Over the past three months, every Australian on the federal electoral roll was mailed a letter by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Inside, a survey form asked a simple question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” On Wednesday, November 15, the results were revealed: 61 percent of the population voted to change the law to allow same-sex marriage, with 38 percent voting against. This decisive majority seems like a win for the queer community and their allies, paving the way for equal rights. More than 12.7 million people across the country, or 79.5% of the population, took part in the survey with every state and territory returning a majority “yes.” Parties were held across the country to celebrate, and the joy was tangible on social media. After years of campaigning by activists, which became particularly intense over recent months as the survey was sent out, Australians made their voices clearly heard in favor of equality.
But the real issue is that Australia’s LGBT+ community never wanted this survey in the first place. For a start, it was just that: a survey. It was not required to participate and has no legally-binding implications, and only reported what had already been found in countless other polls. At a cost of US$100 million, the marriage equality survey was, at best, a stalling tactic by conservative members of the government and, at worst, a last-ditch attempt to oppress the queer community. In fact, the change in law would not have even been necessary if the marriage act hadn’t been amended in 2004 to specifically exclude same-sex couples. A group of same-sex marriage advocates took the government to Australia’s High Court in an attempt to prevent the survey, but their case was dismissed in a unanimous decision.
An even more pressing concern was that the “No” campaign would use divisive and cruel rhetoric in an attempt to influence the vote and, unsurprisingly, this fear became reality. Rainbow flags were sprayed with Nazi symbols in Brisbane and “No” advertisements claimed same-sex marriage would lead to “radical gay sex” education in schools. One pamphlet compared gay relationships to the dysfunction of a seatbelt with two sides the same, reading, “It’s biology not bigotry,” and fliers calling homosexuality “a tragedy of a family,” appeared throughout Australia’s big cities. This homophobia was not restricted to fringe groups but played out in government chambers and across social and traditional media.
In September, some mental health support groups reported a spike of up to 20 percent in demand for advice related to LGBT+ issues since the postal survey became government policy. Subsequently, five of these mental health groups released a campaign in favor of same-sex marriage, claiming the reform could prevent up to 3,000 high school suicide attempts every year. From questions from well-meaning friends and family members to outright confrontation with strangers, queer people shouldered the majority of the burden. A queer friend told me that, more than anything, she was exhausted by the constant discussion of whether or not she should have equal rights.
The controversy around the campaign reached fever pitch when ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed to have been head-butted by a “Yes” campaigner. Around the same time, another ex-Prime Minister’s godson posted photos of his bloodied face, allegedly the result of being attacked by a “No” campaigner. In an incident verging on the absurd, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce had a lemon meringue pie shoved in his face by a “No” protestor. Macklemore stepped into the chaos by performing “Same Love” at the National Rugby League Grand Final, in the face of a viral petition that attempted to ban the song from “politicizing” the event. But despite all this manufactured and homophobic panic, the majority of Australians were determined to show their support for the queer community by voting “Yes.”
So what’s next for Australia? Politicians have already begun discussing the specifics of the same-sex marriage bill. However, even ahead of the release of the results, conservative politicians inside the Australian parliament were indicating they would attempt to draw out the process. Conservative senator James Paterson proposed and then abandoned a marriage bill allowing wide-ranging discrimination against same-sex weddings, and has now declared his intention to seek a series of amendments to the bill introduced by Senator Dean Smith. This bill is likely to be the one that passes parliament but first, it will be debated, as multiple senators have expressed concerns about the extent of protection of “religious freedoms.”
Throughout this protracted process, the majority of Australians have continued to say “Yes” to equality. The postal survey was insulting, unnecessary and expensive, but at least it’s over. It’s time to legislate for real change and treat queer Australians with the respect they deserve.
Header image via Flickr/Paris Buttfield-Addison.
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