November 15th, 2017 will go down as a huge turning point in Australia’s history.
The gravity of the events that took place on this day are something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
In the days leading up to the result of the Turnbull government’s divisive postal survey, I felt a sense of anxiety building. I grew increasingly uncertain about what to expect from the vote. From the outset, I - like many other members of the LGBTIQA+ community - fought against the pursuit of a public vote on marriage equality, in favour of a free vote in parliament. This opposition to an expensive, non-binding, voluntary vote on marriage equality came from a place of concern for the impact that a public debate would have on the queer community. Malcolm Turnbull’s promise of a “respectful debate” was dashed as soon as the postal survey was set in motion. Our concerns were realised within days as we saw homophobic vitriol from the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby’s (ACL), Lyle Shelton, as he refused to withdraw ACLs claims, likening children of same-sex parents to the Stolen Generations. As someone interested in politics and always ready to stand up for the pursuit of social justice, I didn’t expect the weeks of debate to be as challenging as they were.
I’ve only come to terms with my sexuality in recent years, and to have all the fear and judgement that plagued my life in the closet brought into the public domain was terrifying. It felt as if the dark, isolating, and intangible closet I lived in for so many years had returned to surround me in a very physical way. I wanted to be defiant in the knowledge that I was standing on the right side of history, but when confronted with homophobia, I struggled to maintain my pride.
During lunch at a café, I overheard two older businessmen - both no voters - discussing how they wouldn’t show “sympathy for deviants”. In that moment, I recoiled in the same way that I would have when I was 16 and someone questioned my sexuality or expressed a homophobic sentiment. I wanted to stand up and say something, to make them realise that their words have consequences, to defend my right to love another consenting adult. Instead, I lowered my head and left, feeling less comfortable in my skin than when I had walked in. This is just one example of the “respectful debate” that I experienced, and I feel fortunate to have avoided more direct and physical confrontations.
On the morning of the result announcement, my heart pounded in my throat as I tried to breathe through the feeling of a knife in my stomach. One way or the other, it was clear that the outcome was going to be felt for years to come. As my friends and I joined our rainbow community and allies on the steps of the State Library in Melbourne, I broke down in tears and clung to my friends, my hands shaking in anticipation of the result. I’m not one to tear up easily, but in that moment, years of struggle came to a head as my identity was left waiting for the validation of majority support. This is not an experience that any member of the queer community should have had to endure, and I can’t imagine how isolating and terrifying that day would have been for closeted young people all over the country, particularly those in regional Australia.
As soon as I heard 61.6% of respondents had voted yes, in the survey that by design was stacked against a yes outcome, a weight came off my shoulders and provided a level of reassurance that has a value far beyond the right to marry. We have a lot of work to do in this country, a lot of wrongs to right, but I will be forever grateful that the Australian public allowed common sense to prevail in this instance. For me, this fight was always bigger than marriage, it was about showing the LGBTIQA+ community that the country they call home respects their identity and acknowledges that their relationships should be awarded the same titles under the law. It sends a huge message of support to those struggling to come to terms with their gender and/or sexual identity, that Australia is growing up and that the majority support their right to a life free of prejudice.
Now that our elected officials have finally passed the legislation necessary to make marriage equality a reality for queer Australians everywhere, it is time to look to the battles ahead. While most Australians have shown their support for marriage equality, a sizeable portion of the community still voted no, and as a country we have a long way to go in terms of educating people and undermining systemic homophobia, which has engrained itself in many facets of our society.
Throughout the debate, we heard many prominent no voters taking aim at the Safe Schools Coalition, and more recently during the Queensland election we have seen One Nation deliver disgusting and false information about the program. Homophobia and transphobia will only ever be eradicated through education, and teaching young people to treat others with compassion, love, and tolerance is great place to start, and something we must continue to fight for.
It is time to take stock of what has happened over the past few months, and to look out for those who have been hurt by this process. We need to draw strength from the result and return ready to defend the rights of this community, using the yes vote as an entry point to pursue the much-needed education to support the LGBTIQA+ people who continue to be subjected to intolerance. This is particularly true for the transgender community, who face transphobia borne of ignorance, misinformation, and lack of education.
November 15th, 2017 is the day that Australia said yes to love, and no more to the homophobia and hardship that queer people have fought against for generations. December 7 is the date that our government finally made it a reality, and moving forward, it is crucial that we fight for an era of tolerance, maintaining our strides towards a kinder society, so we never again need to ask strangers for permission to uphold human rights.