By Kristy Kaden
From where I am standing now, looking back safely in retrospect, it is hard to believe that just a few months ago Australian society stood at a crossroads, gripped by fear. It seems almost like a bad dream to recall the day by day reality of rhetoric abuse, discrimination, and sickly feeling in my gut as I encountered the widespread, systematic targeting of LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies. I saw a side of Australian society that, previously, I wasn’t convinced existed, at least not in such a ferociously unified way. For quite a while, it became strong enough to make me doubt whether the right choice would prevail after all.
During the last months of 2017, the world stood by and watched as Australia finally participated in a historic landmark vote, to amend the Marriage Act, allowing same-sex marriage. A sizeable chunk of us – 62% – breathed a sigh of relief as the results were revealed, and even more so when the government passed legislation with remarkably little trouble. It was, undoubtedly, a significant step forward and a positive outcome for the rights of LGBTQ+ Australians. Societies around the world celebrated along with Australia. But whilst it appeared progressive from afar, the international community was unaware of the underlying tensions that boiled over in the lead up to the vote. The months leading up to the change were – to put it nicely – absolutely tumultuous; unprecedented. As the entire process unfolded, one thing became apparent that stood out from all the chaos: Australian politics is a system driven by fear.
For years, there has been a small current of frustration looming in the background, a desire for change to happen, but never the right opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community and their allies to make a big push. Politicians have been flakey about their support, and certainly no one had expected for such changes to be considered under Tony Abbott’s time in office. Then, since late 2016, the change in premiership opened the question up for debate. The current prime minister repeatedly attempted to hold a plebiscite, so that every Australian could decide on the issue. From the outside, this seems positively democratic. Yet it received immediate backlash: why is this issue specifically being offered up for a public vote, when other similarly prominent and divisive issues are not? Why was the decision to change the date of Australia Day, as a mark of respect for Indigenous people and their history, not equally up for consideration? Sceptics questioned the need to spend $122 million to host a survey – one that is not legally binding and still necessitates a parliamentary vote – when we already have opinion polls to show the majority of Australians want same-sex marriage to be legalised. These were anticipated and reasonable critiques that marred the campaign with uncertainty and scepticism from the start.
Nonetheless, the most prominent and pointed concern was for LGBTQ+ people. From the beginning it remained uncertain how they would be affected by the government offering up their rights for debate in the public arena. My initial reaction was that of confusion. I thought, are we really going to sit here and pretend that LGBTQ+ Australians do not already suffer from hateful rhetoric and discrimination on a daily basis? Prime Minister Turnbull himself assured the public that the debate would be respectful. But the critics were right. As the debate unfolded, I was shocked by how fervently the “No” campaigners fought; they were a force of destruction. According to The Guardian, a survey of 9,500 LGBTQ+ individuals showed that “experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months.” There was widespread distribution of posters and leaflets proclaiming homosexuality to be a sin, urging people to ‘Stop the fags’. Material possessions and homes were vandalised and there were multiple cases of physical abuse. The ‘respectful debate’ had become aggressive and ugly, fast.
By far the loudest proponent of the ‘No’ campaign was the Coalition for Marriage, an organisation that enclosed a number of constituent organisations, and is mostly backed by Christian lobbyists. These campaigners quickly set about warping the debate to focus on issues of gender expression and children, safe schooling, same-sex parenting, and fears of “religious discrimination” – a rich sentiment coming from a religious entity that enjoys a dominant and thoroughly embedded position in Australian society. One Catholic Archbishop proclaimed, apparently oblivious to the irony, that the state should ‘keep out of the bedroom’, and that, ‘the state has no business telling us who we should love and how, sexually or otherwise.’ The ‘No’ campaign was swift in imposing their agenda from the start and spinning the debate on its head, gathering quite a large amount of momentum and support. They appeared completely willing to sacrifice the well-being of LGBTQ+ citizens in the process. Despite their rhetoric, however, it is obvious that what drove them was fear: fear of losing their privileged status in society, fear of change and progress, fear of sexuality, and fear of losing power and control.
Yet, after all this intensity, the final legislation passed through parliament quite easily. Almost no amendments were made to the first draft bill put forward by senator Dean Smith – the first openly gay federal parliamentarian in the Liberal party. Hence, this begs the question: why did we go through all this trouble, spending millions for a postal survey that stirred up such forceful anger, fear, and hate, to ultimately do exactly what should have been achieved had parliament just taken action itself?
Because Australian people – particularly politicians – have an inability to face their deep seated issues. This national survey highlights a reluctance to not only take responsibility for the past, but also a lack of impetus to make changes for the future. “Leaving marriage equality up to a postal survey is a very clear handing over of responsibility from the parliament to the public; if significant backlash occurred either way, the blame could be placed on the public.” This is a democratic gesture to be sure, but one that absolves the authority of our leaders.
Perhaps it comes down to the ignorance of past wrongdoing and Australia’s desire to be seen as an important player in the global field. But the reality is – whether it is LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous rights, migrant and asylum seeker rights, gender equality, or economic inequality – these deeply rooted issues simmer under the surface. Despite the facade of a happy, easy-going, and progressive society, every now and then this built up political pressure is released in a steam of polarising rhetoric. It unleashes dormant anxieties, fears, issues and regressive attitudes, which the government can too often use to its advantage. Fear is not only a weapon and survival tool for authoritarian governments – democracies can rule through fear, too.
By Kristy Kaden