One of the more frustrating things about the marriage equality debate, which in Australia has been going for 12 years and, potentially, has several more left to run, is that it has provided the perfect platform for our opponents – religious fundamentalists and right-wing extremists alike – to express all manner of hateful comments about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians and, in particular, about our relationships.
It does not seem like a month has gone by, since the Howard Government first entrenched marriage discrimination in Commonwealth law in August 2004, that we have not been subjected to the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ramblings of bigots who believe that allowing two consenting adults to get married will somehow precipitate the downfall of civilisation.
All the while these vile views have been dutifully reported far and wide, often without challenge, by the media, under an obligation to report ‘two sides’ to any public policy argument, even when one of those sides involves perpetuating hate speech against an already vulnerable minority group.
And the people who oppose marriage equality have certainly given the media plenty of sensationalist material to choose from – no-one more than Australia’s premier anti-gay hate group (and sometime pro-religious organisation) the Australian Christian Lobby.
Two ACL ‘standouts’ (it would be too generous to call them ‘highlights’) of the past 12 years were then managing director Jim Wallace unfavourably comparing homosexuality with smoking in September 2012:
“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years…The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”
And the current managing director’s own disgraceful media release, in May 2013, which went even further. Titled “Rudd’s change of marriage sets up a new stolen generation”, it argued that:
“The Prime Minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another. Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies.”
Mr Shelton has since repeated this appalling comparison, on multiple occasions, including earlier this year on ABC’s Q&A.
Truly, is there anything more disgusting than denigrating the love between two people, who simply want the same legal recognition as other Australians, by linking it with one of the most shameful episodes of Australian history?
Nevertheless, some members of our political class have given it their best shot in trying to match the homophobia of the ACL during the marriage equality debate. We all remember Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s infamous ‘contribution’ to public life:
“The next step, quite frankly, is having three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society – or any other type of relationship… There are even some creepy people out there… [who] say it is OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals… Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, “These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union.” I think these things are the next step.”
I would of course not be the first to point out that Senator Bernardi was the only person who seemed ‘creepy’ as a consequence of these comments. But he was certainly not the only Senator to cross the threshold from genuine public debate into outright vilification. His Coalition colleague, National Party Senator Ron Boswell, made a similarly outrageous speech during that debate, which it is not possible to do full ‘justice’ to here, but which did include the following gem:
“Two mothers or two fathers cannot raise a child properly. Who takes a boy to football? Who tells him what is right from wrong? What does he do – go along with the two mums? How does he go camping and fishing? Yes, there might be some attempt by one of the mothers to fill in as a father figure but it will not work. It is defying nature. And what about a young girl changing from a teenager into a young woman? Is it fair to say to her, “You don’t have a mother; your mother can’t take you shopping” or to not be able to help her understand how her body is changing? What are we trying to do here? Why are we trying to defy what has been the right thing for hundreds of thousands of years?”
And, in the spirit of bipartisanship, we should not overlook the Labor Party’s own intellectual vacuum herself, Senator Helen Polley, who during the same debate read the following into Senate Hansard:
“From D and AO: “Most of the world has chosen not to change the definition of marriage. Those who seek to change the definition ignore the impacts on children and the potential to create another stolen generation by putting an adult desire above the needs of children.”
Just like Lyle Shelton, in Helen Polley’s weird but less than wonderful universe it is somehow appropriate to connect the idea of marriage equality with the tragic history of the Stolen Generations (in the process contravening the Australian equivalent of Godwin’s law).
These are just the highest profile examples of the many, many outrageous things that have been said about our relationships over the past 12 years. Probably every bit as offensive, and potentially damaging, has been the slow drip of more ‘ordinary’ homophobic comments, the everyday, even mundane, verbal slings and arrows wielded by our opponents against us, attacking who we are.
These comments have come from public figures and politicians not otherwise known for their homophobia, including from one MP who, at least until the 2014 Federal Budget, was generally considered to be at the more ‘mainstream’ end of his particular political party.
In May 2012, on the ABC’s Q&A, then Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey argued against marriage equality by saying:
“Well, I don’t believe we necessarily make better parents because we’re a male and female. I must confess that my view has changed since I’ve had children and that’s very hard and lot of my friends, whether they be heterosexual or gay, they hold the same view as you. But I think in this life we’ve got to aspire to give our children what I believe to be the very best circumstances, and that’s to have a mother and a father. And I’m not saying that – I’m not saying gay parents are any lesser parents, but I am being asked to legislate in favour of something that I don’t believe to be the best outcome for a child.”
Such arguments – essentially bleating ‘but what about the children?’ while simultaneously ignoring all the evidence that the children of same-sex parents turn out just fine, thank you very much – have become depressingly common.
But just because they are common, does not mean that they do not hurt, and does not mean that they cannot cause profound and long-lasting damage. I would try to explain just how hurtful the bigotry of the marriage equality debate can be, but there was a speech in early 2014 which was far more eloquent on this subject than I could ever hope to be.
Irish drag queen Panti Bliss gave an impassioned talk on the 1st of February that year about just what the consequences of gay rights ‘debates’ can be. I encourage you to watch or read the whole speech but one of the passages which stood out to me was this:
“Have you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television and there is a panel of people – nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers. And they are having a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether you are safe around children, about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact you are “intrinsically disordered”. And even the nice TV presenter lady who you feel like you know thinks it’s perfectly ok that they are all having this reasonable debate about who you are and what rights you “deserve”.
And that feels oppressive.”
Amen. To me, Panti (real name Rory O’Neill) has summed up perfectly the experience of watching as your worth as a human being is assessed, at length, by others, simply of the basis of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It doesn’t just feel oppressive. It is oppressive.
Before anyone goes all Andrew Bolt on me, and suggests I am some kind of ‘closet totalitarian’ who wishes to shut down all public debate on terms that are suitable to me and my side of politics, let me first say this: I recognise that in order to achieve this important social reform it is inevitable there will be a public debate which exposes multiple sides to the issue, including some arguments that most normal people find objectionable. After all, that is part of democracy [And of course it is a debate that has already been had, time and time again, since Howard’s discriminatory law was first passed].
And if we are to secure long-lasting change maybe we do need to flush out (and I use that term deliberately) the prejudice, the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic views, of people who are opposed to the fundamental equality of their fellow Australians. Perhaps, in doing so, we can help secure not just marriage equality, but also a more tolerant, and even more accepting, country in the decades to come.
But, that is me talking as an adult, as someone who is comfortable in who they are, who understands the context of the debate and that much of the extreme prejudice currently being expressed is simply the lashing out, the childish tantrums, of people whose narrow view of the world is being challenged – and who are on the verge of defeat.
So, while the comments of the ACL or bigoted Commonwealth Parliamentarians might hurt, and might feel oppressive, to me, my fiancé Steven and to other marriage equality activists, we know that they can be endured on the long path to progress.
For others, who are not as comfortable in who they are, the hurt and oppression of such comments is undoubtedly magnified. For young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, being told that their sexual orientation is worse than smoking, or that recognising their relationships would be akin to recognising bestiality, or even that allowing them to marry the person they love is somehow the equivalent of the Stolen Generations, exacerbates the already high rates of mental health issues, including depression and self-harm, that they experience.
The Jim Wallaces, Lyle Sheltons, Cory Bernardis, Ron Boswells and Helen Polleys of this world need to understand the real-world consequences of their words and actions, that their bigotry can and does lead to depression – and worse – amongst young LGBTI people. Even the more everyday or ‘mundane’ homophobia expressed by people like Joe Hockey can be seen, in this context, as malevolent because it too leads to many young LGBTI people feeling like they are ‘less than’ their heterosexual and cisgender peers.
The fact that they do not accept responsibility for the harm that they cause, that the ACL and others refuse to concede that the bigoted views they express during the marriage equality debate do have consequences, definitely makes this one of the things I hate about marriage inequality – and one more reason why I will be glad when this debate is finally over, and we have taken another step on the path to full equality.