Yes Yes No: Why The History Of Marriage Equality Must Be Told Accurately

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A recent book, Yes Yes Yes, on the marriage equality debate on Australia erases the past, and fails to spell out the dangers for the future. Founder and national director of Australian Marriage Equality Rodney Croome explains.

“The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
– Martin Luther King Jnr

The new marriage equality book by Alex Greenwich and Shirleene Robinson could have been a valuable history of a great Australian social movement. Instead, it is an unsuccessful attempt to vindicate the Equality Campaign’s approach in the last two highly-contested years of the marriage equality campaign.

The details of hundreds of meetings and motions, rallies and rivalries, phone conferences and plane flights give the impression the book is comprehensive. The immense number of people mentioned gives the impression it is inclusive. But in fact, the book obscures more than it reveals, glosses more than it explains.

The avalanche of little facts diverts the reader’s attention from important questions, themes and ideas the authors don’t want to deal with.

For clarity, Australian Marriage Equality is the group formed in 2004 to campaign for marriage equality. The Equality Campaign formed in 2016 when AME joined Australians 4 Equality to win a plebiscite. The Equality Campaign was one of the main drivers of the Yes campaign during the postal survey.

 

Credit where it is due

The first thing anyone with a passing knowledge of the marriage equality campaign will notice is that Yes, Yes, Yes is disproportionately about the final phase, the build up to and aftermath of the public vote between August 2015 and December 2017.

Less than half the book is devoted to the preceding 11 years of tough, constant and critically-important campaigning.

Some of the key change-makers like Peter Furness, Shelley Argent, Ali Hogg, Anthony Wallace, Ivan Hinton-Teoh, Sharon Dane and Ben Cooper are mentioned for speaking at ‘this rally’ or attending ‘that meeting’. But they are mostly add-ons to other people’s initiatives. Their own agency, creativity, determination, years of hard slog and sacrifice vanishes. The fullness of their often-immense contribution is obscured and lost.

For me at a personal level, it is particularly painful that Yes Yes Yes obscures the contributions of Shelley Argent and Ivan Hinton-Teoh. Because I worked with them so closely for so long I know that without them Australian Marriage Equality would never have achieved what it did, and may not even have continued to exist.

Then there are those important groups and individuals who aren’t mentioned at all. Take Clergy for Marriage Equality, Psychologists for Marriage Equality and Doctors for Marriage Equality.

The lobbying and advocacy of these three groups brought many professional organisations, members of the public and politicians across the line. Key figures in these groups like psychologist, Paul Martin, and Baptist Minister Mike Hercock, paid a great personal cost for the time they devoted to marriage equality and for standing up for the reform on national TV. No effort was made to even interview these people.

Tasmanians reading this book will also feel short-changed.

The state was the first to recognise overseas same-sex marriages, debate its own same-sex marriage bill, and pass pro-equality motions through Parliament.

Yet the only Tasmanian interviewed for the book was Bob Brown who had almost no role to play in the marriage equality debate except that he controversially backed a plebiscite and compromises in the final legislation.

But beyond all the individuals and localities not paid their due, Yes Yes Yes fails to properly consider the impact of three key features of the marriage equality campaign from 2004 to 2016.

The first was the unprecedented effort to skill marriage equality supporters to tell their personal stories to politicians and journalists. Resources were developed, trainers trained and workshops conducted across the nation.

The story-telling campaign engaged people in the political process for the first time, moved politicians and communities towards supporting reform, and was praised internationally.

The second feature of the years before 2016 was what I call “legislative activism”. At all three levels of government, motions were passed, inquiries conducted and bills introduced with such regularity that marriage equality was rarely out of the news.

There were always new angles – state same-sex marriage bills, bills to remove forced transgender divorce, motions to fly rainbow flags until marriage equality was achieved… the list was long.

But the goal was always the same – engaging and empowering supporters, stimulating public debate, and moving still more legislators and communities to support reform.

The third feature was Australia’s largest LGBTI human rights social media campaign, and one of the most effective in the world.

That campaign saw the follower base for marriage equality expand exponentially until the reach of Australian Marriage Equality, Equal Love and Equal Marriage Rights Australia topped one million.

These social media followers, empowered with a decade of involvement in the campaign, became the influencers, the foot soldiers and the crusaders of the postal survey.

Without the social media campaign up until 2016, 2017 would have been a flop.

These complementary community, legislative and social media campaigns have been lost in the glare of the postal survey.

But they were responsible for slowly and inevitably building the high levels of passion, skill awareness and support that were unleashed by that survey.

So why have these campaigns and the people behind them been obscured or omitted from Yes Yes Yes?

Maybe it is because many of the community campaigners whose contribution is not fairly represented were critical of the direction the marriage equality campaign took in 2016 and 17. Maybe properly recognising the activism that took place before 2016 disrupts the narrative that the postal survey won the day.

What I can be certain of is the impact of this unbalanced treatment.

The many advocates and years of campaigning omitted or barely included in Yes Yes Yes are what brought Australia from overwhelming opposition to marriage equality to overwhelming support.

They raised public support from 34% in 2004 to a whopping 72% in 2014 according to the Liberal Party’s own go-to research company, Crosby Texter. They brought support in Parliament from a handful of Green and Democrat members in 2004 to a declared majority in 2015. They won the postal survey years before it was a twinkle in Peter Dutton’s eye.

They built the stage upon which celebrities and politicians strutted when the legislation finally passed. They opened the door others walked through. Their mistreatment is an injustice to them, and an even greater injustice to LGBTI people to come.

The impression this book will give future advocates is that marriage equality was won in 2017 by the money and influence thrown at the postal survey when in fact it was won in the decade earlier by people armed with little more than smarts and courage.

I’m not saying the contributions of those who campaigned for a Yes vote in 2017 were not important. I’m simply saying their efforts should not obscure the efforts of those who came before them.

Glossing over the early years is only the start of this book’s revisionism. Great effort is expended on explaining away or talking around the unnecessary compromises that were made in the last two years of the campaign, beginning with compromise on a plebiscite.

 

Equivocation on a public vote

Alex and Shirleene go to extraordinary lengths to prove they and the Equality Campaign opposed a plebiscite. For example, they assign credit for blocking the 2016 plebiscite legislation almost entirely to the Equality Campaign, when it should be shared more evenly with a range of hard-working groups including just.equal, PFLAG and Rainbow Families.

I know Alex and Shirleene well enough to know their personal opposition to a public vote was unquestionable. But I remain less convinced about the Equality Campaign as a whole.

I’m not talking here about criticism of the group for preparing to win a plebiscite in case it occurred. As unwelcome as those preparations may have been in the eyes of some LGBTI people, they were prudent and necessary.

I’m talking about the mixed messages about a plebiscite senior advocates sent.

At two critical periods when the future of a public vote hung in the balance – the fortnight before the July 2016 election and the fortnight before the Senate subsequently voted down plebiscite legislation in November – Equality Campaign director and spokesperson, Tiernan Brady, repeatedly in print and on TV and radio portrayed a public vote positively, or urged resignation to it.

He said the Irish referendum was “a really positive event” where “the joy that took place across the country was so visible”.

This was completely contradicted by landmark research by Irish and Australian academics showing the hate elicited by the referendum made life miserable for most Irish LGBTI people and their children, and that most would not want the experience again.

Brady urged resignation to a plebiscite in Australia by saying “we don’t get to pick the cards we’re dealt. What we do have to do is make sure that we win them”. This was despite the Senate being disposed to blocking a plebiscite, which it subsequently did.

He warned that blocking a plebiscite could delay marriage equality “indefinitely” and that “sometimes opportunities come and we have to take them and they may not come again for a long time”. This was despite the real possibility moderate Liberals would back a free vote if a plebiscite was voted down, which has also subsequently occurred.

In their book, Alex and Shirleene note the Equality Campaign rushed to confirm its opposition to a public vote in one particularly embarrassing occasion when Tiernan directly contradicted Bill Shorten’s opposition to a public vote. But it’s impossible to imagine that Tiernan’s repetition of his message over two separate and strategically critical periods was not sanctioned and encouraged.

This is especially the case given the campaign had been radically restructured to become more hierarchical and strictly controlled by the time Tiernan joined it.

This was not the only example of the Equality Campaign’s “no / maybe” attitude to a plebiscite.

It formed a working group to oppose the plebiscite that was given no resources and had no way to influence decision-making. It organised LGBTI community statements against a plebiscite that left the door open to a plebiscite in some circumstances.

Why does this matter any more? After all, the Government got its way, circumventing Parliament with a postal survey that the Equality Campaign was very much opposed to.

The first reason it matters is that the Equality Campaign’s equivocation about a plebiscite in 2016 was at odds with LGBTI community opinion.

One of the largest LGBTI community surveys ever conducted found overwhelming opposition to a public vote under any circumstances including if the vote was “fairly framed” (during 2016, polling of the broader community also found a precipitous drop in support for a plebiscite).

The LGBTI community was fearful of the hate a plebiscite would unleash, and even after marriage equality it remains unconvinced the postal survey result was worth the pain the survey caused.

It’s important to note here that the research showing all this was commissioned by groups such as just.equal, PFLAG and Rainbow Families. At no time did the Equality Campaign seek the views of a representative sample of LGBTI Australians.

The disconnect between the Equality Campaign and LGBTI community opinion highlights the need for greater democratic accountability in Australia’s LGBTI human rights organisations.

It’s difficult to be certain, but perhaps the Government would have been a little more hesitant to foist a public vote on the Australian people in 2017 had we heard a stronger message from the Equality Campaign against such a vote in 2016.

What I am certain about is that the Equality Campaign’s equivocation sends a dangerous message to future advocates about the ends justifying the means.

 

Compromising with prejudice

Even worse than the Equality Campaign’s equivocation about a plebiscite was its compromise with prejudice.

In the two years between the Coalition’s decision to have a plebiscite in late 2015 and the postal vote in late 2017, the Equality Campaign turned a decade of messaging about marriage equality on its head.

Prior to 2016, Australian Marriage Equality’s practice had been to talk about the many impacts of the reform, on health, on relationships and families, on faith, on inclusion, on Australia.

But the Equality Campaign reduced all that to one simple message “fairness and equality” that sounded like a party slogan or a commercial brand.

Marriage equality became a political commodity to be sold at precisely that moment when public cynicism about political slogans was soaring.

As someone who has devoted a decade of his life to educating others about the importance of marriage equality, I was appalled by a slogan that I knew would neither capture voters’ attention nor persuade them to vote Yes.

Worse, the Equality Campaign decided not to engage with the No case’s fear-mongering about the slippery slope from marriage equality to gender fluidity, gay Marxists in schools and religious persecution.

The Equality Campaign’s rationale was that this fearmongering was about muddying the waters and to respond would distract from the Yes campaign’s core message.

In Yes Yes Yes Alex and Shirleene justify the decision by referring to the communications ‘experts’ who said marriage equality had to be made a tiny target. My experience of some of these experts was that they had little experience dealing with anti-LGBTI prejudice.

They replicated an all-too-common misconception about such prejudice: they believed it to be less serious than it looks but harder to challenge than it is.

As well as boosting their experts, Alex and Shirleene gloss over the deep reservations many LGBTI advocates and community members had about the tiny-target approach. They make no mention of the advocates who spoke out against the tiny target approach during the postal survey, nor the many community voices that were raised subsequently.

The concerns the book ignores were two-fold.

Making marriage equality a tiny target was a strategic error. There are numerous examples in Australian LGBTI history of how hate campaigns can be engaged with in a way that turns the energy of that hatred around, builds the equality narrative and benefits an equality campaign.

To be clear, like the Equality Campaign I completely eschew anger, bitterness, recrimination, or name-calling and have always urged pro-equality advocates to do the same. I am talking about an approach that peacefully, calmly and deftly flips overwhelming hate into support for equality. Let’s call it “judo activism”.

I believe that if the Equality Campaign hadn’t shrunk from the challenge, and had sought to turn the hate around, the Yes vote would have been higher and Australia would be further down the path towards transgender equality, school inclusion, and an appropriate balance between LGBTI equality and religious freedom.

Evidence for this assertion comes from Tasmania where we very vigorously responded to the No case by reminding voters the same slippery-slope predications were made about decriminalising homosexuality; the sky didn’t fall in then and wouldn’t now.

The Tasmanian Yes vote did not suffer. In fact, it was above the national average, and way above the result in NSW where the tiny target strategy effectively abandoned the western suburbs to the No case.

As well as being a strategic error, the tiny target strategy was a moral error. Having given their all for marriage equality for years, many vulnerable transgender people, LGBTI students and LGBTI people of faith felt abandoned by the Equality Campaign because it failed to stand up for them.

We know this because many LGBTI people have spoken out since the postal survey, describing their pain and sense of betrayal.

Despite emphasising the role of personal stories in achieving marriage equality, Yes Yes Yes overlooks the personal stories of those adversely impacted by the Equality Campaign’s decisions.

A year down the track, the Equality Campaign is pushing transgender reform and demanding apologies from the No case. But none of this makes up for its silence when the nation was actually listening.

Compromise on the marriage equality message, like compromise on a plebiscite, empowered the No case and sent a message to the future that LGBTI people must appease power and prejudice in order to make progress.

Sadly, the same message was sent by the final legislation.

 

Compromise in the final legislation

If Yes Yes Yes minimises community concerns about the Equality Campaign’s equivocation on a plebiscite, and overlooks criticism of the tiny target approach, it is altogether silent on compromises in the final legislation and objections to those compromises.

In early 2017 the Senate held an inquiry into a marriage bill George Brandis released in 2016 to accompany the failed plebiscite proposal.

The Brandis bill included provisions allowing widespread discrimination against same-sex couples under the cover of a phrase new to Australian law-making “protecting religious freedom”.

Not surprisingly it was rejected by all LGBTI advocacy groups.

The Senate inquiry didn’t endorse the Brandis bill, but sadly it stuck with the bizarre notion that marriage equality should be accompanied by legislative protections for “religious freedom” above and beyond protections already in the Marriage Act. Such protections had never been considered necessary before.

They were not recommended by the many comprehensive parliamentary inquiries into marriage equality that took place before 2016. They were not part of any previous draft legislation including the 2015 bill co-sponsored by members from all parties and tabled by Warren Entsch.

They were also not enacted in other country with marriage equality, including those like the UK and New Zealand that achieved the reform under conservative governments.

What changed in Australia in 2016 was the arrival of an American far-right narrative about marriage equality leading to violations of religious freedom and the need to protect people of faith once marriage equality was achieved.

That narrative, which sprang up after the 2015 US Supreme Court bestowed marriage equality to all 50 US states, portrayed people of faith as victims when it fact it was about giving them license to discriminate against and disadvantage same-sex marrying couples.

There was no evidence of religious persecution, and fearmongering about such persecution during the postal survey was comprehensively objected by Australians voters. But the bill brought forward by Dean Smith after the postal survey went even further than the Senate’s report.

The key problems with his bill were these: it allowed civil celebrants to opt out of discrimination laws by declaring themselves ‘religious”; it granted exemptions for faith-linked businesses, watering down some state anti-discrimination Acts and giving renewed legitimacy to the prejudices lurking behind such exemptions; it was even named a “religious freedom” bill, with no reference to same-sex couples.

The overall message was that same-sex couples marrying posed a unique threat to marriage and faith that required special legislation to prevent it.

Many LGBTI people felt the bill made too many concessions to opponents of marriage equality and fell far short of what they had fought for over so many years.

Anti-discrimination expert, Alastair Lawrie, called it “deeply flawed”. Long-time gay journalist, Doug Pollard, called it “marriage apartheid”.

In response to the bill I wrote about the need to look to history: Typically, LGBTI human rights legislation that is passed without caveats is transformative. But legislation that replaces an old, discredited form of discrimination with a new, more virulent form too-often creates more problems than it solves.

That sad future has already begun with the Tasmanian Government moving to punch holes in the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act by importing caveats from the Marriage Act amendments in the name of “religious freedom”.

It is almost inevitable other state and federal governments will also see the Smith bill as a precedent for “protecting religious freedom” at the expense of fundamental LGBTI human rights.

Unlike the Entsch bill, and the dozens of marriage equality bills before it, the Smith bill opened the door to an anti-LGBTI hate narrative that will threaten LGBTI equality for years to come.

More important than all these individual objections was the voice of the LGBTI community and Australians more broadly.

A large-scale national survey found most LGBTI people would rather wait than accept marriage equality on the terms being offered.

Mainstream opinion polls echoed this, finding that Yes voters, and many No voters believed the postal survey result was a mandate for full, unqualified marriage equality.

Despite this, the Equality Campaign threw all its weight behind the Smith bill, declaring the Senate inquiry to be its mandate, praising it as the best bill ever, or, when pressed, excusing its compromises as necessary.

But they weren’t necessary.

No law reform in Australian history had a mandate as strong as marriage equality, nor support as widespread in Parliament. No evidence was ever produced showing that these compromises were necessary to win majority support for marriage equality in the Australian Parliament.

There was absolutely no need for the pre-emptive, pre-survey “religious freedom” compromises that riddled the Smith bill. Legislation would have passed without them.

How does Yes Yes Yes deal with all this? It doesn’t.

It doesn’t mention the absence of “religious freedom” provisions from the Entsch bill, all previous Australian bills, or marriage equality legislation overseas.

It doesn’t mention the contentious provisions in the Smith bill, let alone criticism of those provisions.

The book doesn’t even mention that the Greens moved to have the compromises to be taken out, despite its detailed coverage of every other aspect of the Senate and House debates.

In that careful, deliberate silence lies yet more evidence for why Yes Yes Yes is a vindication, not a history.

 

I KNOW I will be accused of sour grapes because my views about the direction of the marriage equality movement were rejected. I know many people will shrug and say “who cares now we have marriage equality?”.

My response is that the compromises made in the last two years of the marriage equality campaign are about the entire LGBTI human rights movement, not just me; and they matter now even more than they did in 2016 and 17.

Thanks to the perceived success of caution and compromise in achieving marriage equality, these qualities have a renewed legitimacy and have gone to the very heart of our movement

Take last year’s marriage amendment requiring the states to remove their cruel laws forcing transgender partners to divorce before they can have their gender identity affirmed on their birth certificates.

This presented a once-in-a-decade opportunity to leverage greater equality for transgender and gender diverse Australians, an opportunity that was lost in every state except perhaps Tasmania.

The leaking of the Ruddock religious freedom report has given equality supporters an unprecedented opportunity to remove exemptions from national law that allow discrimination against LGBTI students and teachers by faith-based schools and other agencies.

But already the willingness to compromise with prejudice that marred the achievement of marriage equality is pushing to close off these possibilities.

How marriage equality was achieved, and how that achievement is portrayed in Yes Yes Yes are not just wrong. At a time of resurgent authoritarianism across the globe, a moment in history that calls for courage not caution, the unnecessary compromises that Shirleene and Alex’s book defend or obscure will mislead future LGBTI leaders about how profound change for the better is actually made.

It tells them that acquiescence to prejudice is the path forward when it is and always will be engagement, education, empowerment and, if necessary, peaceful, uncompromising defiance.

Rodney Croome

Rodney Groome is a prominent Australian marriage equality activist.

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