7 things we need to do now

Commonwealth_ Sex Discrimination Act 1984-3

 

At the end of a long week – which felt more like a month, and frankly had a year’s worth of ups and (mostly) downs – it’s time to take stock, and work out what we do next.

 

Thankfully, there are now two challenges to the Government’s pseudo postal plebiscite (aka the Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’), which will be heard by the High Court on September 5 and 6.

 

However, while we might hope for the best – that the judiciary finds this extraordinary and unprecedented process to be an unconstitutional abuse of executive power – we must also prepare ourselves for the worst.

 

In that context, I offer the following seven suggestions of how we should respond to Malcolm Turnbull’s supposed statistical survey:

 

  1. Enrol

 

The Government has already announced that, in order to participate in the ‘plebiscite’, you must be on the electoral roll by 6pm on Thursday 24 August.

 

So, the most immediate thing you need to do is:

 

  • Check your enrolment here.

 

  • If you aren’t enrolled, enrol to vote here.

 

Even if you are currently intending to boycott the ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’, you might end up changing your mind in the coming weeks and months, so please update your enrolment now and leave your options open in September and October.

 

  1. Engage

 

This step is harder than the first, especially when emotions are understandably running high and we feel that the process that has been inflicted upon us is incredibly unfair (because it is). But that doesn’t mean the pseudo postal plebiscite is necessarily going away either.

 

Which means we need to engage, with our family members (including extended family), our friends, our colleagues, our peers, basically anyone and everyone we have connections with, to encourage them to support the fight for equality.

 

Of course, there are limits to this ask. Don’t engage with trolls, or with people who show they are unwilling to genuinely engage with you (neither group is worth your time). And don’t engage where you don’t feel comfortable, and above all, safe in doing so.

 

But, please have these conversations wherever and whenever you can, because that’s how we remind people who are already on our side what they need to do, and how we persuade the people who have yet to make up their minds.

 

  1. Educate

 

This step, which is related to number two, is much more difficult again. It is hard when the decision by the Turnbull Coalition Government to hold this pseudo postal plebiscite has already politicised every minute, every hour and every day of our lives – politicised our mere existence – until this farce is over.

 

And there’s no denying the perennial problem that in struggles for justice, the burden of educating the oppressors falls disproportionately on the oppressed (when people should instead bear responsibility for educating themselves).

 

Nevertheless, there will still be many opportunities in the months ahead for genuine education. To provide information to people who may not have thought about LGBTIQ issues before. To answer questions from those who don’t know a lot about us, or our relationships, but who show a sincere desire to learn.

 

Of course, for many in our community, for different reasons, this task is not something they are willing or able to do – and that’s totally okay. And for anyone who does decide to engage in these discussions, you should always remember that your personal information is yours, and you should only disclose as much as you feel comfortable. Nobody has a ‘right’ to know everything about you.

 

But for those of us who are in a position to have these conversations, we should. And if you need help getting started, Australian Marriage Equality/The Equality Campaign have produced a number of useful resources (including translations into Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, Hindi, Greek, Italian, and Spanish).

 

  1. Vote

 

We’ve reached the fourth step on my list, and the third most important: to vote (and obviously to vote yes).

 

Before I start, I’d like to say to anyone who is currently considering boycotting the pseudo postal plebiscite that I completely understand where you’re coming from. It is a bullshit process, imposed for bullshit reasons. It is inherently offensive to LGBTIQ people; it is insulting, and demeaning, to our relationships.

 

In fact, the decision by Liberal and National MPs and Senators to adopt a supposed statistical survey on marriage equality made me even more angry, and frustrated, about a subject that I thought had exhausted my reserves of both. Despite all this, I have decided that I will vote, and I urge you to do the same, for the following reasons:

 

a) Most LGBTIQ people think we should

 

Before the Government’s appalling actions this week, PFLAG and just.equal conducted a survey of 5,261 LGBTI Australians to ascertain their views about a possible postal vote, and how we should respond as a community.

 

Only 15.2% thought we should boycott such a vote, with more than half publicly opposed to a postal ballot but prepared to win it if it’s held. And, even though that survey was conducted based on a hypothetical, and the subsequent reality might have changed the depth of our feelings, I don’t think it has altered our thinking.

 

b) Most LGBTIQ community organisations think we should

 

For people who have been engaged in LGBTIQ advocacy for a while, it’s no secret we sometimes don’t play well together. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that nearly all major community organisations have come out in the past 24-48 hours to say that, while they oppose the pseudo postal plebiscite, they will fight to win it.

 

How ironic that Malcolm Turnbull’s divisive debate, that will cause such disharmony across Australian society, could end up being a powerful unifying moment within the LGBTIQ community itself.

 

c) Pragmatic politics

 

There are several political reasons why we should vote, including the obvious one: that a yes vote offers the best chance (albeit no guarantee) of marriage equality being passed this year. A significant yes majority will also diminish the influence of the groups that oppose LGBTIQ rights, like the Australian Christian Lobby, not just on this topic but across all issues.

 

But, even if we lose (which is a real possibility, given a voluntary postal opinion poll has significant flaws, and skews towards older, more conservative voters, effectively stacking the decks against us), the closer the loss the easier it will be for Labor and the Greens to introduce marriage equality in future.

 

d) Personal

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a strong personal motivation to campaign for equality: the desire to finally marry my fiancé of seven and a half years. However, as much as I love Steven – and trust me, it’s a lot – he’s not the reason I will be voting, and voting yes.

 

Teenage Alastair is. Who realised he was gay on his first day at a religious boarding school in Brisbane in 1991. Who took about a month to understand just how homophobic his surrounding environment was, and became depressed. Who, from the second term of year 8, until the final term of year 12, thought about ending his life every day, multiple times a day, because he feared he would never find acceptance for who he was.

 

Alastair aged 12 to 17 probably wouldn’t have understood the ethical reasons why some people in the LGBTIQ community might have wanted to boycott a supposed statistical survey. But he definitely would have understood the message of a large no victory: that his country was explicitly rejecting him, and anyone like him.

 

So, I’m voting for him.

 

Many of us have been that person. Most of us know someone who has been through something similar. All of us can empathise with what that fear, that isolation, that loneliness, feels like. So let’s stand up for all of them – including those who tragically didn’t make it – and vote yes.

 

  1. Take Care of Yourself

 

We already know that, if the pseudo postal plebiscite is not rejected by the High Court, the next four months are going to be awful. There will be misinformation, and outright lies, spread against us by those who wish to do us harm. Indeed, their hate-based campaign has already started – so much for the Prime Minister’s so-called #respectfuldebate.

 

We should not underestimate the impact that this battle will have on all of us, or the fact it will disproportionately affect the more vulnerable groups within the LGBTIQ community itself (including young people, trans and gender diverse people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ people and rainbow families and their children).

 

Throughout this process, we must all take care of ourselves.

 

There are services in place that can help if you need it, including:

 

  • QLife, the national telephone and web counselling service for LGBTI people, families and friends. Call 1800 184 527, 3pm to midnight everyday.

 

 

For a longer list of the support services available to LGBTIQ+ community, see this article by SBS.

 

Beyond these formal services, however, there are plenty of other ways to practice self-care, and self-love, during this time. If you need to talk to someone, reach out to your friends and other people in your life. If you are finding yourself negatively affected by the public debate and/or social media, switch off. If you have to take a break from the campaign, do – drop out for as long as you need.

 

For other tips on what you can do to take care of yourself, see the helpful info-graphic produced by ACON at the end of this article. If you are a member of an LGBTIQ family, you can also check out this handy guide produced by Rainbow Families. And if you are aware of, or come across, other useful resources, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments below.

 

  1. And Each Other

 

The other, equally important, part of this equation is to look out for, and take care of, each other.

 

It is difficult to imagine a process that causes more damage, or has the prospect for greater division, than the three-month long, voluntary, non-binding ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’ designed by the Turnbull Government.

 

Indeed, that may have been the intention of some of those who advocated this option. At best, Coalition MPs and Senators have shown that they are completely indifferent to the harm the pseudo postal plebiscite will cause the LGBTIQ community.

 

They don’t care about us. So we must care about each other.

 

Be pro-active. Check in with the people around you to see they are okay. If you notice someone struggling, ask how they’re going, give them a call, have a cup of tea, offer a helping hand – or a shoulder to cry on.

 

Over recent decades, the LGBTIQ community has had to endure many challenges, to show resilience in the face of adversity. We need to do so again now.

 

**********

 

These last two steps – Take Care of Yourself. And Each Other – aren’t just the catchphrase of a trashy 90s talk-show host. They are also the two most important things we need to do in the coming weeks and months. Because while winning this vote, and achieving marriage equality, might be important, we – the members of the LGBTIQ community – are more important.

 

Before I finish, however, there is one last point that I need to make:

 

  1. Allies – It’s time to step up

 

I still remember early last year (although it seems longer) standing in front of a room full of mostly-cisgender, heterosexual activists and asking them for their help to win ‘Plebiscite 1.0’ – because the LGBTIQ community could not possibly win it on our own.

 

Well, that plea is just as relevant, probably even more so, for ‘Plebiscite 2.0’, especially with the challenges of voluntary postal voting, and an overall process engineered to benefit the side of those opposed to marriage equality.

 

If you consider yourself an ally of the LGBTIQ community, it’s time to step up. If you are a family member, friend, colleague or peer of an LGBTIQ person, it’s time to get involved.

 

Enrol. Engage and Educate (and, if you need to, educate yourselves). Vote, and encourage others to vote, too. I also have no doubt it will be an awful experience for many of you to see the trauma inflicted on the LGBTIQ people close to you – so look after them, as well as yourselves.

 

Most importantly, stand with us, by our sides, in this battle. Sit with us, and listen to us, if we ask you to. And fight for us, because we need you to.

 

And, if you’re not convinced by me, listen to the excellent advice of the even more excellent GetUp marriage equality campaigner, Sally Rugg:

 

“If you have ever put a rainbow filter on your Facebook profile picture, return your ballot paper the day you receive it.

 

If you have a friend, a family member or a co-worker who is LGBTIQ+, return your ballot paper the day you receive it.

 

If you have ever cringed at the words “one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” at a wedding, return your ballot paper the day you receive it…

 

The postal plebiscite will be won or lost on how allies of the LGBTIQ+ community step up over the next two months.”

 

Over to you.

 

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Dear Malcolm Turnbull, You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it

UPDATE 23 June 2016:

 

On Monday June 20, I received the following response from the Liberal Campaign Headquarters to my letter to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, calling for him to abandon the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on marriage equality:

 

Campaign Support (Liberal Party of Australia)

Jun 20, 18:10 AEST

 

Dear Mr Lawrie,

 

The Turnbull Government believes that a decision on same-sex marriage should be made by a vote by all Australians via a plebiscite as soon as possible after the election.

 

The Prime Minister has publicly supported same sex marriage for a long time and will be voting in favour of same sex marriage.

 

If the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.

 

Thank you for taking the time to write.”

 

It is perhaps unsurprising that, given the brevity of this response, what it doesn’t say is just as interesting as what it does.

 

Specifically, the email does not include ANY qualifications about what would constitute a majority – all it says is “if the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.”

 

Indeed, that is exactly the same language used by the Liberal-National Coalition in their response to the pre-election survey by LGBTI organisations across the country (for more, see #rainbowvotes).

 

In the last few days, there have been multiple reports (on The Stirrer, on samesame.com.au and in crikey) highlighting the possibility some conservative Liberal and National MPs might seek to sabotage the outcome of a plebiscite by imposing additional requirements for ‘success’ – for example, that it would need to be supported by a majority of people, AND in a majority of electorates.

 

In fact, it is almost inevitable that the likes of Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz will try, and there must be a real risk that they will succeed.

 

But, the response from Liberal Campaign HQ – both to my letter, and to the #rainbowvotes survey – means that, if Malcolm Turnbull and his Government are re-elected, and then seek to include any additional hurdles whatsoever to the passage of the marriage equality plebiscite, they will be nothing short of liars.

 

For a range of reasons (including that, if there is a change of Government on July 2, the plebiscite can still be avoided), I hope we don’t find out –but if we do, and the requirement of a majority of votes in a majority of electorates is imposed, then ‘dishonest’ will be one more adjective we can use to describe the disappointing prime ministership of one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

 

Full Title: Dear Malcolm Turnbull, You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister of Australia

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

 

Thursday June 16 2016

 

 

Dear Mr Turnbull

 

You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it

 

I am writing to you once again on a subject I have previously written to you about[i].

 

Specifically, I am writing one last time in the hope you might abandon your Government’s proposal to hold an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive and harmful plebiscite on marriage equality should you win re-election on 2 July.

 

I call on you to demonstrate the leadership on this issue that, so far, has been lacking. Please drop the proposed plebiscite, and commit to passing marriage equality in the ‘ordinary way’: through a parliamentary vote.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite is entirely unnecessary

 

Given you have previously argued before the High Court, I know you can read a court decision. In which case, I am sure you are aware the High Court has already conclusively found[ii] that Commonwealth Parliament has the power to introduce marriage equality. There is absolutely no need to hold a referendum or plebiscite on this topic.

 

Indeed, holding a national public vote on such an issue, where constitutional change is not required, is almost unprecedented in our nation’s history[iii] – the last time a plebiscite was held on a substantive matter of public policy was 99 years ago (the second plebiscite on conscription during World War I).

 

Even if you haven’t familiarised yourself with the Court’s decision, or the history of plebiscites in this country, you have been a Member of Parliament since late 2004, just months after then Prime Minister John Howard passed legislation to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians the right to marry simply because of who they are.

 

Since then, there have been several further parliamentary votes on this issue, including the last major vote in September 2012, when, with the exception of one Senator, the Liberal and National Parties again collectively voted to deny equal rights to LGBTI people.

 

It seems extraordinary to me, and to a large number of other Australians, that Coalition MPs and Senators are comfortable in using their position in parliament to reject the human rights to fellow citizens but insist on holding a plebiscite before they will use that exact same power to allow LGBTI people to wed the person they love.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite is fundamentally wasteful

 

As confirmed in the Federal Budget on 3 May, you and your Government have set aside $160 million to hold the marriage equality plebiscite[iv]. With some decisions yet to be made (including whether there will be public funding for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns), the final cost could turn out to be even higher.

 

For context, the Australian Electoral Commission has announced that there are 15,676,659 Australians enrolled to vote at this year’s election[v].

 

In other words, it is your policy to charge every Australian voter $10 for the ‘privilege’ of returning to the polls less than 12 months later to vote on something your Government could pass in a matter of weeks, for no cost.

 

10 dollar note

A marriage equality plebiscite, which is entirely unnecessary, will cost every voter at least $10 to hold.

 

That is incredibly wasteful, especially at a time of ongoing Budget deficits and with both Labor and the Coalition now forecasting a ‘return to surplus’ in 2020-21 (at the earliest).

 

Of course, for many people $10 remains a lot of money and it would be preferable to leave this money in the hands of voters rather than spend it on something as entirely unnecessary as a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

But, if you remain committed to spending this $160 million, there is a very long list of better ways to allocate these funds[vi], including:

 

  • Programs to alleviate poverty and homelessness
  • Funding more nurses
  • Funding more teachers
  • Undoing cuts to foreign aid or
  • Supporting the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

 

It would be remiss of me not to also mention that the amount of money you currently plan to waste on this plebiscite is twenty times the funding which was allocated to Safe Schools ($8 million over four years), a vital program to address homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, and one your Government has announced will have its funding cut in 2017[vii].

 

So, as someone who can afford to pay the $10 but who fundamentally disagrees with your proposed plebiscite, I implore you: please take my money and give it back to the people who need it, or spend it on something worthwhile, not on an exercise that could be avoided simply by parliamentarians doing their jobs.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite will inevitably be divisive – and harmful

 

There is one aspect of a plebiscite that is already crystal clear, beyond any doubt whatsoever – and that is it will be incredibly divisive. The reason I can say that with such confidence is the behaviour of one organisation that will play a central role in publicly advocating a ‘No’ vote: the Australian Christian Lobby.

 

Not only have they argued for anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws to be suspended for the duration of any campaign[viii] (which, logically, would only be necessary if they intended to breach them), ACL ‘homophobe-in-chief’ Lyle Shelton has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to denigrate the lives and relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

This includes recent comments linking Safe Schools and marriage equality to the rise of Nazism[ix], as well as his repeated suggestions[x] that same-sex parenting would create a new ‘Stolen Generation’ – statements that are at once offensive to both rainbow families and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

 

An extended national debate during which groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, and individuals like Mr Shelton, would be granted a ‘megaphone’ to express their views will inevitably cause harm, in at least two profound ways:

 

  • First, it will create an environment of division, hatred and fear in which violent attacks on LGBTI people become more likely.

 

Just this week, we have seen the terrible consequences of widespread and systemic homophobia, in the tragic deaths of at least 49 LGBT people in an Orlando nightclub. But violence based on prejudice, even on a much smaller scale, can still be devastating for the people affected.

 

Earlier this year, a man who lives nearby to my fiancé and me, in inner-city Sydney, was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night. Once, by a group of people on the street. And then a second time, by a so-called ‘good Samaritan’, who helped him back to his apartment block but then, upon discovering there was a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend waiting upstairs, turned around and said “you’re one of those fags ya f**king queer c**t” before hitting him in the face again.[xi]

 

If this is the level of verbal and physical violence that is happening in 2016 in ‘our’ Australia, the country that you and I both call home, then I shudder to think what will happen after three, six or even 12 months of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic hate-speech is inflicted upon the population.

 

  • Second, it will lead to, or exacerbate existing, mental health issues among young and vulnerable LGBTI people.

 

There is also absolutely no doubt that subjecting young and vulnerable LGBTI people to months and months of negative public debate, in the political sphere and in the media, will cause harm.

 

They will hear people and groups repeatedly saying that LGBTI Australians do not deserve to be treated equally under the law simply because of who they are. That they should not have children simply because of who they are. That their relationships are lesser simply because of who they are.

 

For months and months, young and vulnerable LGBTI people will be told that they are lesser simply because of who they are. This campaign will have an adverse impact on the mental health of many – far, far too many – Australians.

 

I know because I am one of the many who have experienced depression because of the homophobic environment in which they grew up. Yes, there were multiple sources of that homophobia – including the religious boarding school I attended, and the discriminatory attitudes of my conservative parents (although, thankfully, my family ‘got better’).

 

But the homophobic comments in political debate, and the media, were one factor that definitely contributed to my depression. And I weep for the 12 year-old boy today, still discovering who he is, and then discovering that who he is, and who he loves, isn’t accepted by significant sections of the community.

 

Even though there will obviously be many other voices in the plebiscite campaign telling him that who he is is okay, if he is anything like I was back then, he will just hear the criticisms. Only the homophobic barbs will pierce that firmly-shut closet door, exacerbating the fear and isolation he already feels.

 

What he needs to hear is much less homophobia, not more – and particularly not months and months of vitriol from organisations whose primary concern is to ensure he never enjoys the same rights as his cisgender heterosexual peers.

 

You might think a ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality at a plebiscite will be a unifying national moment, a genuine celebration of inclusiveness – and, should it succeed, there will certainly be elements of that.

 

But I will instead remember the young and vulnerable LGBTI people harmed by the divisive debate that preceded it, including those that tragically never make it to see their country accept them, and others who will be left scarred for years or even decades afterwards by the hateful comments a plebiscite will stir up.

 

**********

 

As you can see from the above discussion, I sincerely believe that a marriage equality plebiscite is not just entirely unnecessary, and fundamentally wasteful, it will also inevitably be divisive.

 

But it is not inevitable per se. As Prime Minister you have the power to stop this harmful exercise, and instead ensure marriage equality is passed in exactly the same way it was banned by John Howard back in August 2004 – via legislation.

 

I acknowledge that changing this policy involves standing up to, and in some cases upsetting, some of your colleagues within the Liberal and National Parties. But showing leadership in this way would also be warmly welcomed by many more people across Australia, none more than members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, and our families and friends.

 

And so, I tell you for the final time:

 

You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.

 

All it takes is leadership, from you. Are you willing to show any?

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

**********

 

If this post has raised any issues for you, you can contact:

 

  • QLife, Australia’s national telephone and web counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Freecall: 1800 184 527, Webchat qlife.org.au (3pm-midnight everyday)

 

Footnotes:

[i] Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite 

[ii] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55

[iii] Malcolm Turnbull’s Marriage Equality Plebiscite is Truly Extraordinary 

[iv] Media Release: Attorney-General’s Portfolio Budget Measures 2016-17, 3 May 2016.

[v] Media Release: More than 15.6 million Australians ready to vote, 1 June 2016.

[vi] Starting with 7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million 

[vii] Star Observer, “Safe Schools Won’t be Funded Beyond 2017”, 18 March 2016.

[viii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Christian Lobby seeks anti-discrimination override for plebiscite campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[ix] Sydney Morning Herald, “Australian Christian Lobby likens gay marriage and safe schools to unthinkable Nazi atrocities”, 31 May 2016.

[x] Sydney Morning Herald, “Senator Wong condemns Christian Lobby’s stolen generations comment”, 21 May 2013 and

Sydney Morning Herald, “Q&A debate flares over claims same-sex marriage will lead to new stolen generation”, 1 March 2016.

[xi] Daily Telegraph, “Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: I’ve never been so scared in my life and thought I would die”, 23 February 2016.