed to seek permission from the Cambodian government. “We expected a really long process,” Kristen says. “We thought that there was no way the government was going to allow for it.”
But the couple says the vice-consul contacted them about a fortnight later with approval from the Cambodian government.
They chose to get married at the British ambassador’s residence (which is also British soil). Dora’s father, Trevor, was planning a visit from Melbourne, so the couple invited a few other guests as well.
“I had this idea in my head that it was going to be really casual, there was going to be a table in the corner where people have to sign on it, and we just have to say our sentence … and everyone else would be off, doing something else,’’ she says.
“But no — we walk in and they’ve got all the chairs set up in rows and a table at the front and looking like a proper marriage … that basically scared the shit out of me.
“And we’d forgotten to take our Xanax.”
MONSTER IS THE NAME OF DORA AND KRISTEN’s adopted dog, discovered flea-bitten and malnourished at a town pet shop. Then there is the tiny kitten, Barack (AKA Homeboy), who the previous owners left at the guesthouse before he was fully weaned.
Dora and Kristen would also like to adopt Cambodian children. This was one of the reasons they wanted a civil partnership — to ensure family status. As they discussed this with The Global Mail in December, it seemed a clear possibility because of another quirk of international law, this one involving Kristen’s American passport.
In October, the Cambodian government lifted a ban on United States nationals adopting Cambodian children. The ban had been in place since 2009, although the USA, Britain, Australia and other nations had placed their own bans in 2001 after many incidents, including child trafficking, had been reported. This change for US nationals would have seemed to pave the way for Kristen to adopt.
However, the US State Department has since said it would not process visas for adopted Cambodian children. It is unclear how this affects expats living permanently in Cambodia who wish to adopt.
There are, however, other rights their civil union has secured for Kristen and Dora, such as hospital visitation rights, business partnership agreements, estate planning, and immigration. Civil unions, which in the UK are exclusively for same-sex couples, offer legal and financial protections comparable to marriage but not exactly the same. Under the bill approved by British MPs this week, couples in civil partnerships will be able to convert their relationships into marriages if they wish.
Trevor Mills says he was initially bemused by the idea of gay marriage, especially as a divorcee (he and Dora’s late mother divorced when Dora was a teenager). “I think quite a lot of people — especially ex-married people — don’t really see why gay people want to get married. But just watching them for the last few days I think…” he trails off.
“Well, why can’t they be as miserable as everyone else if they want to be?”