One year ago today, Australia said Yes to marriage equality. In commemoration of the anniversary, we’re re-sharing Amy Coopes’ reflections on the campaign, the vote, and the strength of LGBTI Australians.
It’s taken three months of divisive campaigning, cost us $122 million and all but paralysed the parliament (those who are left) to confirm what the polls have long shown: Australians are ready for marriage equality.
For those of us who have campaigned for legislative change since the Marriage Act was first changed in 2004, who have gone offshore to marry our partners or celebrate the unions of dear friends, and have grimly endured the trials of 2017, it was a surreal moment.
Australian Statistician David Kalisch delivered the news as only a statistician can: with great enthusiasm for the numbers and the process, delivered on time and on budget. But this unprecedented foray into direct democracy has come at a cost far beyond item lines in Mathias Cormann’s emergency fund.
This should never have happened, let’s be clear. Inviting the nation to participate in a popular vote on the civil rights of a minority was and remains unconscionable. The High Court ruled long ago that this was a matter for parliament, which is why this survey — for all its bell and whistles — actually results in precisely zip, as far as marriage reform is concerned.
In spite of this, we have engaged in good faith, with dignity, respect and integrity in a process that, by its very nature, has been humiliating, degrading and demeaning. We have seen the very best of the queer community – strength, resilience, humour and solidarity – come to the fore. Perversely, perhaps, we have become more gay, more proud, more unified. Such is the nature of campaigns designed to divide and polarise, but it’s been so affirming to see the groundswell of solidarity from our tribe.
I will never forget standing in Sydney’s Town Hall Square on September 10 with tens of thousands of people – queers, yes, but many, many thousands more allies. Families with kids who wanted to be part of a movement for change and for hope. People marching with and for their gay brothers and sisters, for aunts and uncles, for their same-sex parents, for friends and lovers, for something better than what our political class has to offer. I will never forget the straight friends who letter-dropped their neighbourhoods, knocked on doors and cold-called strangers, who chose solidarity over hate. I will never forget my elderly Catholic neighbours knocking on our door to let me know, quietly and simply, that they voted “yes” and they were sorry I had to endure this process.
The divisions this has sown will not easily be undone. By the numbers, we prevailed – a popular majority, a majority in every state and territory, a majority of electorates. But the numbers tell another story, too. We now have to live with the knowledge that four in 10 people oppose our equality before the law. For those of us who live in majority No electorates, and I am one of them, we have to look neighbours in the eye and know most of them object to our families and our relationships. We have to find a way of getting on with our lives while this debate enters a new phase of vitriol already evident in Liberal Senator James Paterson’s “religious protections” bill. The No camp will not, it seems, go gentle into that good night.
This debate has changed us – for better or for worse. Some have responded to the better angels of their nature, and others have not. We have seen the worst of Australia – neo-Nazis, evangelical hypocrisy, political expedience, ignorance and fear – but we have also witnessed some of the best. There has been kindness, generosity, compassion and strength. Not because of but in spite of this abuse of process by a party and a leader suffering a profound identity crisis.
We can choose to remember 2017 as a time of resurgent homophobia and carte blanche from our elected officials, and we can and should hold onto this come polling day. There is a mammoth legislative battle ahead, and it’s going to get uglier before it’s done.
But we can remember this, too. The blue skies and sunshine this landmark November day, pride flags burning brilliant in every hue. That we walked together, our heads held high. We asked to be seen as we are — resplendent in our difference, not less — and Australia said Yes.