A PER­SONAL JOUR­NEY TO­WARDS MAR­RIAGE EQUAL­ITY IN AUS­TRALIA.

Gay Times Magazine - - A Per­sonal Jour­ney To­wards Mar­riage Equal­ity In Au - Words & Il­lus­tra­tion Sa­muel Leighton-Dore

I was a clos­eted thir­teen-year-old when, in 2004, for­mer Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter John Howard amended our na­tion’s Mar­riage Act to in­ex­pli­ca­bly state its ex­clu­sion of same-sex cou­ples. The move was an en­tirely sym­bolic and un­nec­es­sary one (same-sex cou­ples had al­ways been ex­cluded from the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage). Be­hind the po­lit­i­cal white noise, Howard was re­act­ing to quiet mur­murs for change; as­sur­ing our na­tion’s pow­er­ful re­li­gious fac­tions that mem­bers of the Aus­tralian LGBTQ com­mu­nity would re­main oth­ered into the fore­see­able fu­ture.

Back in 2004, only 38% of Aus­tralians sup­ported the le­gal­i­sa­tion of same-sex mar­riage. I re­call read­ing this statis­tic in a news­pa­per dur­ing my first year of high school; feel­ing iso­lated by the sheer mag­ni­tude of those who, for one rea­son or an­other, dis­ap­proved of my be­ing equal. Even then, be­fore I’d be­gun wad­ing through the murky wa­ters of my own emerg­ing sex­u­al­ity, I was be­ing warned that most of Aus­tralia would view me dif­fer­ently be­cause of it. This knowl­edge slowly fes­tered into a stom­ach-twist­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion; one that kept me suf­fer­ing in si­lence un­til I was six­teen-years-old.

By then, the per­cent­age of Aus­tralians in favour of mar­riage equal­ity had grown to a clear ma­jor­ity of 57% — and with it, my fears be­gan to sub­side, to the point of feel­ing em­bold­ened to share my truest self with fam­ily, friends and class­mates. For the most part, they were in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive — I know oth­ers aren’t so for­tu­nate.

In 2010 I grad­u­ated high school and en­tered a world of half-hearted diplo­mas, un­cer­tain em­ploy­ment, and drunken nights be­ing felt-up by the weath­ered gate­keep­ers of Ox­ford Street. It was, as is so of­ten said of one’s early-twen­ties, a pe­riod of messy self-dis­cov­ery. Mar­riage couldn’t have been fur­ther from my mind. In­deed, against a back­drop of Syd­ney’s bustling in­ner-west, I didn’t feel dis­crim­i­nated against. I felt ‘nor­mal’ and ac­cepted — a lux­ury not af­forded to older mem­bers of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity who’d grown up in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

It wasn’t un­til I met my boyfriend, Brad, four years ago that my mind once again re­turned to the grow­ing cam­paign for mar­riage equal­ity, which had been churn­ing away in the back­ground; the ever-so-re­silient lit­tle train that could. To­gether, we be­gan march­ing at ral­lies, con­tact­ing our lo­cal mem­bers for par­lia­ment, and hav­ing oc­ca­sion­ally dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with friends and fam­ily.

My mother, who is both a widow and di­vorcee, ini­tially had some reser­va­tions on the sub­ject. Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced hurt and dis­ap­point­ment in each of her mar­riages, she couldn’t quite grasp why I felt so com­pelled to get down on one knee — why Brad and I were fight­ing to be in­cluded in what many view as in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant in­sti­tu­tion. I ex­plained, as I had done so be­fore, that it wasn’t so much about get­ting mar­ried, but about hav­ing the choice to cel­e­brate our on­go­ing com­mit­ment in the same way our cis­gen­dered, het­ero­sex­ual peers can. The very next week­end, mum marched proudly down Ox­ford Street wear­ing one of her wed­ding dresses, wav­ing at honk­ing cars as they passed. Some months later she would catch a bus to visit Par­lia­ment House in Can­berra, ar­rang­ing nu­mer­ous meet­ings with politi­cians who op­posed equal­ity.

The re-emerg­ing con­ser­vatism of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics en­sured the jour­ney to equal­ity would be a long and frus­trat­ing one. De­spite sup­port for mar­riage equal­ity reach­ing 66% by 2015, our lead­ers re­mained hell-bent on com­pli­cat­ing the path to re­form, with then-PM Tony Ab­bott (a staunch op­po­nent to same-sex mar­riage, de­spite hav­ing a les­bian sis­ter) in­tro­duc­ing the plan to hold a na­tional non-bind­ing plebiscite on the is­sue. This ap­proach was prob­lem­atic for a num­ber of rea­sons, namely due to the de­struc­tive im­pact such a process would have on young and vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of our com­mu­nity. We had the num­bers. We weren’t look­ing to be the sub­ject of a glo­ri­fied opin­ion poll — we just wanted our politi­cians to do their job and leg­is­late change.

When the pro­posed plebiscite was voted-down in the se­nate last year, our new Prime Min­is­ter (I know, we sure do churn through them), Mal­colm Turn bull, in­tro­duced an even less pop­u­lar Plan B—a na­tional postal sur­vey on mar­riage equal­ity. De­spite be­ing chal­lenged by mar­riage equal­ity ad­vo­cates in the Supreme Court as un­con­sti­tu­tional, the shonky plan some­how grew legs as a ‘fair com­pro­mise’, and by Au­gust of this year Aus­tralia was trans­formed into a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle­ground for both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cam­paigns.

The Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics be­gan mail­ing out postal sur­veys on Septem­ber 12th, with bal­lots due to be re­turned by Novem­ber 7th. Dur­ing this time, news­pa­pers, ra­dio and tele­vi­sion were awash with hate­ful de­bate and mis­in­for­ma­tion. The ‘No’ cam­paign lined high­ways with posters say­ing “It’s OK to say no” — play­ing on the fears of those weary of change. Spend­ing mil­lions on tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials, sky­writ­ing, and full-page ad­ver­tise­ments, they de­lib­er­ately steered con­ver­sa­tion away from same-sex mar­riage, fo­cus­ing in­stead on the pur­ported slip­pery slope of LGBTQ ed­u­ca­tion, trans­gen­der rights and re­li­gious free­doms.

For mem­bers of the queer com­mu­nity, it was an emo­tion­ally try­ing time. Mental Health or­gan­i­sa­tion Reach Out Aus­tralia re­ported an in­crease of 20, 30 and 40 per cent in clients dur­ing the sur­vey pe­riod, with cri­sis sup­port ser­vice Lifeline also not­ing a dra­matic spike in calls re­gard­ing the im­pact of the sur­vey.

Still, our vi­brant com­mu­nity and its al­lies ral­lied to­gether, paint­ing large-scale mu­rals and dec­o­rat­ing their homes and small busi­nesses in sup­port of the ‘Yes’ cam­paign. Be­fore long, judge­ment day was upon us; bring­ing with it the strangest com­bi­na­tion of dread and ex­cite­ment. Stand­ing along­side my mother and gay un­cle in a crowded Syd­ney park to hear the re­sults on Novem­ber 15th is an ex­pe­ri­ence I’ll never for­get. The crowd col­lec­tively held its breath, lean­ing on one an­other for sup­port, as David Kalisch, head of the Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, stepped up to the mi­cro­phone to share the out­come.

Af­ter sev­eral min­utes of pre­emp­tive ram­bling, he an­nounced that 61.6% of Aus­tralians had voted ‘Yes’’. We had not only won, but we’d done so de­ci­sively — with a huge 79.5% of the coun­try par­tic­i­pat­ing in the vol­un­tary process.

The crowd erupted — I burst into tears and wept into my mother’s shoul­der.

“You’re pay­ing for your own wed­ding,” she laughed, over­come with re­lief.

De­spite fac­ing ev­ery imag­in­able hur­dle — de­spite com­ing up against a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar smear cam­paign, the cam­paign for mar­riage equal­ity had crossed the fin­ish line vic­to­ri­ous.

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