A couple of weeks back, I took the afternoon off school to attend the Melbourne High Court hearing that dealt with the Wilkie legal challenge to the marriage equality plebiscite.
In September, this national survey about equality will be held and it will not take into account the views of young people. Like a lot of my friends, I feel that the Turnbull government is trying to exclude us from this process.
I am seventeen and enrolled to vote. I have opinions on this matter, as do my peers. I wanted to bear witness to the legal challenge because, like most people my age, I believe in marriage equality. And yet we – the same generation who will be affected by this issue in the years to come – are not the ones who will be voting on whether this is a human right people are entitled to. As a conservative party, the LNP’s main support in elections comes from conservative voters – and the government will not win conservative votes by encouraging a collaborative and equal community.
As a young person wanting to participate in this political debate, I felt that it was really important to go along to the High Court, but I was not allowed in to hear the challenge. The guards politely told me I was too young.
It seems that yet again, in the global whirlwind of political turmoil that we have seen over the past couple of years, we are being excluded from the very political process designed to represent us. When young people speak out they are often demonised and marginalised in the conservative media, which can lead to disenfranchisement and a feeling of social exclusion, which further discourages us from democratic participation.
How can it be that a person of sixteen or seventeen – old enough to determine their own sexual identity, to marry (at times), to decide on a career, even to serve in the military or possibly be tried as an adult in criminal court – can find themselves without a voice in a national debate?
I find it very difficult to comprehend why in 2017 we are still talking about the ‘issue’ of marriage equality as if it’s some kind of controversy or a contentious matter. While it must be acknowledged that a few with strong hateful beliefs do exist in the world and make life difficult for those they disagree with, marriage equality is not an issue of the preference of the few but an issue of human rights across our society – about the rights of people to be equal.
As equal citizens under Australian law and in Australian society, all people should have equality of choice in their lives, especially including the right to marry the person they love. Australia has fallen behind other countries in this regard – denying a right to a whole segment of Australian society because of discriminatory beliefs, because of the hateful ideas of a few.
Allowing a new group of people to marry does not affect other marriages already available under Australian law. It doesn’t deny marriage to people who up until this time have been able to marry; rather, it allows all people that same opportunity.
If we as a country say gay marriage is wrong, aren’t we also saying, then, that people who identify as LGBTQI+ and want to be married are wrong? Are we saying they are non-normal? Who decides what normal is? Cory Bernardi? George Christensen? Tony Abbott?
Though this ‘plebiscite’ (I use inverted commas here as I’m sure we all know that this plebiscite is nothing more than a glorified opinion poll) might be a chance for a nationwide conversation about marriage equality, there are a number of reasons that I and many of my friends feel that a public survey is not the best way to change the law.
For starters, the effects of discussing the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of sexual identity could have harmful impacts on young people trying to come to terms with their selves in a society that tells them that how they feel is wrong or up for debate.
Our teenage years are already an incredibly stressful time, packed with a pressure to do well at school, to choose what type of career you want to pursue for (potentially) the rest of your life, and, on top of this, many young people carry a great weight because of societal stigma about sexual identity, something older generations seem to see as threatening. If this survey does go forward, it will hand a megaphone to the voice of hate in Australia, forcing LGBTQI+ youth into a situation where they have to defend their right to exist as they are, or to label themselves, when maybe no label is needed.
Even worse, a ‘vote no’ campaign run by politicians (as it would seem Tony Abbott and other MPs plan to) would give standing to the idea that a non-heterosexual identity is immoral or in some way wrong. Do we need to further that anguish?
I also worry that this ‘poll’ will lead to further political disillusionment among my peers. Though most people my age believe in the merits of marriage equality, they will not be the ones deciding on the issue. This may reinforce the often-held belief that the older generation (in particular some politicians and otherwise highly regarded figures) have turned against them. How else can we feel when our very own government blocks our voices on issues that affect our future, and that matter to us?
And, how frustrating that it’s a pointless poll?! It’s non-binding: the Turnbull government can just choose to ignore it if they don’t like the answer or even if they do! Even if they decide to follow the outcome of the poll and legislate, they’re still going to have to put it through parliament. (‘Voting’ in this case will not change the High Court ruling that the federal government has to do something about our marriage laws.)
But, while the plebiscite is not the best way to bring marriage equality to Australia, if it is to go ahead, we should all do our best to take part and make sure our voices are heard and recognised, and take the opportunity to change Australia for the better.
Australia’s next federal election should be on or before November 2019. Next year, I will be eighteen. I can’t wait.
Image: Teenagers / Pierre Metivier