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
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.