What happens when you live in an extremely conservative, right-wing town with no visible queer community? You find yourself sitting in the car with your girlfriend at a set of lights reading the bumper sticker on the car in front: ‘Marriage is God’s idea not Man’s’. This sets the tone for the rest of your day.
A couple of months ago a man wrote to The Australian, complaining about the incessant focus on marriage equality, an issue he considered to be ‘second-rate’.
All year I actively avoided engaging with the debate around the plebiscite. It is not that I am disinterested. Equal rights for queer people? I am very much invested in that cause. I have avoided the discussion because I find it damaging to my mental health to read about and listen to other people – almost uniformly straight – debate whether or not I am worthy of the same rights as my heterosexual counterparts. Implicit in the debate about marriage equality is something far more damaging: a dissection of queer sexuality and how acceptable or dangerous it is to society’s already unravelling moral fabric.
Changing the marriage legislation is a stepping-stone towards greater equality and acceptance for queer people. The change provides a platform to push for other, equally important rights, within and outside of relationships. It goes some way towards creating a visible, accepted social space in which we can stand comfortably alongside others.
In a piece written for Guernica, Lydia Yuknavitch talked about ‘the small violences in our daily lives’, and I couldn’t help but liken it to the queer experience. Small daily violences committed against queer people are so invisible to those in positions of power and unexamined privilege that they are rendered implausible. This is why we need marriage equality – not in a year, not next election, but now.
Earlier this year I visited my GP to get some tests done for an ongoing health issue. She asked me repeatedly if I could be pregnant.
‘No,’ I told her.
‘Are you sure?’ she asked.
‘Are you using contraception?’
‘No,’ I replied.
At this point one of two things happens – either the GP comes to the conclusion that you are not sexually active, or she realises that you are queer.
When visiting a gynaecologist recently I was asked, ‘When are you planning to start a family?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t think I am,’ I said.
Not satisfied with my answer, she asked if I had had vaginal penetration.
‘No,’ I said.
The gynaecologist decided to skip the pelvic examination and wrote to my GP, informing her that the exam was not necessary as I was not sexually active.
I have no doubt that other queer women all over the world have had this very experience. And it never happens just once. Every time you see a different doctor, you are put into a situation once again where you must decide whether or not to out yourself to a stranger. There are so many issues entangled in this one experience, more than I could hope to cover in a short article, but these are the small daily violences that queer people face. As a lesbian living in a patriarchal society, I am constantly confronted with my difference and the ways in which this shapes how others relate to me.
When I told a straight friend about the visit to the gynaecologist, she said ‘Why didn’t you just tell her you were a lesbian if you felt uncomfortable?’ Despite popular consensus, most queer people do not want to disclose their sexual orientation on a daily basis. The problem is, sometimes it is necessary. Every single day, a queer person will have to weigh up the cost of outing themselves in public. Whether this be deciding if it is safe to hold their partner’s hand while walking down the street, risking abuse by passers-by, telling their doctor in order to get the right treatment, or figuring out if the bed and breakfast they want to book is queer friendly. This is the reality for queer people in Australia, even today when we have so much, we still have to decide whether our physical and emotional safety is worth endangering in order to receive recognition and acceptance. It is emotionally exhausting; sometimes it is not even worth correcting a stranger who assumes partner means ‘man’.
Yet, despite all of the evidence to prove otherwise, my friend still insisted that queer people were no longer discriminated against. Of course she would find it hard to believe – she has never been abused or jeered at for holding her husband’s hand in public. ‘But the queer community have become so aggressive,’ she complained, ‘it’s not the way to get your voices heard.’
It is hard not to be angry. Everywhere I look, someone is debating the merits of my sexuality and whether queer people really need to get married – and if so, do we really need to co-opt the word marriage?
Whether or not I marry the person I love has little to no bearing on my neighbour or the person serving me my morning coffee. The government needs to change the legislation not because it is popular opinion, but because it is fair. The government needs to change the legislation because until that happens, queer people will continue to be confronted with small daily violences. These small daily violences will only stop through recognition, visibility and acceptance.