Where to next?: Marriage equality and beyond

Janet Jukes, CEO of LifeWorks delivered this address on Friday 2 February at A Summer Mass held in Saint Mark’s Fitzroy as part of the Midsumma Festival.

I’d like to begin by thanking you for the invitation to speak to you today at the annual Midsumma mass and I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation and pay my respect to their elders, past and present.

I am going to talk about the marriage equality campaign, how it has impacted on our relationships and our view of ourselves. I’d like to touch on some of the intended and unintended consequences of the campaign and where we might go to from here.

But first a little advert for LifeWorks.

LifeWorks Relationship Counselling and Education began 70 years ago as the Church of England Marriage Guidance Council. Our founders, the Mothers Union and volunteers from the Anglican Church, organised to run groups and provide counselling and support for couples and parents in a bid to keep families together and minimise the harm of marriage breakdown. This work is still our core work today.

While LifeWorks is an Anglican agency and not an LGBTI organisation, LifeWorks stands with the LGBTI community in the struggle to support and celebrate all relationships. This is why LifeWorks publically and vocally joined the marriage equality campaign many years ago.

Well, what a ride these last few months have been!

Never before, I think I can safely say, has there been such an amplified national conversation about the value of Marriage. And who would have thought that the Australian people would have said so loudly, so emphatically – we value the commitment of marriage, and we want everyone to be able to achieve public and legal recognition of that commitment, if they want to, regardless of who they love.

The 61.6% YES vote revealed on 15 November 2017 was, according to Jamie Gardiner, bigger than any federal election winner’s two party preferred vote. And the bill’s rapid and largely uncontested progress through the parliament before

Christmas was testament to how emphatic the win, in the hearts and minds of the majority of Australians was. It’s difficult to imagine that all of the amendments proposed to wind back anti-discrimination protections would have been defeated if the vote had been closer.

Before we get too excited about it all though, I want to point out that this was a fight we didn’t need or want to have. The antimarriage equality camp proposed the public vote because they didn’t want equality in marriage to be achieved. It was an attempt to delay and distort a resolution on the issue.

I have to admit to feeling very afraid of the public vote. I didn’t have faith that the issue mattered enough to enough people. That a postal survey would be designed to make it hard for people to vote. That the design of the question would be rigged.

I was also angry that my children had to go to school and have the legitimacy of their family debated as a “social issue” along with global warming, equal pay, and immigration policy. And have friends at school tell them that their conception was wrong and unnatural, and that they will be manipulated, brainwashed or somehow disadvantaged because their parents are lesbian and gay.

The NO Campaign focussed on lots of things, but not on the main question of equality before the law. The NO campaign set out to delegitimise our existence and created alarm about what would happen if were given full legal and social equality.

We didn’t ask for the vote, but once it was on – we had to win.

The YES campaign was a campaign that was about personal stories. It asked all of us to talk to our friends and families and work colleagues, to our brothers and sisters and grandparents and ask them to vote YES… for us.

It was personal.

The YES campaign also asked us to be “relentlessly positive” and to stay on message. To be disciplined and not to react or fight back when people said horrible and hurtful things.

Now, I live in Fitzroy, and I haven’t had to discuss my personal life or to justify life and family for a long time. I found the campaign, really difficult on a personal level. To be honest I really hated it when my mum rang and reported which of my brothers and sisters, aunts and cousins voted yes and which had voted no. I’ve always suspected that some didn’t approve of my relationship and my having children, I just haven’t ever had it confirmed in such stark terms.

This was personal!

This kind of campaign – well it comes at a cost, not an unanticipated cost, but never the less a real, painful cost.

With the vote so close to Christmas, many of us had to sit down with family members we now knew for sure didn’t ‘approve’. …. Painful.

The NO campaign focussed on creating alarm about the existence of same sex attracted and gender diverse young people. It distorted the facts about programs in schools designed to limit bullying and suicide. It attacked as dangerous to the very fabric of society, anyone who didn’t fit a conservative, narrow, heteronormative version of “gay or lesbian couple or family”. Many people in our broader LGBTI communities rightly felt abandoned by the lack of response to these attacks from the YES campaign.

LGBTI Christians also felt attacked and abandoned by supporters of the YES vote. For many people being “Christian” became synonymous with supporters of the “NO” campaign, even though we know that the YES vote couldn’t have been as strong as it was without most Christians voting YES. A ‘them and us’ mentality was allowed to develop between people of faith and those supporting marriage equality and some people felt they needed to make a choice between family and friends and their faith communities.

The Australia Institute conducted a survey of 9,500 LGBTIQ+ Australians into the impact of the postal survey.

They found that verbal and physical assaults following the announcement of the postal vote more than doubled. Respondents suffering de-pression, anxiety and stress increased by more than a third. And that many of us ‘avoided being with people in general’ at least some of the time as a method of coping.

Counselling services across the country reported increases in demand by LGBTI people seeking mental health supports.

The anticipated hurt of the public vote came true and the service infrastructure to address this just wasn’t and still isn’t available.

But there were some good things too.

Many people reported that they found coping strategies during the survey by reconnecting with the community through rally’s and campaign activities.

Many of us found that people were more accepting than we had anticipated.

Business, sport and governement got behind the campaign and I think it’s fair to say there has never seen so many companies make statements of support for LGBTI people and display rainbow flags in solidarity.

At LifeWorks we experienced an increase during and following the survey campaign of couples seeking relationship counselling, heterosexual couples, not just LGBTI people.

Perhaps a national conversation about the value of commitment and marriage prompted couples to think about the value of their own relationships.

I think that we are now seeing a greater visibility of the LGBTI community. I work in the CBD and I’m seeing more LGBTI couples holding hands in the street. More of my friends and colleagues talk about their partners at work. My children certainly feel that the vote affirmed their complex blended rainbow family. Could it be that we are more confident, bolder about who we are and who we love? Are we now just that little bit more ‘out’ in our families, at work and in the community?

So where do we go from here…

It’s clear that some people were hurt during this campaign. Some people feel betrayed and abandoned. As an LGBTI community we need to take some time to listen and understand that hurt and try to create some healing.

We need to avoid blaming any part of our broader community for the NO vote or for our experiences of exclusion and rejection.

Without detracting from the significance of the campaign, it’s also important to know that marriage equality is just one of many steps towards equality. There is still more to do.

  • Intersex children and infants are still ‘medically ‘corrected against their consent.
  • Transgender people still have to divorce before they transition in most states and territories.
  • LGBTIQ young people still take their lives because of bullying and stigma at an alarmingly greater rate than their heterosexual cis gender peers.
  • Discrimination in our families, communities and workplaces continues.
  • Stigma still prevents LGBTI people from getting the health care they need.
  • Our LGBTI community organisations remain woefully reliant on short term funding and volunteer labour.
  • Closer to home, it’s still not clear if church ministers will be permitted to marry all couples and we are about to have a national debate about discrimination and the meaning of religious freedom.

One of the biggest dangers in this time is that we see Marriage Equality as the end of the LGBTI rights struggle. It was an important battle to win, a victory worth celebrating. But now we must pick ourselves up, and together regroup and be ready to keep working for true equality in all parts of our lives and our communities.

Janet Jukes