At my sister’s twenty-first a few weeks ago, right in the middle of the postal survey, my cousin sat beside me and asked, ‘Have you voted yet?’ He must have known where I stood on the question: I’ve spent this year travelling to different university campuses around the country launching the yes campaign, running enrolment stalls, and building on-campus demonstrations. I’ve written articles in support of the yes vote, spoken at the record-breaking public rallies and attempted to continue the activist campaign that has soldiered on for 13 years. And yet I detected a kind of naivety in my cousin’s question. My family is socially conservative and, in particular, homophobic – despite coming out to them at 16, up until a few years ago my mother continued to ask when I was going to finally get a girlfriend.
My cousin comes from a part of the family that recently converted to an evangelical denomination of Christianity. So when he broached the topic of the plebiscite, I suddenly wanted to be anywhere else. Yet what he wanted to tell me was that, in fact, he’d voted yes. He proceeded to tell me in excruciating detail, with a lot of repetition, about the exact thought process he went through to vote yes. He told me about how there used to be a guy in his friendship group who might have been gay and who got teased but then they drifted apart and he wished he could have told him that it’s okay. He told me that people don’t choose who they love and they shouldn’t feel excluded because of that. And so for all these reasons, despite the church but because of his faith, he’d be voting yes.
It would be easy to dismiss someone like my cousin. He spent 25 minutes lecturing me on why voting yes was the right thing to do – I mean, does the guy want a medal for just doing the right thing? However, it’s important to recognise shifts in people’s consciousness when they happen: considering that many religious organisations were part of a well-resourced ‘no’ campaign that targeted their congregation (and considering my cousin lives in one of the Victorian electorates that returned a majority ‘no’ vote), this was not an act of a straight person hetero-splaining oppression to me. Rather, it was a person attempting to navigate his faith through the stormy waters of propaganda from politicians and church leaders, using his basic empathy as a guide.
The last three months have been the crescendo of a thirteen-year-long campaign for marriage equality. The early demonstrations against Howard’s amendment to the Marriage Act where small, numbering some dozens. Then the demos numbered in the hundreds. And then, in 2009, the demonstration on the anniversary of Howard’s ban attracted some 10,000 participants. The activist element wasn’t the only feature of the campaign for marriage equality but it was an important one: it prosecuted and won the argument that same-sex marriage was a civil rights issue and it established a tradition of activism within the campaign. This means that for tens of thousands around the country, marriage equality was not won because of the benevolence of the major parties, or the inevitable march of progress. It was won through struggle. This is important to keep in mind when reflecting on the ‘no’ vote.
The final result, 61.6 per cent ‘yes’ to 38.4 per cent ‘no’, was a decisive victory. It’s been noted that if this were an election, it would be a landslide victory for the winning party. But this percentage is one that matches most of the polling over the last few years, and so it seems the ‘yes’ campaign didn’t have an impact on the level of support for marriage equality itself. What it did seem to impact, rather, was voter turnout. Close to eighty per cent of eligible voters returned their ballots in a voluntary postal survey. This tops the Irish referendum, the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. The strength of the activist campaign, the ‘yes’ rallies in every city, each breaking records for the largest mobilisations in support of LGBTI rights in that city’s history, if not Australian history, was to convert what might have been passive support or indifference on the question into active support at the postbox.
It’s likely true that the ‘no’ vote was more ideologically driven than the ‘yes’ vote: if there wasn’t a public and visible campaign for ‘yes’, there’s a chance that the close to 5 million ‘no’ voters would have held firm and found themselves to be the majority.
Over the past few days there’s been a lot of attention on the 17 electorates that returned a majority ‘no’ vote, especially the nine ALP-held electorates in Western Sydney. This could form the basis of a whole other article but a few thoughts. First, while attention to the result here is warranted, perspective is important. Out of 150 electorates, only 17 returned a majority no vote. Considering that only a third supported marriage equality in 2004, and a third reported that they thought homosexuality was immoral, we’ve come a long way.
Second, while it’s true that these electorates have higher migrant populations, we shouldn’t slip into the trap of racist scapegoating or seeing it as some clash of civilisations. The height of irony was the NewsCorp journalist tut-tutting at the Muslims voting no when the media outlet he works for peddled the homophobia of Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Janet Albrechsten for years. What does seem to be the case in these electorates is that they are communities where organised religion plays a far more important role in maintaining social cohesion. Clearly, the ‘no’ campaign successfully intersected with these organisations to distribute material, organise and so on.
Make no mistake, though: the ‘no’ campaign was driven by the ideological hard right of the Liberal Party and their backers in the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), alongside evangelical churches and religious organisations. The ‘no’ campaign spent twice as much in total as the ‘yes’ campaign, spent five times as much on paid television advertisements and received four times as many mentions in the media. Lyle Shelton must have been confused when he described the campaign as a ‘David and Goliath battle’ with the ACL cast as David: in the Bible story, David didn’t lose.
It’s precisely because they knew they were losing that the right pushed this postal survey in the first place, as an attempt to further delay reform on the question. Even now that they’ve lost on the very terrain they set, they refuse to go quietly into the night. They are doing everything they can to sabotage the current marriage equality bill, attempting to add amendments to protect the so-called freedom of speech and religious freedom of the 38 per cent. Apparently one of the grossest abuses of our newfound freedom to marry will be to force every baker and florist in Australia to cater to gay weddings against their good conscience. Their argument around religious exemption is a furphy and they know it. The importance of winning the demand through struggle is important here as well: the right may try to do what they can to undermine it but the fact that we can claim the victory as ours means they’ll struggle to take it from us. Just look at what happened to Liberal Senator James Patterson’s bill!
One of the enduring qualities of the marriage equality campaign is that we have been, in the words of Lyle Shelton, ‘relentless’. And we can’t let up now. We have to keep the pressure on the MPs, we have to make sure they know we’re watching and we have to make sure that when this passes, that everybody knows that we won it – not Turnbull, not Shorten but us, the activists in the campaign. This bizarre and objectionable postal survey unwittingly unleashed the largest movement for LGBTI rights in this country’s history and rather than divide us, it’s united us, LGBTI and straight alike, all who want to fight for a more decent society, and given us a new kind of strength.
We need to use that newfound strength to take on those who would seek to take our rights away, not just our right to be married, but in a host of other areas of society. We need to struggle for the men on Manus who are currently being starved by this cruel government. We need to stand with the union movement – an institution that despite it’s shadowy reputation in the conservative media was one of the hardest working in the campaign to win equal rights – and face down any further attacks from the Liberals. We need to extend our solidarity to all oppressed groups and broaden the fight against the right.
What is the impact of this historic vote? The sky definitely did not fall in, but, for me at least, my world has changed. I left the house the day after the win walking a foot taller. Strangers noticed my yes badge and smiled at me on the street. Every house, every shopfront had a rainbow flag or a ‘yes’ poster. I read an anecdote on my news feed of someone’s four-year-old niece saying she wants to marry her girlfriend because now you can marry boys or girls.
We fought to be treated with dignity by the state, by society. Maybe at long last for many of us, that dignity can extend into our homes. In these dark times, when the left is at a historic ebb, and on issue after issue we always seem to be on the losing side, finally, at long last, we have a victory. Let’s savour it.
Image: Yes legs / Nic McBride