The moment I knew: she stood up in court and put on the performance of a lifetime | Life and style

Gemma and I were both junior lawyers working at a Melbourne legal aid office, providing free advice to disadvantaged people facing eviction. Having experienced housing insecurity myself as a young person, it was a dream to give back to my community by helping others in the same situation.

Our office romance began in 2017 after we both attended a colleague’s apocalypse-themed house party in Brunswick West. Gemma had gone to a lot of effort to dress up as Octavia Blake from the sci-fi show The 100, while I only managed to find an aged, pilled black hoodie for the occasion. Over a few too many dirty martinis, I fessed up to my raging crush on her and we spent the rest of the night canoodling in the back yard on a structurally unsound velvet couch.

Our new relationship blossomed in secret over overpriced lattes served on crates in the Melbourne CBD and in tucked-away laneway bars after work. We had some great fun in those days, swapping war stories about our hectic days in the tenancy tribunal and laughing about the endless office dramas in our quirky, underfunded office.

I adored her passion for sticking up for the underdog and skill in bringing people together. Whether we were in a casework meeting or doing the lunchtime quiz, Gemma always found a way to keep us all feeling merry. But I wasn’t expecting things to become serious. I’d just had a big breakup and this was Gemma’s first queer relationship. I kept reminding myself to enjoy things while they lasted.

Then early the next year, one of our most important cases was appealed by the landlord to the supreme court of Victoria. This was a big deal, since the decision would affect all renters across the state. Somebody had to step up, dust off the communal office wig and gown, and advocate for a vulnerable client facing homelessness, in an imposing, Renaissance-style sandstone building.

After agonising for a moment, Gemma put up her hand to do it. The rest of us breathed a sigh of relief. Over the next two weeks, Gemma put her head down to learn everything there was to know about homelessness law, civil procedure and arcane supreme courtroom etiquette. I made her strong cups of tea while she stayed up late working, while my housemates and I drank wine and watched TV.

Sam Elkin with Gemma Cafarella (in a Wilfred costume) at an animal-themed dress-up party in 2017.

On the big day, I took a seat on the hardwood pews at the back as Gemma began to speak. I noticed a few journalists sitting beside me jotting down notes. This was a big deal and I felt terrified on Gemma’s behalf. I needn’t have. Gemma put on the performance of a lifetime, advocating for our client’s right to shelter and safety with poise and skill far beyond her years.

Hours later, Gemma and her client hugged in tears of joy and relief on the steps of the supreme court. I felt an immense sense of pride. I knew at that moment that Gemma wasn’t just a great person who was fun to be around, but a brilliant advocate full of compassion and empathy. It made me believe that Gemma would have my back if I needed her too.

A few weeks later, despite feeling incredibly nervous, I told Gemma that I wanted to transition. At first she was scared, worried she wasn’t informed enough to know how to support me. But she took up the challenge to learn all she could, and had me smiling and laughing as she drove me to what felt like an endless stream of healthcare appointments. Since then, she has been a constant source of stability and support, and even become an expert in transgender legal issues.

This year, we’ll celebrate our seventh anniversary. Gemma is now a successful human rights barrister and I’m still working in community law. We’re the proud fur-parents of a black cat and a senior dog, and still love a night out now and then in Melbourne’s tiny laneway bars.

Sam Elkin is the author of Detachable Penis: A Queer Legal Saga (Upswell Publishing, RRP $29.99). His book launch is at the Wheeler Centre Performance Space in Melbourne at 6.30pm on 6 May.

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