Tag Archives: Homophobia

Bad fairy at the wedding: the curse of marriage equality activism

I’D like to briefly hold your attention in this short period before marriage equality is legislated in Australia, because nobody will ever give a second thought to the years of struggle that led to this week’s resounding public vote for same-sex dignity.

The concept of marriage equality first hit me like a bullet in 2004, in the moment I realised I’d been completely and utterly duped by this ‘lucky country’.

My partner Jono had died suddenly just weeks before, and I was struggling with acute, identity-killing grief.

I had no idea that this profound amputation would come to be treated as though it was a paper cut. Unbeknownst to me, Jono’s blood relatives had severed me from his death certificate and disenfranchised me from my rightful place as his next of kin.

Left to work this injustice out for myself, after avoidance from the funeral director and denial from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, it dawned on me in a flash that Jono and I had innocently allowed our relationship to remain ephemeral.

“Human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.”

Without the foundation of marriage, we were the same as every other gay couple in the country: easy to sweep aside in the legal processes. I desperately tried to recapture us, but there was no definitive moment to hold onto, nothing that had been formally witnessed or solemnised. Jono had been silenced and without him I was gagged.

Up until that point, my 34th year, I’d been a ‘good person’. I’d closeted myself when my sexuality became painfully obvious, duly distracted people from the truth, and disappeared to the other side of the world for a decade, part of which I spent in a relationship with a woman.

I’d returned home and dutifully come out, glossed over the profound disappointment that caused in my community, and thrown everything into my first gay relationship. All my hope, ambition, and love was wrapped up in it.

But the night Jono died it should have become apparent that I’d never really had a home to come back to. Australia was still brutally colonial in its complete lack of legal and cultural support for the same-sex bereaved.

I have come to learn that statement means almost nothing to those who have not experienced the death of a partner. Death is hard enough for most to countenance, but gay death places the bereaved right out on the margins.

And I nearly disappeared completely. As the denial of my relationship peaked, I calmly decided to kill myself in a manner that meant nobody would discover my body. Having been forced to take in the inglorious state of Jono’s lifeless form in the emergency room, I wanted to leave no trace.

The plan settled in me far too easily. Dangerously at a loose end without work and prospects of any kind, I refined it over a number of days.

But my ultimate exit was stolen from me. I was encouraged, through counselling, to choose to be a ‘good person’, again. Instead of self-obliteration I began to channel my rage into fixing the lies that had been wrought on Jono’s legacy and making this country a better place for LGBTIQ.

My anger found expression in a live submission to the Human Rights Commission’s Same Sex, Same Entitlements hearings, which were instrumental in overturning 100 pieces of discriminatory legislation for LGBTIQ; but I went the extra mile and, with a voice stymied by grief, reminded the gathering that marriage equality was the ultimate solution.

That was 2006, and despite my appeal having no visible impact whatsoever since it was outside the report’s tight frame of reference, I simply haven’t stopped talking about the critical need for LGBTIQ Australians to have the same relationship protections as the rest of the population.

Had anyone told me that would require more than a quarter of my life to date, I would have prepared myself better for fourteen long years in the wilderness.

Had anyone warned me that I was effectively hitting the pause button on the trajectory of my prime years and my career, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

Had anyone told me I would find love again even as my tears were still drying, I would have laughed until I’d cried once more, but I let it in despite all the risks.

Forced to take our relationship recognition far from home, my husband Richard and I married in New Zealand a decade ago. The noblest person I know, Richard has reached his arms around my pain and loss. He’s also a rabid equality agitator who takes it up to politicians and naysayers without fear.

We are not your classic ‘Marriage Equality Activists’.  

My activism emerged from extreme emotional pain, the kind that is not given much currency in Australia, even among LGBTIQ.

I’ve upset dinner parties, taken on social media trolls, and assisted bereaved LGBTIQ to get their deceased spouses’ death certificates altered, because, fuck it, if I didn’t find them and show them how, no-one else was going to!

I’ve marched in protests, lobbied politicians of all stripes, written letters, boycotted, played nice, played nasty, door-knocked, given up hope and stoked my cut-glass anger to keep going.

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about the need for reform, from the mainstream media to the grassroots, and I’ve read a million more written by others.

I’ve seen editors’ eyes gloss over with boredom about ‘another gay marriage article’, missed out on publishing deals because my work was deemed ‘too gay’, and thrown stuff at the tele when activists with perfect media currency landed inadequate blows on populists and let us all down.

I’ve lived in the outer reaches of LGBTIQ ‘safe’ territory, in places where democracy is dead and gay issues a low-level priority. I’ve spoken out against homophobic belligerence among local representatives and reminded a generation of politicians that we are watching.

I’ve been a harbinger in activism circles, a ‘bad fairy’ at the wedding talks, furiously reminding equality leaders that a critical part of having a relationship recognised is enshrining it effectively when one or both partners dies or becomes incapacitated.

To ameliorate my vengeful harpy lashes, I’ve also been a defender of Australia’s marriage equality poster boys and girls, many of whom remained deeply closeted when I was struggling in the wake of Jono’s death.

I have witnessed the reality behind their media-friendly masks, their exasperation, their power games, their u-turns, their fears, their failures and their white-hot rage, and I have reminded journalists and commentators that the truth is not just ‘love is love’ and holding hands under media-friendly glitter clouds on Oxford Street; it’s that human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.

Bereaved same-sex spouses don’t feature on the panel shows or the media spotlight in our own right. The energy it takes to fight on top of enduring grief is too great for the gay widows I have come across. Usually, we’re trawled out as exhibits for why the laws need to change, before returning to the shadows. 

I admit to being a shadow, and I am jaded as all hell, but this week I have sensed the finish line of this painful emotional marathon my country subjected me to.

If I’m honest, I really don’t care about a few religious exemptions in the Marriage Act. If people of faith don’t get out and protest, we’ll know what’s delivered by this parliament contains inequality, but match-fit LGBTIQ will survive.

If Malcolm Turnbull and Liberal luminaries want to play at being statesmen and own the reform as their legacy, I don’t give a shit. Those of us who lashed all politicians before marriage equality was a popular choice for power-mongers will always know who actually got the reform over the line.

The day the legislation passes I will have carried an inconvenient truth for far too long, and I will set it down in territory that is finally safe, to rediscover whatever identity I have left.

This country-born boy who was well-behaved, thought of others far too much, had no role models for equal marriage and has nevertheless forged faithful love with another country-born boy, will have come home at last. 

We’re thinking of a Tenterfield wedding to renew our vows and give this country the second chance it undoubtedly doesn’t deserve.

Lifeline 13 11 14.

The hate that dare not speak its name

AUSTRALIA is fighting a very old battle. It’s been Trojan-Horsed into every household in the form of the Turnbull Government’s postal survey on federal marriage law. Like all wars, the propaganda is rife.

“It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’.”

We’re being asked to vote on altering the Marriage Act to allow equal access to couples of the same gender. Naturally enough for Aussies, we’re dealing with it by forming teams in a numbers game over the country’s oldest political football.

In one corner we have gay-friendly #TeamYes in bright, inclusive colours, although the commentators can’t avoid the war references, labelling them everything from rainbow authoritarians to the gay gestapo. 

In the other corner #TeamNo is pitching itself as the underdog, and while it’s still working out what colours to wear, #TeamYes has been chanting Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe!

Understandably, it’s unsettling for them, but what label would #TeamNo prefer?

#TeamConservative

This would be apt had Western right-wing governments not led their nations to major marriage equality wins long ago. It was David Cameron, Tory prime minister of Great Britain who said that he supported equal marriage rights for the same sex-attracted because he is a conservative in a now famous speech that forever ruled out conservative as a more accurate label for a homophobe. 

#TeamOrthodox

Many of Australia’s faithful are sticking to their ancient creeds, led by the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton; but this label fails on two counts. First, anyone upholding all the Abrahamic scriptures in the twenty-first century must broaden their definition of marriage beyond one man and one woman. The Old Testament allows a bloke more than one wife and a list of exceptions to consensual monogamy. Second, Australia is replete with people of faith who are publicly voting yes to marriage equality. 

#TeamFamily

Upholding the nuclear family is another excuse for refusing same-sex couples equal marital rights. Family First’s breakaway Senator Lucy Gichuhi is one champion in this hard-fought corner. But family values come undone as an excuse for disliking marriage equality when we have multiple generations of surrogate, adopted, biological and foster children that have no different outcomes as a result of being raised by same-sex parents. 

#TeamTraditionalist

Resisting change for change’s sake is a hybrid of orthodoxy, conservatism, and family values, practiced enthusiastically by the likes of Senator Cory Bernardi. However, when a minority group seeks access to a traditional legal institution such as the Marriage Act, Mr Bernardi’s objection to sharing traditional marriage with gays can only be homophobic. This might be why several sub-teams pop up in the traditionalist camp to diffuse the simple yes/no question in the marriage law survey – #TeamFreedomOfSpeech, #TeamReligiousFreedoms and #TeamRadicalGenderTheories, to name a few.

#TeamSorryNotSorry

Social media is replete with players enlisting themselves onto #TeamNo because they feel bullied by #TeamYes, led by the dummy spit of columnist Tom Switzer. They were going to vote for marriage equality, apparently, but their vote was dependent on same sex-attracted people playing nice in a respectful match. They usually profess “heaps of gay friends” yet preface lengthy anti-equality statements with the word “but” to discriminate against the same people. Exclusion on the basis of a rough game is not victimhood, it’s homophobic.  

#TeamAntiGayMarriageGays

Internalised homophobia is a thing. Anyone who was ever closeted will tell you how easy it is to catch a bout of it, even long after coming out.

#TeamHomophobiaIsNotAThing

If all the above players are to be believed, homophobia has never existed and same sex-attracted people are making up all the laws that saw us arrested, chemically castrated and executed across the centuries.

What didn’t exist for a long time were terms to describe the evolution of equality, but as same-sex attraction made space for itself in Western culture, phrases and words were added to the lexicon. It’s an evolving process and commentators need to keep up.

During Oscar Wilde’s trials in the 1890s, homosexuality was analysed around the euphemism ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but by the middle of the twentieth century the fluid term ‘gay’ was in common use and doing little harm.

But pejorative words for homosexuality came into widespread public use as gay liberation got serious in the late 1960s. It’s hardly surprising that a blanket term ‘homophobic’ – coined by a psychologist – was swiftly owned by same sex-attracted subculture, replacing ‘wowser’ and ‘zealot’ in the gay pride push-back.

#NoWin

#TeamYes earned its stripes long ago and has plenty of skin in the long game to full equality.

It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’. It sounds more easily curable than bigotry; there is no law against being inherently homophobic, and religious freedoms are already protected in the Marriage Act.

Their failure to self-identify is what proves any equivalence between #TeamYes and #TeamNo to be so false, and the whole match stacked against a clear win for anyone in Malcolm Turnbull’s survey.

We are right to suspect that is the aim of the game.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The killing of the plebiscite

“For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

THERE has been no progress on marriage equality in Australia since long before former Prime Minister Tony Abbott tricked his moderate frontbenchers into a marathon joint party room meeting with the hard-right National Party in August 2015 and gave Australia a new word to debate at dinner parties.

Abbott got the idea about a public vote on same-sex marriage from his independent nemeses Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott, who first uttered the P-Word during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership.

“It would lower the temperature of the political debate and would provide some back-up support to any politician who takes this thing on in future,” Oakshott said.

Despite voting against marriage for same-sex couples in parliament, Windsor started wavering in favour of relationship equality after attending a same-sex civil union. “If it came down to my vote [in Parliament] I’d have to have a really hard think about it. But that ceremony had an impact on me. I’d probably vote for it,” he said.

Yet he plumped for a public vote instead of just wielding his parliamentary power, a move which has set the tone for the conservative approach to marriage equality in this country ever since: why deal with the pesky issue of allowing gays to marry when it can be handed over to the people?

Even the Greens were up for a referendum in 2013, with Christine Milne wanting to take the debate away from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then opposition leader Abbott, labelling them both “on the wrong side of history”.

But what happened to the marriage equality plebiscite in the Senate late on November 7, 2016, is a ‘David and Goliath’ tale of how Australian LGBTI found our voice.

Ask the people

Abbott and the hard right must have rubbed their hands together on the night of August 11, 2015. With this strange-sounding, hard-to-spell latin word – plebiscite – they’d well and truly snookered marriage equality advocates and lobbyists with a matching slogan that would appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Ask the people,” usually thrown with a nifty kicker: “What are you afraid of?”.

Australia hadn’t experienced a plebiscite in more than a generation. The last came in 1974 under Gough Whitlam, and it asked Australian voters about our preferred national anthem. We selected ‘Advance Australia Fair’ over ‘God Save The Queen’, but Malcolm Fraser ignored what the people said and reinstated the old song. It wasn’t until Bob Hawke altered the song sheet for good in 1984 that our voice was respected by parliament.

But Abbott was pleased enough about his plan that he took his eye off key supporters, including Christopher Pyne, whose rage at being tied to the homophobic hard-right of the National Party was the last straw, and saw them oust the Prime Minister by September that year.

The cheers within many LGBTI households were loud the night Abbott was dumped, but just as many warned about the chance of betrayal. We’d been duped before by Julia Gillard, who’d presented as progressive but soon adopted an anti-equality mantra, and Turnbull disappointingly followed suit. His mantra was intoned differently, dictated by the National Party from the moment the new PM signed the nation’s most secret power pact – the Liberal Party-Coalition agreement. Clearly, a plebiscite was to be the only way forward under this regime.

What are you afraid of?

The question was so powerful it spread its tendrils throughout the Australian LGBTI community. A public vote sounded good. It sounded fair. Objections were hard to come up with once it had been embedded in the Liberal Party’s suite of election promises.

Only marriage equality lobbyists, it seemed, witnessed the way the rhetoric changed throughout the lengthy election campaign. In the final week, marriage equality barely left the news cycle, the plebiscite positioned as some progressive torch lit by true believers. But many of us asked how on earth a policy championed by Tony Abbott, dreamed up in rural heartlands by conservative thinkers, could be in any way beneficial to LGBTI?

Rodney_Croome
Rodney Croome.

The problem was there was very little detail about how a plebiscite would be managed, and the Coalition was painfully shy about giving it, which generated credible reports that the Coalition might well make the outcome non-binding and require a majority of electorates to pass. The pressure was enough for Turnbull to come clean before the ballot: Coalition MPs could snub their noses at any plebiscite outcomes.

After the election, the diverse Senate and the return of Pauline Hanson captured most of the media’s attention. During the fallout, one of the highest-profile marriage equality activists in the county resigned from the organisation he’d created in 2004.

Rodney Croome’s move away from Australian Marriage Equality (AME) called to mind Ivan Hinton-Teoh’s in April. Croome’s explicitly anti-plebiscite stance sounded an alarm bell. Hinton-Teoh (who with his husband Chris was one of the first same-sex couples to wed in the ACT before the High Court quashed the law that allowed it) had started a new group just.equal.

Over its first decade, AME had become the peak marriage equality advocacy group in the country, so there was some explaining to do. Doug Pollard at The Stirrer managed to get AME’s Alex Greenwich (Independent NSW MP), on the record answering serious questions about why the group had not campaigned harder against Turnbull’s plebiscite during the election; but the marriage equality waters were muddied, and there weren’t too many clear answers to be found anywhere.

Plebiscite or nothing

The mantra from within the Coalition quickly evolved. It was now ‘accept the plebiscite or wait indefinitely’. On a sunny Sunday afternoon working the Brisbane Markets with my husband, Richard and I talked through what was at stake and agreed: if it came to a choice, we were prepared to wait for our New Zealand civil union to be recognised in our home country.

We also knew what it was to knock on doors asking for our human rights, having petitioned our region to gauge the mood. Our results showed the electorate of Bowman in South East Queensland was overwhelmingly behind marriage equality, but the process was painful. The question brought out the first homophobia either of us had been exposed to in more than a decade.

As we shared our story, friends in the lobby networks started to come out on the same page: the plebiscite was a great risk to mental health, and there was a sense that had AME campaigned harder against it during the election, Turnbull may not have won. We all reminded ourselves that Doug Pollard had called on AME to change its ways within a week of the election, even as Turnbull’s victory hung in the balance and everyone was speculating about the formation of the new Senate, which would stand as the last line of defence against the plebiscite.

Suddenly, things came into much sharper focus.

Just.equal was already match fit and spearheaded the push against plebiscite-or-nothing thinking, with Shelley Argent, national spokesperson for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Croome. A poll was commissioned showing the true picture of support for a plebiscite, which had dropped to less than half of Australians when respondents were informed of the $160-million cost and the non-binding nature of the outcome. Another showed the overwhelming majority of Australian LGBTI would be prepared to wait for a parliamentary vote, not a public one.

shelleyargent-380x570
Shelley Argent.

Several Coalition MPs relied on the positive outcome of the Irish marriage equality referendum, using mantras like ‘dancing in the streets’ and ‘bringing the nation together’. This was quickly countered by a study showing a different picture of the negative Irish experience.

The message was clear: the majority of people who would be impacted by marriage equality in Australia – that is, the LGBTI community – were prepared to wait for a parliamentary free vote on our human rights. We demanded the Parliament ditch the plebiscite.

Under any circumstances

AME and its new arm Australians For Equality (A4E) adopted strong anti-plebiscite language in response, and called for the nation’s LGBTI activist and advocacy groups to unite, but the devil was in the detail.

Once again it was Doug Pollard who covered the story: even though the majority of Australian LGBTI activist and advocacy groups were opposed to the plebiscite with AME and A4E, a smaller collective – just.equal, Shelley Argent, Rodney Croome and Rainbow Families (Victoria) – wanted to add three simple words to the anti-plebiscite declaration.

“Our position, and the position the LGBTI community wants us to advocate, is very simple: no plebiscite under any circumstances, just a free vote,” a statement issued by just.equal revealed.

Shove it

Miranda Devine can always be relied on to capture the moment. She went out early and hard and told the LGBTI community to take the “olive branch” offered by conservatives and “shove it where the sun don’t shine”. Classy dame, Miranda, but her vitriol, and where it was specifically aimed, showed savvy pundits knew the plebiscite was in its death throes, attacked not by Bill Shorten and Labor (the preferred chief suspects of the Coalition), but by us, the majority of the nation’s LGBTI community.

Rodney Croome recaptured the moment from Ms Devine: “For the first time at a federal level the voice of the LGBTI community has been the leading voice on an issue that affects us more than anyone else. For the first time our mental health in the face of prejudice and hate has been a primary consideration for many law makers. For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

The Liberals tried reviving the plebiscite with a compromise deal offered by Warren Entsch – an electronic online poll with a lower price tag. But while he remains a great supporter of marriage equality and has done much to raise awareness about the issue in the Liberal Party, Entsch still struggles with the reality that any vote that is not binding on Parliament is a dodo.

Turnbull and his team bravely flew the rainbow flag all the way from the House of Representatives to the Senate vote, repeating every old myth and mantra on the way; but after a short life, this unnecessary, expensive, divisive shit of a policy has been slain.

The Prime Minister can hardly be disappointed, since he was opposed to a public vote on human rights before he shoved Tony Abbott out of the top job, and today’s Senate vote rids the Upper House of even more residual Abbott stink.

Plan B

Ignore the naysayers, there is one. Head over to just.equal and get up to speed… they’re the ones who’ve really got plebiscite blood on their hands.

Disclosure: Michael Burge volunteers with just.equal. This article also appears on NoFibs. © Michael Burge, all rights reserved.