COVER STORY Ex­plor­ing mar­riage equal­ity and the sense of un­cer­tainty the de­bate brings

The rain­bow flag may be fly­ing high over Ho­bart, but at street level there is a pal­pa­ble sense of un­cer­tainty and anx­i­ety among young peo­ple nav­i­gat­ing mar­riage equal­ity

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - Upfront - WORDS SALLY GLAET­ZER MAIN POR­TRAIT SAM ROSE­WARNE

In May last year, Nathan Wise stood up at assem­bly, his heart racing and hands trem­bling, and an­nounced to his school that he was gay. “I came out to about 300 peo­ple,” the now19-year-old says. “It was a scary ex­pe­ri­ence.” The assem­bly at The Friends’ School in Ho­bart was run­ning over time. A teacher who knew Wise was sched­uled to speak, but not on which topic, asked if he might be able to shorten his speech.

“I said, ‘No, I re­ally can’t’, and they said ‘OK’,” he re­calls. Af­ter his open­ing an­nounce­ment (“I’m gay”), Wise told his school­mates and teach­ers a bit of his life story, re­count­ing the lone­li­ness and con­fu­sion he felt as a younger teenager, to the re­lief he felt at 17 when he fi­nally told his par­ents he was gay.

It was a mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion for Wise, some­thing he felt he had to do to get more peo­ple talk­ing about sex­ual di­ver­sity at his school. Through­out his school­ing he des­per­ately wanted to hear from others who were gay or ques­tion­ing their sex­u­al­ity. He craved con­fir­ma­tion that what he was feel­ing was normal. “The pre­vi­ous year some­one had spo­ken at assem­bly about what the let­ters LGBTI stand for, but that was it,” he says.

Wise was dis­ap­pointed af­ter­wards that his assem­bly an­nounce­ment did not pro­mote more dis­cus­sion among his school­mates. How­ever, the di­ver­sity group he started at Friends’ is still go­ing. “That makes me re­ally happy,” he says.

We are in Ho­bart’s El­iz­a­beth Mall as Wise, now study­ing arts at uni­ver­sity, re­counts his com­ing out story. It is Wear It Pur­ple day, a na­tional celebration en­cour­ag­ing schools and the wider com­mu­nity to be ac­cept­ing and sup­port­ive of young gay, trans­gen­der and in­ter­sex peo­ple, as well as those confused about or ques­tion­ing their sex­u­al­ity or gen­der iden­tity. A young man dances about in a pur­ple body stock­ing, but it is a low-key event, cen­tred on a colour­ful stall dis­play­ing free badges and in­for­ma­tion pam­phlets.

“I’m here to show my sup­port be­cause I’m part of the LGBTI com­mu­nity and I re­ally want to help pro­mote aware­ness,” Wise says. “There is still neg­a­tiv­ity about and it would be nice to see that gone. The LGBTI com­mu­nity is still quite small, es­pe­cially here in Ho­bart, and it re­ally helps for us to come to­gether to help sup­port each other and say, ‘We’re here’.”

At the other end of the mall, in an area des­ig­nated by the Ho­bart City Coun­cil as “speaker’s cor­ner”, David Gee takes up his reg­u­lar Fri­day af­ter­noon po­si­tion. Wear­ing a back­pack and stand­ing on a fold-up kitchen stool, he opens his Bi­ble and be­gins preach­ing God’s word to the peo­ple of Ho­bart. The coun­cil tried to pre­vent Gee from evan­ge­lis­ing in the mall and he was twice asked to leave by po­lice, but he took the mat­ter to Equal Op­por­tu­nity Tas­ma­nia, the of­fice of the state’s anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion com­mis­sioner, which granted him the right to preach.

A hand­ful of par­ish­ioners from Cor­ner­stone Pres­by­te­rian Church on Melville St, where Gee works part time, sit nearby and lis­ten. But for most lunchtime shop­pers, Gee’s voice does not seem to reg­is­ter. It is hard for him to be heard above the mu­sic of a nearby break­dancer, who has drawn a crowd.

“This is not like Facebook, I don’t want 1000 likes on my page,” says Gee, when asked how he gauges the im­pact of his preach­ing. “What I want to do is faith­fully present what the Bi­ble says.”

Gee and Camp­bell Markham, Cor­ner­stone’s pas­tor, have re­cently be­come a use­ful case study for con­ser­va­tive lob­by­ists who ar­gue same-sex mar­riage will im­pinge on re­li­gious free­doms in Aus­tralia. They have been taken to Equal Op­por­tu­nity Tas­ma­nia, ac­cused of mak­ing hurt­ful and of­fen­sive state­ments in their preach­ing against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and same-sex mar­riage.

Gee re­jects the ac­cu­sa­tion that he has shouted at those who op­pose his views, but ad­mits he has not al­ways suc­ceeded in keep­ing the bal­ance be­tween “gra­cious and gen­tle procla­ma­tion” and the “clear need to present God’s un­flinch­ing op­po­si­tion to all forms of sin”.

The mat­ter is yet to be ruled upon, but Gee and Markham are try­ing to have the com­plaint struck out by the Supreme Court on the ba­sis that it breaches re­li­gious free­doms. A fight­ing fund has been set up, with do­na­tions stream­ing in via Cor­ner­stone’s web­site. What­ever the out­come, the case is a fil­lip to those such as for­mer prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott, who are try­ing to make the de­bate over same-sex mar­riage about free­dom of re­li­gion rather than dis­crim­i­na­tion against gay peo­ple.

Back at the Wear It Pur­ple stall, Wise is dis­ap­pointed the is­sue of same-sex mar­riage has be­come bogged down in a re­li­gion-based ide­o­log­i­cal de­bate. Like many mar­riage equal­ity ad­vo­cates, for him the is­sue is solely about giv­ing the same le­gal and so­ci­etal recog­ni­tion to same-sex re­la­tion­ships as het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships.

The Turn­bull Gov­ern­ment’s $122 mil­lion same-sex mar­riage postal vote, which faced a High Court chal­lenge on con­sti­tu­tional grounds this week, should never have been con­sid­ered in the first place, Wise says. “I wish it was a free vote in Par­lia­ment [on whether the Mar­riage Act should be changed to al­low same­sex cou­ples to marry],” Wise says. “I feel let down by our Prime

Min­is­ter, es­pe­cially when he’s come out say­ing he sup­ports mar­riage equal­ity.”

While Wise has read about the anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion case against Markham and Gee he is more wor­ried about what is said on­line about gay peo­ple dur­ing the same-sex mar­riage de­bate than what a fun­da­men­tal Chris­tian street preacher is likely to say in the mall. He knows from ex­pe­ri­ence how im­por­tant Facebook com­mu­ni­ties and on­line fo­rums are to young peo­ple who are try­ing to work out their sex­u­al­ity, par­tic­u­larly if they live in an in­tol­er­ant com­mu­nity or fam­ily.

“Be­fore I told my par­ents that I was gay I felt a lot of con­fu­sion. There was a lot of keep­ing it to my­self. Now I feel, not im­mune, but stronger,” Wise says. “But there are prob­a­bly a lot of peo­ple out there with­out that sup­port, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas, who will be af­fected by hate­ful ma­te­rial they read on­line.”

Af­ter a Sun­day morn­ing church ser­vice, a group of young fun­da­men­tal Chris­tians meets with TasWeek­end to dis­cuss their con­flict­ing emo­tions in the lead-up to the same-sex mar­riage vote. They are not con­flicted in their be­liefs – as lit­eral fol­low­ers of the Bi­ble they be­lieve mar­riage should be be­tween men and women only. But they are torn be­tween an in­stinct to stay quiet dur­ing the de­bate and a de­sire to share what they be­lieve is the word of God.

Keep­ing a low pro­file is per­haps even harder for El­iz­a­beth Col­lege stu­dent Vi­enna Markham, given she is the daugh­ter of Cor­ner­stone’s pas­tor Camp­bell and Amanda-Sue Markham, the Chris­tian-con­ser­va­tive who un­suc­cess­fully ran for the Lib­eral Party at last year’s Fed­eral Elec­tion.

“It’s been a bit ‘whoa’,” Vi­enna, 17, says. “Young peo­ple in my age group are very pas­sion­ate and vo­cal, so be­ing a Chris­tian in these cir­cum­stances, when the drama of the [same-sex mar­riage] plebiscite is un­fold­ing and all these teenagers are very hyped up about it, I some­times feel I have to keep my head down.”

She tells the story of a gay friend who re­cently turned to her in a group so­cial sit­u­a­tion to ask what she thinks of him. “I said, ‘I think you’re re­ally nice’,” Vi­enna says. That en­counter ended in a hug, but there are times when the sub­ject is brought up more ag­gres­sively at school.

“I would love for supporters of gay mar­riage and ho­mo­sex­u­als them­selves to un­der­stand my views and to know that I’m not a ho­mo­pho­bic per­son, I’m not a bigot and I do love them,” she says. “I would love for them to un­der­stand who I am and what my be­liefs are in depth and I would love to un­der­stand them better. I think we should keep hav­ing these con­ver­sa­tions.”

Sam Mug­geridge, 16, at­tends Calvin Chris­tian School at Kingston but says he is very much an out­cast in his op­po­si­tion to same-sex mar­riage. “I’m at Calvin, which is a Chris­tian school, but the ma­jor­ity of my friends are not Chris­tians so they have the view that I am a ho­mo­phobe and I hate all gays, which is not true at all,” he says.

“It’s OK to dis­agree. If you have a friend who dis­agrees with you it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a friend to them. You shouldn’t have to be forced into a be­lief that isn’t your own.”

I sug­gest it might be hurt­ful for a gay stu­dent to know that his friend thinks ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is a sin, but Sam ar­gues it should not be taken badly. “If I told my friends it is a sin they would take the view that, ‘You’re just say­ing you’re per­fect’. But I would say, ‘No, I’m just as much a sinner as you are – ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is a sin, but I sin just as much as you, but in dif­fer­ent ways’.”

In his new book, Gay with God, for­mer Catholic priest Julian Punch ex­presses anger and re­sent­ment at church lead­ers who, in his opin­ion, ex­pect LGBTI wor­ship­pers to re­press their iden­tity. “Be­ing gay is fun­da­men­tal, it’s your na­ture. It’s who you are as a per­son,” Punch tells TasWeek­end. “Spir­i­tu­al­ity is about self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. You work out, ac­cord­ing to your con­science, the right way to treat peo­ple.”

In Gay with God, Punch says he was mo­ti­vated as a young man to be­come a priest be­cause “it seemed to be a way of life that avoided the aw­ful re­sults of ‘com­ing out’ as gay”. He was look­ing for hope af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the ter­ri­ble lone­li­ness of grow­ing up gay in a very re­li­gious house­hold.

How­ever, af­ter his train­ing and 10 years in the priest­hood, Punch re­jected the church, un­will­ing to bow to the “dogma that the gay life­style is im­moral and deca­dent”.

“It took many years for me to un­der­stand I was not a bad per­son be­cause I loved peo­ple of the same sex and to see that I was in re­al­ity a good per­son, cre­ated with the ca­pac­ity to love and be loved,” Punch says.

For Tas­ma­nian co­me­dian Han­nah Gadsby, grow­ing up gay in the blue-col­lar town of Smith­ton on Tas­ma­nia’s North­West Coast was as iso­lat­ing as Punch’s ex­pe­ri­ences within the church. Her latest show, which she has said will be her last as a standup comic, was de­clared joint win­ner of the Best Com­edy Award at the Edinburgh Fes­ti­val Fringe, which is the equiv­a­lent of an Os­car in the com­edy world. When the show, ti­tled Nanette, played in Mel­bourne in April,

Her­ald Sun re­viewer Ian Royall praised Gadsby’s con­fronting, thought-pro­vok­ing de­pic­tion of life as a teenager in small­town Tas­ma­nia in the ’90s, when the cam­paign against the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was at its hate­ful peak.

“At times, ten­sion fills the room – not awk­ward but com­pelling none­the­less as the un­ease aims to of­fer a snap­shot of the an­guish she ex­pe­ri­enced in her life,” Royall wrote.

David Gee preaches at El­iz­a­beth Mall. Pic­ture: SAM ROSE­WARNE

Nathan Wise, 19, an­nounced he was gay at a school assem­bly.

Chris­tian stu­dent Vi­enna Markham, 17.

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