What courage means to me – a personal reflection

(~5 minute read.)

Peter & Bryce’s Wedding Celebration!

I consider myself extremely lucky to call Peter Butko a friend. I consider myself very honoured to be able to share his story of what courage means to him.

In his own words …

Over 100,000 marriages take place every year.  It’s certainly not unique.  And most people describe it as the best day of their lives.  So it may seem like a strange topic to discuss when I’m asked to consider “what courage means to me.”

When I was given the opportunity to share an instance of courage, I wanted to demonstrate the essence of what was being asked of me by sharing something personal and that made me vulnerable.  So here I am … sharing a journey into courage that was … my wedding day!

Now for some context, when you consider change management it’s important to understand that change equals loss.  Even positive change (such as graduating school, or starting a new job, or indeed getting married) comes with a degree of loss – and therefore a degree of fear and grief.

Loss of routine, identity, friendships, habits, familiarity.  Naturally change is also a tremendous opportunity.  However new opportunities come with uncertainties.  It takes courage to approach something new.  Especially when it is a major contradiction to your own identity.

I had been with my partner for almost 20 years.  And we grew up in a time when same sex relationships were not widely supported.  Not by the community, not by employers, and not by all of our family and friends.  Different times, different rules, different cultures. 

We spent decades facing unique fears and challenges.  Overseas and defence force jobs were withdrawn as my partner wasn’t recognised.  Choosing a holiday destination didn’t start with a list of hotels or activities but with a list of countries to avoid that still had the death penalty or where gay people were arrested or imprisoned.  Never attending work-functions together and telling colleagues that we were single because of warnings that “our relationship would ruin our chances of promotion.”  Holding hands in public resulted more often than not with (at the least) disapproving stares or even with open abuse, insults and violence.  

While you know in your heart that what you have is special, true, and wonderful, the defences that are built over many years become a part of your very identity.  Defences in the form of denial and bravado.  “We don’t need to hold hands anyway.”  “Even if we could get married, we don’t want to.”  “We don’t need approval to validate our relationship.”  You get the idea.

Then times changed, and the law changed to recognise our relationship.  And my partner of 20 years proposed.  And of course, I said “yes!”  And just when I thought the worse was over … I was to find I needed even more courage to step up and accept what was in front of me.  

And so began a whirlwind time where I would face all manner of uncomfortable situations and courage was becoming my new armour. And that new armour was preparing me for many challenges:

  • Letting go of the excuses and to admit to myself that, yes, I DID want to get married.  That it was important that my relationship was as valid as everyone else’s.  We were finally taking our relationship to the same “next level” that all our brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends had talked about taking their relationship to.  I DID want to legally be an uncle. And a brother-in-law.  And a husband.
  • Announcing my engagement (and the awkward response from some people …!)
  • Attending a “bridal” fair and writing my name in the “bride” section of the registration form (because there are no “groom” or “couple” fairs!)  
  • Asking every vendor (from cake makers to venues) whether they were willing to work with us and to risk disappointment (because legal or not, it’s the reality and it takes courage to accept that.  And to work within in.  The world isn’t perfect).
  • We had our wedding photos taken – in public (eeek!).  All suited up, holding hands, posing, kissing.  Along the banks of the river in Melbourne.  (I’ll admit that I only partially won this internal struggle with myself and chose photo locations which had less people and less publicity … baby steps …!)
  • We held hands throughout a ceremony and kissed – for the first time ever – in front of many of our friends and family.  In fact, we had never even held hands in front of our family.  

I cried as I shared my vows, and as we exchanged rings. It took courage to publicly declare my feelings.  Courage to not have excuses.  Courage to put my partner above 30 years of defensive behaviours. 

I found that with every experience, there were two distinct sides.  The pride and the fear.  The confidence and the bravado.  The excitement and the terror.   The desire to protect and the need to be protected.

While you know in your heart that what you have is special, true, and wonderful, the defences that are built over many years become a part of your very identity.  

So what do you do?  How do you face situations in your life when you have that much inner conflict or even external opposition?  You remember what is important. 

You remember that everyone is living their own life – they don’t get to live yours too.

You remember that your voice matters.  Maybe not to everyone.  But it doesn’t need to.

And you remember to focus on the positives.  The friends. The family. The support.

You embrace mistakes and fear as a learning opportunity – not a judgment. 

  • So, we celebrated the people who agreed to work with us (our amazing celebrant, photographers, caterers, florists, friends, and family).
  • We invited people who had truly supported us and shaped who we had become.  We did NOT invite anyone out of obligation.  That included family.  It takes courage to put yourself, your partner, and your friends first.  And it took courage to stand by that decision (and I have zero regrets).
  • We ignored the negative (at least for one day).  As we stood there exchanging vows (shaking and totally exposed) – we looked at the close friends who were with us.  When we had photos in public, we looked at each other.  For once, we ignored the negative and chose to focus on the positive.  We considered the best case scenario instead of the worst.

The haters were still there.  But in life it’s so easy to focus on the negative and delete all of the progress and positives.  So we focused on what truly brought joy.  What truly mattered to us. 

And my key learnings throughout all of this?

  • Have the courage to wait:  Things take time.  And you can still be true to yourself even if the world around you isn’t perfect.
  • Have the courage to walk away:   You can’t please everyone.  The world has 8 billion people and thousands of cultures.  Choose your battles.  Let them choose theirs.
  • Have the courage to fight:  Sure, pick your battles, but do choose some.  Fight for what matters. Fight for what is aligned with your values.  With what brings you joy.  
  • Have the courage to set boundaries: Sometimes there is a line in the sand, and it’s ok to say “No.”  Being authentic or kind doesn’t mean being putting everyone else first or losing your voice.
  • Have the courage to face your fears:  Ask yourself – is this important to me?  Would I do this if I didn’t have any fear? Will I survive even it if goes bad?  If yes, then do it. 
  • Have the courage to be in the moment:  Take action, and deal with the reality of what follows.  What actually happens when you act on something is usually a LOT easier to deal with than the worst case scenarios I created in my mind.
  • Have the courage to back yourself: Step up and seize the opportunities once they are presented to you. 

For me, courage is what gives you the momentum to keep growing.  It’s the catalyst for resilience.  It’s the fuel that lets you trust yourself and to step (cold and shaking) outside of your comfort zone.

And it’s what allows you form the most amazing relationships of your life.  To have amazing experiences with incredible people.  To recognise opportunities and to take them.

To be grateful for everything that you have done, and not live a life of regret of everything you wish you did.

Have the courage to face your fears:  Ask yourself – is this important to me?  Would I do this if I didn’t have any fear? Will I survive even it if goes bad?  If yes, then do it. 

I appreciate this may not be relatable to everyone, however I hope that anyone in a similar situation can find a way to tap into their own courage to follow their heart.  And for anyone else, I hope this can be used as a metaphor for anything in your life that makes you say “wouldn’t that be great …” or “if only …”  Treat yourself with the same courtesy and consideration that you give to everyone else and invest in the skills, experiences, and relationships that truly matter to you.  

Peter Butko.

If you would like to connect further with Peter, he can be contacted via:

What have I learnt from Peter’s story?  I have learnt that I come from privilege. Not in the sense of financial privilege nor status, but privilege from the point of view of being heterosexual. I have never thought twice about holding Geoff’s hand in public; I’ve never had to be concerned for my safety purely because I am demonstrating love. It’s always been ok.  Thankfully, it’s now becoming more and more ok for same gender relationships too … there is still a way to go.

Peter’s story has filled my heart. It has also reminded me to check in with others – friends and colleagues – with respect to diversity, inclusion and belonging.  With all my heart, thank you Peter.


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