This article was submitted by NUPSA LGBTI Rep and PhD student in Sociology, Barrie Shannon.
In December 2017, the Australian Parliament passed legislation that legalised marriage for same-sex couples. The feeling of watching this vote happen live was one of disembodiment. I felt as if I should have jumped out of my chair or begun crying, but I did neither. The pro-equality parliamentarians grinned, misty-eyed, and waved to the gallery, which was packed full of queer Australians, their friends and their families. They sang and waved flags, embraced each other and wept. I turned the TV off, sent a heart emoji to my partner, set aside my phone and exhaled.
What I had just witnessed was undoubtedly a very significant moment in our country’s history, and indeed in the history of our movement for recognition and legal rights. On an intellectual level, I understood the gravity of what just took place, but I felt too deflated to celebrate. In this moment, I had to take a while to contemplate whether this legislation passing on this day, in this specific way, was worth the months of emotional labour that had preceded it. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that part out.
The vote in Parliament followed a voluntary postal survey on changing the law to allow marriage equality, and it took place against the backdrop of a sustained public debate on marriage. However, it was a debate that also captured a range of ‘related’ issues in its orbit, such as parenting, gender diversity, sex education and religion. But most of the time, it hardly felt that marriage was at the centre of the debate at all. The discussions happening within the media, in radio interviews and TV panel discussions, appeared to be stuck on sex education and the Safe Schools debate that Australian conservatives are perpetually transfixed on.
As is the trend with Australian moral panics about sexuality, the figure of the innocent, corruptible child was gratuitously deployed to convince the public that LGBTI people were a danger to children. The strategy was to muddy the waters and obfuscate the actual object of the debate, while appealing to our society’s well-meaning desire to protect and nurture children. The architects of these moral panics rely on the juxtaposition between their imagery of the vulnerable, impressionable child alongside the damaging stereotypical depictions of gay and transgender people as slaves to sexual deviancy and excess that unfortunately still permeate our culture.
Many ads run on TV during evening primetime lamented a hypothetical post-gender future in which young boys were physically forced to wear dresses to school by sinister gay ‘cultural Marxists’. Others expressed patronising concern about the welfare of children of same-sex couples who are denied their ‘right’ to both a mother and a father, while withholding that same level of concern from children in other family configurations. Other ads featured people who seemed genuinely terrified that marriage equality would result in them being prosecuted under the law for their views on gender politics, or for their adherence to their religious beliefs. The imagery in these ads was almost universally negative.
On the other side of the debate, pro-equality ads usually featured sunny, cheerful images of happy families, accompanied with messages and slogans promoting the ideals of freedom, happiness and inclusivity. It was, overall, a feel-good movement. In this respect, the two sides of the debate could not be more different in tone; and when faced with a choice between fairness or fire and brimstone, Australia decisively chose fairness. The final result of the campaign saw 61.6% of votes cast in favour of marriage equality. The ‘yes’ vote prevailed in 133 of Australia’s 150 federal electorates.
Reflecting on my feelings in the days and weeks that followed the Parliament’s legislation of marriage equality, I realised how heavy the weight of the campaign had been. It is a surreal experience to live through weeks of people debating your life with each other. Your identity, your love and your sexuality are intensely personal things, and yet for LGBTI people, these are seen to be fair game for analysis, critique and debate by people who have no frame of reference to understand what this feeling of scrutiny is like. The attitudes that underpin heterosexual Australia’s claim of entitlement to our personal lives and our narratives continue to influence public discourse about LGBTI issues.
This remains a concern as we turn our attention toward the deficiencies in how our social and political infrastructure provides for transgender and gender diverse Australians. Alarmingly, a lot of public sentiment, especially on social media, seems to suggest that marriage equality was seen by many people as the final step in making our society inclusive of LGBTI people. Now that we can get married, further debates involving gender diversity are portrayed as frivolous, or ‘taking it too far’.
This year, May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). On this day, we seek to draw attention to prejudices and injustices perpetrated against people based on their sexuality, gender identity and intersex status. This is our opportunity to reflect on how our attitudes and our taken-for-granted social norms – whether they are deliberately oppressive or not – have consequences for LGBTI Australians.
This is just as important to reflect upon from within the LGBTI community as well. Marriage equality was a monumental shift in how same-sex relationships are recognised by the law, and by society. This change in our fundamental attitudes around who does and does not belong within our social institutions was unthinkable just a couple of decades ago.
It is therefore vital to remember that we stand on the shoulders of activists who have fought and bled for our right to demand this change. They took deliberate action to disrupt the restrictive norms surrounding gender and sexuality that are imposed upon all of us. And we have a responsibility to continue that legacy for future generations of LGBTI Australians.
There is still a lot of work to do before we see the liberation of queer people in Australia and abroad, and days like IDAHOBIT allow us to connect, reflect and organise for exactly this purpose. We can’t afford to stop the momentum we have built during the marriage equality campaign. Hearts and lives depend on it.