Love Will Tear Oz Apart

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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.”

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