10:05am EDT on Wednesday 15 November 2017: a moment in time I will never forget. The euphoria, the tears, the love, the relief. Australia had deemed us equal. Not a handful of politicians, not a small sliver of society – a whopping 61.6% majority, and a phenomenally high turnout rate. That moment in time will be one of the greatest and most momentous of my life. Being surrounded by family, friends and my partner as we cried and rejoiced – I have never felt so loved.
I recall seeing a show by Irish drag queen Panti Bliss in Perth at the start of this year, and she said that while going through the Irish same-sex marriage referendum was a harrowing and truly awful process, the overwhelming Yes result at the end made it all worth it. Ireland as a country had stood up and said ‘same-sex couples deserve to be equal’, and the naysayers had no leg left to stand on. No ‘silent majority’, no ‘political elites wanted this, not the people’: nothing. There is no political process more legitimising than a commanding, widespread and overwhelming majority vote by the public.
So too in Australia. Yes marriage equality could, and should, have been passed by Parliament well before this postal survey. However those who ended up voting No would have maintained the same old adages: polls are wrong, a silent majority of Australians oppose marriage equality, we were never given a say. Well, all Australians were given a say and they responded overwhelmingly and resoundingly in favour of inclusion, equality, and love. There is no countering or undermining of this result. No matter what Parliament does in the next few weeks, Australia said Yes. That will stand for eternity.
But in all of this euphoria, we should not forget: we cannot ever allow this to happen again. We cannot forget the horrors of this process. We cannot ever let politicians call another public vote on the human rights of any other minority group in society. The postal survey (and the plebiscite plan before it) was a political manoeuvre, one intended to delay action on marriage equality rather than facilitate it. Unlike Ireland, the definition of marriage in Australia is not contained in our Constitution. Unlike Ireland, no vote was required to change the legal definition of marriage in Australia. And unlike Ireland, the LGBTIQ community will always carry the burden of Australian politicians actively choosing this process when they could and should have avoided it.
A huge nationwide survey of LGBTIQ individuals in the past few weeks found that four out of five LGBTI Australians were negatively affected by the postal survey process. Over half thought the process was not worth it, even with a Yes result, while two thirds found the process worse than they thought it would be. Mental health service Reach Out reported an increase of 40% in requests for their LGBTIQ services during the postal survey process.
On a personal and anecdotal level, I do not know anyone who is LGBTIQ and who has not felt the effects of the last few months. How could you not? Giant signs on top of freeways saying ‘It’s OK to Vote NO’. Weekly pamphlets in your letterbox saying you are disgusting and inhuman. TV advertisements played time and time again, portraying a group of mothers concerned that you marrying your one true love would ruin life as we know it. Daily public discussion by the media, politicians, colleagues and friends about whether you deserve equal rights or not.
The past three months were nothing less than an entire country being given a public soapbox to talk about you, and your value as a human being. It is one thing for individuals in society to have homophobic views; it is another entirely for our government and media and society to promote, support, and legitimise such views.
Panti Bliss said it better than anyone in a speech at the Abbey Theatre in 2014:
Have any of you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television, and there is a panel of people – nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers. And they are all sitting around and they are having a ‘reasoned’ debate on the television; a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of person you are; about whether or not you are capable of being a good parent; about whether you want to destroy marriage; about whether or not you are safe around children; about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination; about whether in fact you are ‘intrinsically disordered’.
Have you ever gone into your favourite neighbourhood cafe with the paper that you buy every day, and you open it up and inside is a 500-word opinion written by a nice middle-class woman – the kind of woman who probably gives to charity, the kind of woman who you would be totally happy to leave your children with. And she is arguing over 500 words, so reasonably, about whether or not you should be treated less than everyone else, arguing that you should be given fewer rights than everybody else. And when you read that and then the woman at the next table and gets up and excuses herself to squeeze by you and smiles at you and you smile back and nod, and inside you wonder to yourself, “Does she think that about me too?”
Every cross-section of the LGBTIQ community will relate to those stories. Older LGBTIQ people having to step back into a time of stigma and state-sanctioned homophobia; younger LGBTIQ people facing the first significant public and political undermining of their rights and their inclusion in society; LGBTIQ children and teens wondering if ending their own life is preferable to facing up to a society that, for much of those three months, seemed more likely to condone them than support them.
I have always been proud of being gay and being part of the LGBTIQ community, and not once have I ever wanted to change my gayness: until the postal survey. In the past three months, I would have happily avoided begging friends and family to vote to grant me basic human rights. I would have happily avoided being targeted and being oppressed and being labelled ‘other’. I would have happily been straight.
Let us enjoy the moment, and celebrate the result, but let us never forget the process. And let us never allow any other minority group in society to be subject to a public vote on their human rights ever again.