When the ABS announced that the same-sex marriage postal survey had resulted in a resounding YES vote, I was supposed to be euphoric. I was supposed to be drinking champagne and shaking my butt to “Love is in the Air” for the fact that my country had finally stood up for LGBTQIA+ rights and equality. However, no sooner than an hour into the announcement, the narrative had shifted from celebrating the historic vote to blaming migrants and multiculturalism for homophobia in light of the No votes in western Sydney. I put my champagne bottle down, laughing bitterly at speed my life had cycled from homophobic hot takes to racist rhetoric.
Blaming migrants and multiculturalism for homophobia is a tired, racist narrative, but one that is self-righteously clever, disguising its racism on the grounds of capping for LGBTQ+ rights; pitting minority against minority.
“I’m not racist, but this Western Sydney result just shows us migrants are the primary cause for gay oppression,” I saw somebody write.
They seemed to miss the fact that non-white migrants make up less than 20% of the population (let alone the voting population) while 38.4% of NSW voted no. They seemed to forget that not all migrants voted no, with many multicultural communities voting yes. They seemed to forget that the main funder of the No Campaign was the Australian Christian Lobby. They seemed to forget that the power holders in parliament who have refused to change the marriage act for LGBTQ+ folk have been predominately white Christian right, from Howard, to Ruddock, to Abbott, to Bernadi. They seemed to forget that the institutions spearheading the moral panic against Safe Schools have also been white, Christian, and right wing. They seemed to forget who actually holds the power to make make changes for the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s a narrative that the No campaign capitalised on during the postal survey, specifically targeting culturally and linguistically diverse communities to vote no. I was the Marriage Equality campaign organiser for Democracy in Colour, an anti-racist organisation that specifically engaged with culturally and linguistically diverse communities throughout the postal survey. During the campaign, I encountered the No campaign mobilising hard in the Western suburbs, playing up migrants’ fears and lack of engagement over what this postal survey on marriage equality actually meant. They pumped out bilingual material using fearful, deceptive, and hateful messaging.
By the third week of the campaign, many of the migrants I engaged with - my own family included - had strange fears tied to the messaging used by the No campaign. Someone literally asked me if it was true that same-sex marriage would lead to his son’s penis being cut off. When I actually explained to them how the postal survey was simply a change in law to include LGTBQ+ folk into the definition of marriage, it was surprisingly easy to expel their fears.
This narrative was not challenged strongly enough by the Yes campaign. Much of this can be attributed to the way in which the postal survey was rolled out. With only 6 - 8 weeks to campaign for an optional vote, the Yes Campaign’s strategy was centred on ensuring Yes-inclined individuals actually voted. However, another part can be attributed to a long-term structural issue that LGBTQ+ activism has: that the narratives, stories, spaces and messaging tends to be incredibly white. For example, the main messaging used - “Love Is Love” - is actually incredibly difficult to translate for non-native English speakers. Its meaning - that queer love is equal to heterosexual love and therefore one should vote yes for the postal survey - comes from understanding our political context. Directly translated without context, the meaning was lost on many of the migrants I engaged with.
This does not discount homophobia, which is very much alive in these areas. As a queer Chinese Australian, I can tell you this straight up. Of course there are migrants who voted no, just like there are white Australians who voted no. So let's not scapegoat structural homophobia on multiculturalism. Let’s not tie homophobia down to something essential or unchangeable due to a person’s culture or race. Let’s remember that 40% of all Australians still voted no.
Instead of shunning away Western Sydney, we need to ask ourselves and our politicians: how can we better politically engage these communities? How can we be more intersectional in our activism to connect and cater to the diversity there? We need to reach out, not reject, these spaces to show the LGBTQ+ individuals (who are often people of colour) that they aren’t forgotten. We need to do this because the fight isn’t over after marriage equality, and LGBTQ+ folk in Western Sydney need to be shown, now more than ever, that they are allowed to love who they want to love without shame, stigma or discrimination.
Carrie Hou was the Marriage Equality Campaign Organiser for Democracy in Colour, an anti-racism organisation. They plan to engage in Western Sydney on LGBTQ+ issues and you can register your interest in volunteering here.