And so it has begun. The bile and filth that the LGTBI community and its supporters feared would be thrown at them in the name of a “public debate” on marriage equality has commenced.

On Thursday ABC breakfast host Michael Rowland tweeted a sample of the hate mail he’s received while covering the issue, a postcard featuring a rainbow coloured cupcake on one side and an ALL CAPS rant about sodomites and ABC bias on the other.

Meanwhile, over on Sky News, former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop linked marriage equality with polygamy, bestiality and putting down disabled children.

An anti-gay marriage pamphlet linked to Liberal conservatives also resurfaced, claiming the adult children of same-sex couples could experience sexual victimisation, sexually transmitted disease, drug use or abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts.

No wonder Labor’s Penny Wong, a gay parent, told the Senate this week that a plebiscite on marriage equality would hardly be a unifying moment.

“I want to comment on the comment by Senator Cormann this could be a unifying moment and that people could be respectful,” Wong remarked. “I know what a hard debate is like. But I tell you, have a read of some of the things which are said about us and our families and then come back here and tell us this is a unifying moment”.

The abuse is likely to only get worse, given the restrictions that typically moderate election campaign material will not apply during the postal vote.

[Penny Wong is right: plebiscite hate speech will hurt good parents]

That’s good news for former prime minister Tony Abbott, who used a regular tabloid radio appearance this week to commence his campaign to drive soft supporters of marriage equality away from voting “yes” in the postal vote. According to Abbott, marriage equality is a “war on our way of life that politically-correct activists have been prosecuting for years now”.

Just as he reframed Julia Gillard’s price on carbon as an attack on Australians’ quality of life by being a “great big tax on everything”, Abbott is attempting to reframe gay marriage as an attack on things that voters might feel more strongly about: religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom from political correctness.

“If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no”, Abbott said, “and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.”

Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos claimed this week that the postal vote was “ not about a culture war, it’s not about fighting all sorts of other wars, it’s about a very simple straightforward proposition”. However, Abbott’s contribution to the debate blatantly belies that contention.

Abbott’s approach also demonstrates that vile language isn’t necessarily needed to denigrate LGBTI people. It’s quite easy to offend with inoffensive language.

However, if the postal vote survives its legal challenge, it will be the quickest way available to make marriage equality a reality. If supporters of same-sex marriage overwhelmingly vote yes, and we all do our bit to minimise the harm caused during the campaign, we can swiftly relegate this wretched chapter to annals of history.

But any harm minimisation strategy will require the active involvement of the media.

That doesn’t necessarily mean actively supporting same-sex marriage, which apparently has been declared verboten by the higher powers at the ABC. What it does mean is being willing and equipped to challenge and highlight every underhanded ploy and dubious claim advanced during the “civil” debate.

[Labor’s 12-year road to Damascus on same-sex marriage]

As the former editor of Crikey Jonathan Green tweeted this week, there “is a media responsibility in this plebiscite process: to actually interrogate bigotry, not just report it mutely for the sake of clicks”.

We’ve made a good start this week. Conservative commentator Chris Kenny wrote that Abbott’s “outsiders” argument would pollute the same-sex marriage debate. Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, progressive writer David Marr noted: “Abbott and his mates aren’t talking freedom … Freedoms are something we can all enjoy. These people are talking about the rights of institutions. They want the church to have the power to dictate for all Australians the laws of marriage. That’s not a freedom. That’s a privilege.”

But the everyday consumers of news media don’t often have time to read considered commentary. Their perceptions of the merits of marriage equality will more likely be influenced by the fleeting news grabs they encounter between now and the postal vote deadline.

This means journalists and their editors/producers will need to resist false equivalence when reporting the same-sex marriage debate. If they wouldn’t uncritically air the views of anti-vaxxers or climate change conspiracists, they should avoid lending credibility to those who would demonise gays or reframe marriage equality as an attack on free speech.

Journalists will also need be alert and nimble if they are to be able to provide their audiences with important contextual information such as the motivations of the major players, and whether key contentions are actually based in fact.

The best way to prepare for this is to have factual rebuttals at hand, such as this on marriage myths and this on the welfare of children with gay parents. Australia’s universities are also packed with independent experts that are good media talent.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said in an impassioned speech this week that he would hold Malcolm Turnbull “responsible for every hurtful bit of filth this debate will unleash”. That’s fair enough, given Turnbull frittered away any moral authority or political capital he could have used to convince the community that a vote in parliament was the appropriate way to legalise gay marriage.

But it is nevertheless beholden on every one of us to ensure the public discourse leading up to the postal vote is respectful and based on fact. Only by setting the right example, and challenging those who try to undermine the process, can we minimise the harm to LGBTI people that will undoubtedly occur before Australia has finally achieved marriage equality.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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