Names: Gregory Storer and Michael Barnett
Years together: 11
Occupations: Manager and IT specialist
“I always saw our relationship in some ways like The Odd Couple,” says Michael Barnett of his marriage to Gregory Storer. “[The way] we do things is very different,” he says with a smile, “but we get on really well despite that.”
They met via an online matchmaking service in November 2008. After chatting for a few hours, Michael suggested they meet up – that night. Although he didn’t want to rush things, Gregory agreed. “That showed even then that there was a mutual attraction … I’ve been through so many profiles and so many people, I’d just about given up. This was the final attempt to find something meaningful.”
They met at a sports bar neither of them frequented but which was between their homes in Melbourne. Sitting under the keno screens, they understood each other quickly. “I want [relationships] to be something other than just casual conversations … it’s got to be something that’s deep,” says Gregory. “[Michael] was very much straight into conversations that were far and wide-reaching.”
It was more than just conversation though. Michael was in counselling at the time and Gregory was supportive. “[He] was compassionate and didn’t treat me as, ‘Oh, he’s got mental health issues, I don’t want to go near that person, he’s damaged goods,’ … And I thought, ‘Oh, this person actually cares, he’s compassionate and sees me as a person who is trying to get back on track.’”
They got to know each other gradually, spending time doing simple things like watching TV and having dinner together. Soon they realised they share “a kinship” in their outlook in life, in politics, in their non-beliefs and in their ability to question the world around them. “It’s really good to share a life with someone that feels the same way as I do about our part in the universe,” says Gregory.
At the time Gregory was raising his two teenagers mostly on his own. They’d seen their father in a few relationships after he’d split from their mother, which hadn’t gone well. But as Michael spent more time at Gregory’s house, they accepted him as part of their family. This was important for Gregory too. “It just dawned on me one day while I was heating up fish fingers for my kids for their dinner, and [I said] ‘I love you,’” Gregory remembers. “We’d just grown so comfortable with each other and enjoyed each other’s company so much, that it was just there – and it hasn’t changed.”
Gregory also introduced him to his wider family, which was an important step. Although Gregory had come out to his family, Michael was the first person he’d happily introduced as his partner. “My brothers and sisters had no idea who [my previous relationships] were, and Michael was the first one that I started saying, ‘Yes, he’s my partner’. So, that changed the whole dynamic in my family.” Michael’s family were similarly welcoming to Gregory.
As a couple, they’ve had to learn to accept that they do things differently. Michael starts: “I’m very organised in the way I do things,” before Gregory interjects: “He means I’m messy and haphazard.” Michael quickly sets the record straight: “No, but he thinks very differently. He’s got a very abstract way of thinking and I don’t operate like that at all.” Gregory agrees: “For Michael, it is step-by-step processes, and I have to keep reminding myself of that because I can be at a conclusion before he’s ready to be there, because all the ducks haven’t lined up just yet.”
There are benefits to recognising and appreciating the differences, says Gregory. When they go bushwalking for example, he likes to power ahead while Michael spends hours taking photographs. Trying to accommodate both works out better: “It makes me slow down,” says Gregory. “Now I really value that time out there, and walks that should take me half an hour, will take an hour and a half, and that is so much better.” Michael laughs: “At the same time, I do understand that if we need to get to a destination, I will put my camera away.”
They are both committed LGBTIQ+ rights campaigners. Growing up, they had difficult times coming out and so are determined to make a difference. “If there’s one thing that both of us can achieve through our life, it’s making sure that those who come along behind us don’t have to traipse through the same rubbish that we had to get through, to get to a place in life where you’re actually happy,” says Gregory.
In 2013, Gregory proposed to Michael while they were on holiday in Bali. They’d already been involved in the campaign for marriage equality, but “that was such a pivotal moment for us because at that moment, all of our activism changed from trying to change the marriage law because it was grossly unfair to everybody, to being personal”.
In 2014, they took part in the SBS show Living with the Enemy, which saw them paired up with an Anglican priest who was against marriage equality. They did it as a way to stand up for LGBTQI rights. “[We are] driven by that very deep desire to normalise our relationship and to say, ‘You know, we’re just people. We’re just a couple of blokes who want to get on with their lives, and we want to pay our taxes, and have our jobs and just be happy,’ which I think is what so many people want to do.”
Participating in the show was a turbulent time, but it did offer them an opportunity to get married in New Zealand. Despite the cameras, it was one of their life highlights. “Being able to stand with Micheal with the closest of friends, and say how much we love each other, and to make that commitment to each other, it was just blissful in so many ways,” says Gregory.
I encourage the differences so that we can live a full and whole life together
Instead of exchanging rings, they created a ceremony where they gave each other custom made boxes to be unlocked. Inside were their vows to each other. Says Michael: “The unlocking of these boxes was symbolic of the freedom that we had as two gay men living in Australia – or being in New Zealand at the time – to actually live openly … some countries you have to hide your identity. And it was an acknowledgement that we had that freedom, and we had that power to unlock our freedom.”
When the marriage equality bill was passed in Australia in 2017, they had a recommitment ceremony to celebrate. Surrounded by all their friends and family, they did everything in their own way again, including a wedding waltz to the Rainbow Connection. “This was the sort of wedding that my parents wanted us to have,” says Michael. “The party celebration was much more personal.”
One of the challenges they’ve overcome in their relationship is accepting that they wouldn’t raise a child together. As a young man, Michael hadn’t wanted children because he couldn’t imagine it as a possibility, but meeting Gregory changed that. However Gregory was already a father and not keen to do it again. “I completely accepted that,” says Michael. “I had to come to terms with the fact I wasn’t going to be a father through no fault of anybody’s, not even my own, but it was just a reality.”
It was something Gregory seriously considered. “I am very mindful of that desire to have your own children, I know I’ve been there, I know what that’s like, and to have it denied is really difficult. But I was very adamant that I didn’t want to do that again, and Michael could have pushed it, we may have come to some sort of arrangement, but I think ultimately, it’s been the right decision for us.”
Through everything, their commitment to each other has been unwavering. Gregory says: “No matter what he’s doing, or where he’s going, is that I just want to be part of that.” Michael describes his commitment to Gregory as a safety net: “It’s that person to be there for him when he needs a hug, ... If something traumatic is going on, he can come to me, or I can go to him, and … know that there’s that love, and tenderness and affection no matter what.”
Theirs is a mature relationship, says Michael: “It’s understanding our boundaries, but respecting our individuality ... And being pragmatic about things, that we are who we are.”
Gregory agrees: “Although we have a lot of similar qualities and common ambitions, for me it is accepting that I live with someone that isn’t me, is a complete different person.” He thinks that, if you cannot accept and embrace your partner’s quirks, resentment can quickly build. “I understand how he works and how he thinks … And I encourage the differences so that we can live a full and whole life together.”
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