The marriage survey result showed that Australia is better than our politicians give us credit for, writes Ben Eltham.
The crowd gathered at the rally outside Melbourne’s State Library was predominantly young, but not completely. There were many families and clearly many straight people wanting to show their support. Inevitably, there was a babadook.
On the train in to the city this morning, I stood next to a middle-aged mother and her two daughters wearing rainbow ribbons. It was clear that this was a moment of great emotional importance to them as a family.
The mood was nervous but expectant. On Swanston Street, I watched two young lesbians embrace excitedly, arm in arm, as they ran into the throng. I ran into respected arts journalist Richard Watts. Watts has a long commitment to queer campaigning. “I didn’t expect to be this nervous,” he told me. “The shame is that even if we win, it won’t mean anything legally, unlike in Ireland.”
Marriage is a very old custom, but in many ways a modern construction. As many have pointed out, the current law dates back only to 2004, when a cynical John Howard amended the Marriage Act to mandate heterosexuality, and to outlaw same sex marriages overseas. It was an act of political opportunism that has set the tone for the way both major parties have treated the issue ever since.
At the Melbourne rally, a glitchy link made statistician David Kalisch’s comments largely unintelligible. When the decision came through there was an initial pause, then a tremendous rush of emotion as people cheered and clapped.
There were tears, too: lots of them, particularly from some of the older people present, some who perhaps remembered a different Australia, one where open displays of same-sex affection were greeted with violence rather than celebration.
And, of course, there were selfies. “So … love wins,” deadpanned one young man to his boyfriend, as they took a selfie together. It was a remark that seemed to sum up the bittersweet nature of the moment.
The marriage equality campaign has been the best and the worst of Australian politics.
The worst was the survey itself: a desperate, cynical act by conservatives.
The conservatives in the Liberal Party, who Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems so afraid of, deliberately designed a process that was engineered to skew the survey in favour of a negative vote. It was as cynical as it was ultimately ineffective.
The campaign was marked by unforgiveable criticism of the LGBTQI community. Bigotry and homophobia were openly paraded. The sexual preferences, the families and ultimately the very legitimacy of gay and lesbian Australians were debated as though their own views hardly mattered. It was a dismal glimpse at the narrow confines of conservative minds.
The LGBTIQ community did not welcome this process, and indeed many have suffered as a result of it. The hatred and mendacity of the No campaign will live on in the memory of those it targeted, as a reminder that the fight for equality must continue.
As Sydney writer Dee Jefferson noted in a fine article in the Guardian today, “the hardest part has been realising how much homophobia and hate actually exists, at all levels of Australian society; how ‘other’ I am.”
But the response to the survey showed the best of Australia. In a generous and optimistic exercise of democratic will, millions of ordinary Australians stared down the forces of superstition and repression to extend the right of marriage to all their fellow citizens.
The Yes decision vindicates a fuller, more magnanimous view of Australia. Not for the first time, the fear-mongers and the sowers of dissent have been shown to be a minority – a loud minority, certainly, but a minority none-the-less.
Across all the states and territories, in an overwhelming majority of electorates, and in every significant demographic, Australians voted yes.
There is much to celebrate in this decision. Australia has chosen love, and rejected hate. As a nation, we have shown the strength to right a historic wrong, and to move beyond the chains of bigotry and disgust. It is a decision that celebrates a simple liberty, all the more important for being hard won: the right of every Australian to marry.
It was about love, yes, but also about something just as important: a generosity of spirit, and a willingness to embrace the fullness of what it means to be human. For this reason, the marriage equality survey will come to be seen as a decisive moment in contemporary Australian life.
Doctor and journalist Amy Coopes wrote today that “we have seen the very best of the queer community – strength, resilience, humour and solidarity – come to the fore.” David Marr wrote that the verdict has redeemed his love for Australia. “Here’s a last truth about this place we demonstrated today: we always come good in the end.”
Those in the queer community who put their lives on hold and, at times, even their personal safety at stake, are owed our profound gratitude and admiration. Special mention must go to campaigners like Sally Rugg and Rodney Croome, who have spent years fighting for this moment, at great personal cost. We are lucky as a community to enjoy leaders of such character and integrity.
For the No campaign, there will be much-deserved criticism. The arguments mounted by the opponents of equality never amounted to anything more than a tissue of lies and smears. The slogans mouthed by Lyle Shelton were breathtaking in their cynicism and naked in their loathing. The losers in this debate have shown their opponents little respect; now that they have lost, we can ignore their rhetoric about ‘freedom’, a word which they have twisted out of all recognition. Let us hear no more of their lies and distortions.
The law itself has not yet been changed. That must happen, with minimal delay. Those who disagree must honour the judgment of voters, and get out of the way. The people have led. It is time for the Parliament to follow.
Gender debates are always controversial, and for good reason: love and sex are at the core of what it means to be human. We didn’t deserve such a mean and nasty campaign. But now that is over, we have learned an important lesson about our nation: we are better than our politicians think we are.
By embracing the right of all to marry who they love, Australians have shown that they are greater in heart, and larger in spirit, than our political leaders give us credit for.
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