It might be painful, but the marriage equality postal survey is also an opportunity, writes Cameron McPhedran.
Change very often occurs in the crucible of pain. The debate surrounding Australia’s optional postal vote on same-sex marriage is painful, and exhausting, for LGBTIQA+ people. It is a long process, placing ongoing scrutiny on our community.
However, shared social and personal pain does, in this case, also have a reflective and purposeful value. For the LGBTIQA+ community, this process indicates where the gay rights movement has come from, and what still needs to be achieved. Even more importantly, the vote hastens us to have conversations about identity, justice and acceptance with those around us.
With all of their jangly vulnerability, these conversations form the very heart of human connection. They are where parents, siblings, friends and colleagues strengthen their empathy towards what it is like to have felt on some level ‘different’ from your very earliest years.
Much of the LGBTIQA+ community stands against the postal vote. Beginning with Penny Wong in the Senate, many have pointed out that the most vulnerable members of the LGBTIQA+ community in this debate are its youth, and the children of same-sex parents.
This is achingly true. The Writing Themselves In research spearheaded at La Trobe University for instance chronicled the alienation, mental health problems and lower levels of academic achievement of sex and gender diverse young people.
The increasing visibility of LGBTIQA+ people in public debate, and LGBTIQA+ youth sharing their identities at earlier ages, has also meant that this youth vulnerability has never been higher. A comparison between Writing Themselves In 1 (1998) and Writing Themselves In 3 (2010) reveals that the percentage of LGBTIQA+ youth who reported homophobic violence in schools increased from 69% to 80% during those 12 years.
Unlike its detractors, I see a powerful force for change in the postal vote. To me, it is a necessary evil for the LGBTIQA+ community and one we can benefit from in the long term in ways beyond potentially attaining marriage equality. With our society more conflictual and separated into ‘tribes’ than ever before, it has never been more important to stay with conflict to achieve better understanding, connection and authenticity with those who are different to us.
In short, we need to hold space for disagreement even when it’s painful.
My own experiences navigating sexuality within my family have taught me a lot about conflict. I was never going to have the most open dialogue with my family about my homosexuality.
My grandparents came to Australia by boat from post WWII Europe, and there was no time for discussion and difference with the integrationist creed under which I was raised. The family was first a heterosexual(ly coded) family in a conservative part of Sydney. Growing up, to me something like the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras felt so removed from my family’s culture it might as well have occurred on the moon.
‘Closeted’ and attending a high school where some folks called me ‘Pheddo the Pedo’, whilst some teachers unethically outed a male teacher thereafter known as ‘Jockey’ to some of my classmates, I learnt the most toxic dynamic is that one where your identity is not actually acknowledged.
So at first I internalised my conflicted sexuality and did not share it with my family. When I did come out, my parents were supportive, but for my aunt, the family’s integrationist foundations remained strong. She told me that the skinny jeans I wore looked ‘too gay,’ and upon seeing photos of me one New Year’s Eve dressed in a ‘femme’ way, said I would never get a job and never have any friends besides other gay people (even though I already did!).
Persisting in being the person who I wanted to be for many years, by bringing a sense of authenticity to this conflict my aunt and also my grandmother have reconciled themselves with who I am. Crucially, I have done this with support.
For instance, I shared my sexuality with my grandma one hot summer’s day around two years ago. With her hands in mine, and my two closest cousins there to reassure me, years after my mum said of course she loved me but that I shouldn’t tell my grandma – ‘Omi’ about my sexuality, I finally told Omi that I’m gay. In 2017, both my aunt and 90-year-old grandma are among Australia’s ‘yes’ voters.
On social media, I read another tale shared by a friend, Gary Paramanathan, reflecting on his family’s journey/
“I was convinced my mother had pooled the now defunct dowry of mine with the unspent dowries of other queer brown children, forming some brown mothers’ collective and investing it in the big ‘vote no’ sky writing. It turns out I was wrong, both my parents are voting yes, and she said even if I didn’t have a gay son I’d vote yes.”
Gary recognised the cathartic power of authenticity and persistence. He concluded, “to my queer fam, whose families are still struggling to accept you, this is a good day for me, in a 10-year journey with lots of ups and downs. Starting with ‘how can you sleep with someone without talking to me?’ to ‘I’m glad [Gary’s boyfriend] has a good education.’”
My story and Gary’s are reminders that the postal vote provides the LGBTIQA+ with an opportunity for growth and improved self-understanding. For one, we should acknowledge that not all people within our community are equally affected by the unease and alienation that at times is accompanying the current debate. Transgender and gender diverse people, in particular youth, experience markedly worse social outcomes than same-sex attracted people.
The wounds of rejection and hurt are also more often borne by people who are both culturally and linguistically diverse and LGBTIQA+ identifying. The common gay narrative of ‘coming out’ often doesn’t resonate with this cohort.
For example, Sydney psychologist Sekneh Hammoud Beckett found that for Arab Muslim gay youth, the idea of ‘inviting in’ family members and friends to the knowledge of their sex and/or gendered identity was often more constructive (than ‘coming out’). Indigenous LGBTIQA+ community members are also highly vulnerable to discrimination and alienation.
With some groups within the LGBTIQA+ community hurting even more than others during our public debate, both our resources and our ears should recognise their sometimes urgent needs.
The postal survey has also shown us that to provide structured support to marginalised LGBTIQA+ community members, we need to be creative. Elements of public debate surrounding topics such as same sex marriage will inevitably cause our community distress. Hate crimes, assault and vitriolic graffiti degrade our humanity. This means that the LGBTIQA+ community should have the support of those who know us best – combating discrimination is even harder without the support of our loved ones.
Conflict coaching and mediation are two services that can enhance support for LGBTIQA+ people in their families of origin. Having an outside party work to create a safer space for discussions can be the difference between relationships going off the rails or staying on track.
For instance, many LGBTIQA+ youth are met with tolerance when they share their sexuality with their family. Amidst teen angst, school exam pressures, pimples and relationship dramas, full acceptance would be a far more helpful familial response. Skilful mediation allows for these themes to be explored over time, alongside factors such as religion, culture, and family conventions regarding marriage and gender.
Conflict coaching also can give LGBTIQA+ people the stamina to stay in difficult discussions. For example, having support people is a helpful tactic for all parties to provide a sense of equality during difficult discussions. Holding such conversations in public spaces or remotely using techniques such as Skype can also make them safer and less intimidating.
LGBTIQA+ people endure conflict from the cradle to the grave. Gender is politicised even when it isn’t being ‘done’ by gay people, as the recent furore regarding the ‘Do it in A Dress’ fundraising effort in an Adelaide school showed. Although many years older than those school children, the very same people who fought for gay rights decades ago on the streets are doing so again in retirement homes due to the discrimination they face.
Not all conflicts will lead to change and growth in relationships. Still, we need to be skilled in optimising those situations where possible. The current postal vote should be viewed as a watershed moment for the LGBTIQA+ community in this fight.