I've fallen in love with my country all over again
For a moment my exhilaration was mixed with rage. The crowd in Prince Alfred Park was cheering. The place had gone off. Applause was rolling across the country. Even in the newsroom of the Australian there was whooping when the news came through – yes: 61.6%.
But I was furious, too. How could we have been put though this wretched exercise? Why has politics in this country been for so long in the grip of preachers and moralising politicians obsessed with doom, sin and sex?
They long ago lost the numbers but they never lost their clout.
Whatever mayhem they provoke over the next weeks, equal marriage will become law. And when that’s done and dusted they may, at last, lose their power to make change so hard in this country.
This is shaping as a double victory. The doomsayers have their constituency, one that cannot be ignored. But today’s result said once again and emphatically, they don’t speak for Australia.
But for a couple of grim days in September when the Guardian Essential poll suddenly slid away, the victory for yes was never in doubt. Even so we’ve been anxiously talking numbers for months. How high could the yes vote be? Might it reach the 70s? Could we live with something in the 50s?
The result loomed as a verdict on Australia. It would put a figure on our commitment to fairness and good sense, to our freedom from old bigotry and even where we stand in the 21st century.
But this morning it suddenly felt personal. I had a nasty sense of waiting for my exam results. I haven’t felt that for more than 40 years. This was a national verdict about my lot, too. That fed my anger.
But we passed: the nation gave itself not quite a credit but a good sound pass. And we – the country and its LGBTI community – will never feel the same about ourselves again. Just look at the scoreboard.
Those figures are better than they seem. They have to be read against an old truth: Australians are easy to scare. The fear of where changes might lead is so strong here that it defeats nearly every attempt to fix our rackety constitution. It sets its problems in stone.
That was the fear the no case tried to mobilise with its claptrap about religious freedom. It looks as though it worked, to some extent. The $10m to $15m spent by the no case seems to have knocked 2% to 3% off the vote. No doubt they reckon it was money well spent.
But it was not enough to defeat a nation determined to settle this matter for ourselves, not one way or another but with an emphatic yes. This was our vote, our verdict. It’s not a gift from above. Canberra stood aside. We did it for ourselves when the politicians lost their nerve.
I’ve fallen in love with my country all over again.
For old men like me this is another step on a once-unimaginable journey. Sex was a crime when I made my first stumbling entry into the gay world. Even when those crimes were wiped from the books, so much complicated shame was left to be negotiated. The business of coming out was endless.
The smothering respectability of official Australia back then came back to sex. It was all about sex. But censorship collapsed. The press relaxed. Gays, lesbians, transsexuals and queers began to be accepted in public life.
The obvious became unremarkable. Australia became a better place. We could put our energies where they mattered. Today’s result is fresh proof we live in a wonderfully muddled, lively society that happily accepts all sorts of confusion and contradiction. We’re real, relaxed and alive.
We’re not busting to be pure. That’s the mission of the reactionaries who are with us always, and always obsessed with sex. I’ve listened to the likes of Lyle Shelton and Eric Abetz for 40 years and all they ever bang on about is sex. Their grim message is always the same: change the sex rules and the roof falls in.
The roof is up there still, secure as ever, yet that’s all they’re preaching now.
I’m not surprised they waited until the voting was over before letting us see their draft legislation. God’s work can call for sly measures. They knew the bill wasn’t a vote winner. They didn’t want its outrageous demands debated when that might affect the nation’s verdict.
So they waited, hoping that in the end equal marriage will be decided where the preachers and ultraconservatives have had such success in the past: in the corridors of parliament. They demanded equal marriage be decided by the people but they didn’t trust the people. Plain bad faith.
And on the issue of pious bakers for one last time: not even the craziest Christians claim it’s a sin to bake a cake, or drive a limo or rent stack-away chairs with white satin covers to a couple of poofters getting married. We’re not talking damnation here, just discomfort.
And for that they want to collapse the anti-discrimination laws of the nation.
How do we treat the losers? With the understanding they don’t extend to the rest of us. And while they furiously lament the result, we should remember another old truth about Australia: change is fought hard here but when it comes we settle down with change quickly.
In a few months, we will be faintly puzzled that same-sex marriage was the subject of such prolonged, expensive and painful contest. It has been a terrible time for many in the LGBTI community – young and old – in the last few months. But it has been this too: a fresh time for coming out.
What a parade Australia has seen of citizens making the most politically effective argument of all: I’m one too. And then most of the rest of the country took a ballot paper to a letterbox to make it clear that’s just fine by them.
I’m off to celebrate a big day in a wonderful, at times perplexing, country. My country more than ever. Here’s a last truth about this place we demonstrated today: we always come good in the end.
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For old men like me this is another step on a onceunimaginable journey