It’s not enough to wave a rainbow flag, allies must make sacrifices if they truly stand for equality.
Jill Stark

21 Oct 2016 - 1:16 PM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2016 - 12:14 PM

“I can’t do any more.”

Perhaps the five most depressing words in the entire plebiscite saga.

As a Liberal Party veteran in a rural Queensland electorate, Warren Entsch has risked a lot with his long-term support of the LGBTI community.

But as admirable as his stance has been, when it came to the critical moment on marriage equality it was all just too hard.

It was either the plebiscite – which he previously opposed, along with practically every LGBTI group in Australia – or nothing.

“I’ve got other issues that I have to deal with…and I’m not going to sit here and fiddle around year after year because someone doesn’t get exactly what they want.”

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He’s right about one thing: equality is hard. It involves struggle and sacrifice - and allies who are willing to put the greater good above personal gain.

Can you really call yourself an ally if you’re only willing to fight when it’s safe or politically convenient?

There is a lesson in this for all Australians who view themselves as supporters of the LGBTI community.

If we truly believe in equal rights for all then we, as the privileged majority, must make sacrifices. We must be willing to stand up even when that stance comes at a cost.

Right now our country is lagging behind much of the developed world when it comes to equal marriage laws.

The fact that the government would even consider putting the rights and dignity of our fellow citizens up for public debate is a shameful indictment of the wider community’s apathy when it comes to LGBTI rights.

Polls consistently show that the majority of Australians support marriage equality so we know it’s within grasp. But it’s not enough to be an ally in theory only. We must do more than wave a rainbow flag or engage in hashtag activism.

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Sure, we can believe that #LoveWins, but it will win a lot faster if the whole community is outraged and moved to act by the systemic oppression of a minority, not just those whose rights are being denied.

The first place to start is to listen. Women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem put it best when she said that, “empathy is the most revolutionary emotion”.

So instead of painting yourself as an ally and expecting applause for your support of the LGBTI community while simultaneously dismissing that community as “naïve” for not accepting a diluted, “good enough” version of equality - as Fairfax columnist Mark Kenny did this week – try listening to the experiences of those you claim to support.

Being an ally does not mean speaking on behalf of others or imposing your views upon them. It is not about being seen to do the right thing or seeking congratulations for simply being a decent human being.

An ally is someone who is willing to listen, to learn, and to admit when they got it wrong. 

Above all, being an ally means being prepared to risk something of yourself to fight for a fellow citizen’s rights as if they were your own, even when it is challenging or uncomfortable.

It is in those moments of discomfort that history can be made.

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There is no more powerful example than Australian Olympic athlete Peter Norman, who took a stance for his fellow runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968. As they took to the medal dais the two African-Americans raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute, while Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity.

At a time of deep racial tensions both in the United States and Australia, the move effectively ended Norman’s career. But it became one of the civil rights movements most famous images. Norman, who received a posthumous apology in Parliament is remembered as a brave and principled Australian.

In 2016, during this period of prolonged social injustice against LGBTI Australians, there are daily opportunities to make a stand.

It could be that uncomfortable conversation in the pub with a mate, calling them out for using casual homophobic language. Or maybe you stand up to a boss who subtly bullies a gay workmate.

Perhaps it will be educating yourself on the struggles of the community you support – because nobody knows their experience better than they do.

Or critically, it could be a brave politician crossing the floor to put an end to the institutionalised discrimination they know in their hearts to be fundamentally wrong.

We could all be proud of a legacy like that.

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