Love Will Tear Oz Apart
Why isn’t same-sex marriage legal in Australia yet? While things have certainly gotten better for LGBT+ Australians in recent years, marriage equality is a basic civil right that they’ve always been denied. The country is currently amidst a public vote to gauge opinion on whether or not the law should be changed, but it’s a public vote that’s tearing the country apart, with toxic masculinity and a divisive campaign giving license to lies, hatred and violence towards the LGBT+ community. With the result of the vote merely weeks away, we speak to campaigners on the ground and find out why this plebiscite is about so much more to queer Australians than just getting hitched.
“I spent most of my life feeling terrified of being gay and living in the closet”, says Ivan Hinton-Teoh, a 42 year-old gay man from Canberra, Australia. After coming out to his parents in his late 20s, Ivan set out to improve the lives of queer Australians, founding LGBT+ rights organisation just.equal in 2016.
In recent years Australia has made great progress in removing anti-LGBT+ discrimination from state and federal law. Though in terms of equal marriage, it still lags behind countries like Canada, America and New Zealand. The lack of government action on the issue, despite public support for same-sex unions, has long been a cause of frustration for LGBT+ Australians. In 2013, the High Court of Australia ruled that the government alone could change the country’s existing marriage laws. Yet Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in June this year that he would not support a parliamentary vote until the Australian people have had their say.
In August, Turnbull announced that Australians would take part in a postal plebiscite to decide whether parliament should consider changing the law. This decision has been heavily criticised. After all, many countries including England, Germany and France have introduced same-sex marriage without a public vote. Normally reserved for constitutional matters, plebiscites are hugely expensive. It is estimated that this vote, that isn’t legally binding, could cost the Australian economy more than $500million. The government also announced that there would be no legal protections for the LGBT+ community during the plebiscite campaign period. This allows lobbyists on both sides to distribute campaign material of their choice. From the outset, activists like Ivan feared this would result in deceptive and hateful material being distributed to smear LGBT+ Australians.
“This vote is a morally reprehensible and dangerous precedent in our democratic process”, he says. “No minority should have to suffer a national vote on their access to civil law.”
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is leading the charge against same-sex unions. Abbot is a polarising figure in Australia, having been accused of xenophobia and misogyny throughout his brief premiership. He opposes same-sex marriage despite the fact that his sister, politician Christine Forster, is a lesbian. He even suggested that it would be better her children, aka his nieces and nephews, were raised by a straight couple.
Having witnessed Ireland’s divisive same-sex marriage campaign in 2015, where LGBT+ people were frequently compared to paedophiles, queer Australians feared the worst. “I read the announcement of the plebiscite as a declaration of open season on queer folks”, explains Ashton McAllen, a 28 year-old trans woman from South Australia. It’s hard to argue with this analysis. In an attempt to convince Australians that it’s “OK to say no”, equal marriage opponents have falsely claimed that 92% of children raised by LGBT+ parents are abused and likened gay relationships to incest. Leaflets proclaiming “Vote NO to fags” and “STOP THE FAGS” have been distributed, with these words appearing in graffiti alongside Nazi swastikas. “VOTE NO” was even written in the clouds above Sydney by an airplane. In September, ABC Radio came under fire for refusing to update their vetting system after a caller praised Hitler’s treatment of gay people. Speaking on Jon Faine’s ABC Melbourne program, the caller said: “Hitler had put all those kind of people in their own concentration camps, it’s one of the two good things he did.”
As the campaign enters its final weeks, there is no sign that the debate is becoming more respectful. “This debate has given license to lies, deception, homophobic abuse and physical violence.” Says Kirk Corner, a 31 yearold gay man from Adelaide, continuing: “It was never about marriage equality. It’s about whether they accept LGBT+ people in general.”
Such hateful rhetoric is having a devastating effect on the mental health of LGBT+ Australians. Digital youth service ReachOut said it has seen a 20% surge in people accessing its online advice relating to LGBT+ issues since August, when the postal survey became Turnbull government policy.
“It’s really taken its toll, my mental health is suffering”, says James Besanvalle, a 26 yearold journalist from Sydney. James recently tied the knot with his husband in London, but opted for a civil partnership to show solidarity with LGBT+ Australians who don’t yet have equal marriage rights. “Not being able to get married in the country I grew up in is awful. I’m a second-class citizen”, he says. “The right to marry the man of my dreams in my home country would mean the world to me.”
Even before the same-sex marriage campaign, mental health statistics for LGBT+ Australians made for disturbing reading. Lesbian, gay or bisexual young people are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual people of the same age. Trans young people are a staggering 11 times more likely to attempt suicide, and 53% of trans people have self-harmed at least once. Overall, LGBT+ Australians are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness compared to heterosexual Australians.
But what is it specifically about Australia
“This debate has given license to homophobic abuse and phsyical violence. It was never about marriage equality. It’s about whether they accept LGBT+ people in general.”
that creates these challenges? When speaking to queer Australians, a recurring theme is the hyper-masculine nature of Australian culture.
“We have a colonial idea of masculinity that leaches into the very fabric of the realpolitik in Australia”, says Pat Miller, a 62 year-old gay man from New South Wales.
“There’s somehow an idea that if you’re attracted to another man you are inferior, not quite a ‘bloke’.” It’s certainly true that the stereotypical image of Australian life implies an emphasis on traditional masculinity.
“Our culture is very ‘blokey,’says retail assistant Kirk Corner. “When you think of Australia, you probably think of the outback, the beaches, our obsession with sport or our famous rock bands. These are all pretty masculine things.” This can create problems for people who don’t fit the mould. “Mateship culture is fine on paper, but in reality has a lot of overlap with toxic masculinity”, says Ashe Connor, a 26 year-old non-binary person from Melbourne.
The debate has also highlighted devisions between rural and urban communities. In Sydney and Melbourne, 80% of adults support same-sex unions. But in rural areas like Maranoa, where voters tend to be older and more religious, only 42% of people support changing the law.
These inconsistencies mean that school can be a nightmare for LGBT+ children. “I went to a Christian all-boys school and had an openly homophobic father who I was afraid of”, explains Pat Miller. “It was fucking appalling.” Pat isn’t alone in his experience. 28 year-old Ashton McAllan still struggles to remember her time at school after spending years trying to block out the memories. “The bullying only stopped after the time someone threw a chair at me and I just took the blow”, she says. “I’m not sure if they eased up out of respect or pity.” When 35 year-old Drew Smith realised he was gay, homosexuality was frequently compared to paedophilia. “School was a living hell for me as homophobia was so entrenched and justified on religious grounds. We were even shown conversion therapy videos”, he explains. “When I was outed during year 12, I was told that I’d burn in hell for eternity if I didn’t turn straight.”
This divisive campaign is likely to create more traumatic memories. “The No campaign is talking about child abuse and other things that are totally unrelated to equal marriage”, says Neil Livingstone, a 38 year-old radiation therapist from New South Wales. “I feel so sad for the LGBT+ teens who are watching this.” Neil highlights the brutal reality that this negativity comes at a human cost. For LGBT+ people, winning marriage equality won’t erase months of hearing their entire existence being debated and questioned. Someone will remember every hateful poster, every antigay demonstration and every homophobic social media post.
But how can Australia move past this?
Fez Faanana, performer and founder of creative collective Breifs Factory, believes that achknowleging the ugly parts of Australian history would be a good place to start. “We haven’t had conversations that allow people to discuss the guilt that comes with a white-washed version of history”, he explains. “This has knock on effects in terms of sexuality, indigenous rights, women and domestic violence. It’s about a broader set of inequalities.” Having been on tour in London for the majority of the campaign, Fez and his fellow performers organised London’s biggest demonstration for supporters of equal marriage in Australia. They’ve also made a point of speaking to audiences about the issue during every performance. “It’s our way of contributing to the campaign and shifting people’s thought process”, he says. “If London puts pressure on, then Australia knows that the world is watching.”
With cautious optimism, Australian LGBT+ activists are anticipating what comes next. They suspect that the next goal of the conservative right will be creating exemptions from existing anti-discrimination laws, making it easier for homophobic people to deny services and products to LGBT+ Australians.
Win or lose this vote, Ivan and his team at just.equal are ready to counter such attempts, and he is confident that the community can rebuild. “We will recover from this experience, but it will take time and support”, he says. “I hope the nation looks at the damage this process has caused and commits to never subjecting another minority to it again.”