Marriage equality, or same-sex marriage as the liberal conservatives will have you call it, is a divisive topic in Australia. On a global scale, we seem archaic and behind the eight-ball when compared to our like-minded western nations. Canada and the USA, New Zealand, France, Iceland and even South-Africa have legislated for marriage equality while we twiddle our thumbs, waiting for a parliament which refuses to act on its elected responsibility.
After being repeatedly blocked in the Senate, the Turnbull government has decided a postal survey will best decide whether Australia recognises the fundamental right to equality for the LGBTIQ community. As homophobic posters are plastered across Melbourne Streets in what the Prime Minister calls “part of a debate”, his parliament has declared their trust in Australia to show respect, and spoken of the legitimacy of this glorified survey.
What they haven’t spoken of, however, is the continued disenfranchisement and disadvantage a postal ballot will have on systematically marginalised communities. More than 810,000 Australians who are eligible to vote are missing from the roll. That is just under 5% of the population. Compare this to the estimated 50% of Indigenous Australians missing from the electoral roll. When you take into account that only 52% of those enrolled are estimated to have voted in 2016 election, we're looking at an Indigenous participation rate of 26%.
While this statistic may seem shocking, it isn’t surprising. Disempowerment, disenfranchisement and a lack of trust has led many minorities, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, to distrust government. Since the first days of occupation, Indigenous Australians have fought to participate in democracy, only to be vitiated. We weren’t counted in the census or able to vote until 1967. 50 years later, we still aren’t recognised in a constitution that was imposed on our already occupied country. We suffer from outrageously higher imprisonment rates, poorer access to education, low literacy and numeracy rates, lower access to health services, and a life expectancy more than a decade lower than our non-Indigenous peers. Despite such hardship, we are still here as proud First Nations’ People and we continue to persevere.
However, the difficulties continue and are seemingly endless. Take, for example, the terribly poor infrastructure available in regional and remote Indigenous communities, where the closest mail box can be hours away. How can the country expect Indigenous Australians, LGBTIQ or not, to engage in a system that fundamentally disadvantages them and raises barriers to participation?
Add to this the social discourse that many LGBTIQ Australians are afraid will dominate this debate. Traditional marriage advocates, including members of our own parliament, have compared the LGBTIQ community to paedophiles, rapists, abominations, God-haters and the destroyers of family values. Mixed with the underlying tones of racism that permeate our society, ask yourself if you would feel safe to be an LGBTIQ Indigenous person in Australia right now. Think back to the treatment of Adam Goodes, thrown off the proverbial cliff for standing up to the racism that has pervaded Australia since invasion, and you have your answer.
Still, the Turnbull government trusts us to have a respectful debate? Have they forgotten About the Cronulla riots? What about Reclaim Australia? Does no one remember the Australian Christian Lobby likening LGBTIQ people to Nazis?
When the postal survey was announced, an icy shiver of pure anxiety and fear passed down my spine and affected me in a way I didn’t realise it would. A country that has never truly accepted or respected me, that has marginalised me and made me feel lesser because of my race and sexual orientation, is going to undertake a survey on my very human rights? Would you blame me for lacking trust?
Imagine a 16-year-old only newly coming into their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men suffer the highest suicide rates in the entire world, at 2.6 times higher than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Imagine how vulnerable this child is to the hurtful discussion taking place around them. Imagine the affect this has on someone who is still coming to terms with who they are and where they fit in this world.
Now that the postal survey is set to go ahead, regardless of whether you agree with same-sex marriage, regardless of the colour of your skin, at minimum respect our right to be treated equally to you, and remember that it’s not just marriage equality on the line, but potentially the life of a young person.
Ricky Macourt is a young, queer Gumbaingirr man from Newee Creek. A former diplomat, having served at the United Nations in both New York and Geneva, Ricky was the Australian Government’s only Indigenous representative to the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. A graduate of Colombia University’s Indigenous Summer Studies Program, Ricky has and continues to advocate for equality.