Out of the Shadows
They were two heterosexual women in their 30s when Rebecca Marshall and Tracey Papandrea met in a small country town, their attraction taking them both by pleasant surprise. At first they kept their relationship a secret to protect themselves, but 12 years later, they are proudly committed and mums to two beautiful children.
A blue-eyed cherub peeps from behind her life-size teddy bear, “You can’t see me,” and quickly pulls back to hide. Her parents, sitting around the table on the back patio offer a humouring laugh as their three-year-old daughter continues to play hide and seek.
It’s a scene all too familiar, a Sunshine Coast family of four filled with love – the only difference is the parents are both women.
Rebecca Marshall was in country South Australia, where she was living and working as a reporter for the local television station, when her friend suggested they sign up for taekwondo lessons.
“I had that strange feeling you get, that bolt out of the blue feeling when I first saw her and met her,” Rebecca says of meeting Tracey Papandrea, her new taekwondo instructor.
“It was very different and new for both of us because we had never had any relationships with women before, so it was this pure feeling.”
The pair spent a year getting to know each other and navigating these foreign feelings.
“And questioning that all the time, is this just a deep, good friendship that’s developing or is it something more? It was tricky at the time because we were in a small country area and you couldn’t really confide in a lot of people around you either because we were finding out this side of ourselves at the same time,” says Rebecca.
“That was why it took a year or two to sort out those emotions, part of you is like ‘don’t go there’,” Tracey confides.
At a New Year’s Eve party for the taekwondo club in 2003/04, Rebecca and Tracey were the last two standing, “We ended up talking the entire night and before we knew it the sun was coming up”.
Of this newfound attraction to women, Tracey says it wasn’t on her radar, or ‘gaydar’ rather, which compounded the trepidation of entering into a new and now secret relationship.
“That’s why there was the fear that comes with it as well, with new ground and new thoughts,” she says.
“It was extra scary, we had both only dated guys before,” Rebecca adds.
And so Rebecca and Tracey concealed their relationship under the guise of a friendship.
“It’s so silly looking back and I do regret, not the lies that you tell, but the truths that you don’t divulge,” Rebecca says.
“We told our friends and family we were moving in together because rents were high and we’d throw out all these other excuses to deflect away from the thought they might think we were together.
“Which sounds awful in retrospect but at the time we were so fearful of being judged and being very aware of the country area we were living in.”
Tired of living a lie, Tracey and Rebecca packed their bags and went on a holiday, hiring a car in Sydney and driving north along the coastline scouting for a new place to call home – the Sunshine Coast was perfect.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘fresh start, new state, new jobs, let’s just be out’,” Rebecca says, “we had those conversations, planning ahead and thinking about it, but even then we weren’t that bold.”
Upon moving to the Coast, Rebecca and Tracey reverted to their old habits, “we weren’t ready,” Tracey says, “we told people we were just two good friends who came together because it was cheaper”.
When the time did come, in 2005, to tell their family and friends the truth about their relationship, Rebecca went first and confessed to her mum and sister while on vacation in Hong Kong.
“They burst into tears and said, ‘We’ve known all along,’ so they were happy it was on the table,” she says.
Unfortunately Tracey’s parents weren’t as reciprocating. “We don’t have contact with my parents,” Tracey says, withdrawing.
“Mum will get in contact every now and again for different things, but it’s not very often.”
Tracey says her parents experienced a slight change of heart when she gave birth to their son, Jay on 15 February, 2008, but they refused to accept Rebecca as part of the family.
“Dad wouldn’t have anything to do with Bec, even though he liked her beforehand, but he blamed her for turning me,” Tracey says.
“That happened a couple of times, but when Jay was two and we wanted to try for another baby I said, ‘If you can’t treat both of them as your grandkids, we can’t have contact,’ and that’s when it stopped.”
“It’s been really hard for me as someone who cares about Tracey so much to be on the sideline watching the hurt,” Rebecca adds, “and for her parents to do a complete 180 overnight because of some inconsequential fact they found out about their daughter; that she has a female partner.
“I still can’t get my head around that and I think it’s awful to throw away 35 years of a relationship with your own daughter.
“I sometimes think about him late at night when he’s going off to sleep and I’m sure in his heart of hearts he’s completely devastated … you’d think having these fabulous kids and time, that would heal some of that stuff.”
The decision to have children came in 2005, once Rebecca and Tracey had ‘come out’ to their family and friends, bought their home in Currimundi, and settled into life on the Coast; Rebecca working as a journalist and Tracey as a hairdresser.
…we don’t have a great desire to rush down the aisle as soon as it is law, but it would be nice to have the choice, like everyone else.”
Both Rebecca and Tracey wanted two children and each yearned to carry a child. Tracey went first because at 36 years of age, her fertility clock was ticking louder than Rebecca, who was 31 at the time.
They did their research online before visiting a local IVF clinic where they were told “people like them” wouldn’t qualify for the Medicare rebate and each attempt would cost at least $30,000. They then found a clinic in Brisbane and Tracey started the process of hormone injections to overstimulate her ovaries, then surgery to harvest her eggs for fertilisation.
“I had seven eggs and some died along the way,” she says, “there were only two left and they weren’t viable to freeze, so they had to put them both in – luckily one took and it was Jay.”
Tracey had a “textbook pregnancy”, an ideal precursor for Rebecca who fell pregnant two years later.
“We wanted the same donor but he wasn’t available,” says Rebecca, “so we went through the whole process again and chose a donor.”
Rebecca, then aged 32, had 23 eggs and had two fertilised eggs implanted.
“I was pregnant and everything was going along fine until we had the 12-week scan and there was an abnormality,” she says.
“The test results came back positive for Down Syndrome and a serious heart defect. He was a little boy, even if he made it through the birth he wouldn’t have had a very good quality of life or maybe even survived at all.”
In September, 2010, Rebecca and Tracey made the gruelling decision to terminate the pregnancy at 16 weeks.
“It was the worst thing I’ve had happen to me in my life, it was shattering,” Rebecca says, the emotion still evidently raw.
“I guess I’d been lucky to have a pretty positive outlook until then, but this was the first time in my life where I’d had something completely rock me to my core and shake my foundations. It was a moment where I realised not everything is going to be okay every single time.”
In a moment which could have broken a relationship, instead brought them closer together with the help of grief counselling.
“It took ages, emotionally, because it’s so draining. But we had Jay to come back to. He helped a lot,” says Tracey.
Rebecca says when it came to try again for baby number two, she was never fully prepared, but had faith it was going to work.
“You’re so guarded and vulnerable, it’s scary taking those next steps because it’s such a clinical process with IVF, you always go back in your mind to the last time,” she says, “but throughout the 40 weeks you’re slowly able to let that held breath out and relax.”
On 23 February, 2012, their beautiful daughter, Samara was born.
As their children grow older, Rebecca and Tracey have promised to tell as much or as little to Jay and Samara as they want to know.
“In Jay’s donor profile there’s a picture of his donor when he was about 12, Samara’s got an adult and a baby photo for hers,” Tracey says.
“It has everything they need to know and once they turn 18, if they want to track them down, they’re both American donors, they’ve got every right to and we’d support that.”
The donors are not referred to as fathers, and in the case of having two mums – Tracey is Mum to Jay and TT to Samara, Rebecca is Mum to Samara and BB to Jay.
“We explain there are different types of families because they already know kids who don’t have parents or are living with grandparents, or one parent has died, or they’re divorced,” Tracey says. “I was worried about bullying, but it’s been no worries.”
For Rebecca and Tracey, it’s been interesting to witness the changes in society – they say the fact people are even talking about gay marriage is a big step.
“All the anti people are saying they’re sick of the debate taking up so much air time, so am I,” Rebecca says. “But it’s all about equality to me, it’s not about anything else. If you’re a human being on this planet, what’s more important than the equality of your fellow humans alongside you?
“Funnily enough we don’t have a great desire to rush down the aisle as soon as it is law, but it would be nice to have the choice, like everyone else.”
While Rebecca and Tracey haven’t faced much hate here on the Coast, they have had the odd comment made, prompting them to constantly have a guard up.
“I’m selective of who I tell, even in my job, some clients think I’ve got a husband at home with the kids,” Tracey says.
“But that’s one of the things people in heterosexual relationships don’t even contemplate having to process,” Rebecca says.
“It sounds so judgemental and so awful we even do that, but you go through this filtering process when you’re having a conversation and you’re making all these calls; is it worth divulging this information about myself? What are the consequences?
“Guys and girls who are couples; I envy their freedom to be so open.”