‘I have a dream’: A look back at the fight for marriage equality in the year 2031
A reflection on the campaign for marriage equality in Australia – 15 years in the future. By Anthony Venn-Brown.
It’s 2031 and I just celebrated my 80th birthday. That was a hoot. Great grandchildren and all. Of course we couldn’t have a party without playing the old disco classics. I really don’t get the music young people listen and dance to today. Give me “I will survive’ and “I am what I am” any day. They are the gay national anthems of an another era. So glad I’m still active and got my marbles. There’s a bit of party left in the old fella yet.
A decade birthday is always a good time to reflect.
After doing everything I could to change my orientation, including gay conversion therapy and sixteen years of marriage, coming out at forty was challenging to say the least. At eighty now, I’ve lived half of my life in the closet and the other half as an out, proud gay man.
The world is a very different place today for LGBTI people than the world I grew up in during the 60s when police raided gay establishments, gay and lesbian people were sent to prison or institutionalised and mental health professionals believed they could cure us. I remember vividly the constant fear we lived in and the cost of coming out.
Looking back, I can see that the thing that accelerated change more than anything else was marriage equality. Surprisingly, against what religious conservatives had preached, the sky didn’t fall in, there were no tsunamis or earthquakes and people didn’t start marrying their pets.
But God that took a long time coming.
I remember in 2004, when the Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, backed by the Labor Party, changed the Marriage Act to ensure gay couples were excluded forever. Howard could see the writing on the wall as other western countries were considering or passing forms of gay marriage. It wouldn’t be cynical to say this was a political game being played with our lives in order to get more votes.
Only weeks before, at the Australian Marriage Forum at Parliament House in Canberra, speaking to a group of nearly 1000 Christian leaders, Howard told the crowd “bit by bit, an attempt will be made to redefine what we understand to be the concept of marriage in this country, we should legislatively pre-empt the possibility of that occurring by changing the law”. The crowd applauded.
LGBTI equality campaigner, Rodney Croome, who was at the event said, “I've witnessed many evil things in my career as a gay activist. I've seen angry crowds bay for gay blood, I've seen indoctrinated children spew hate ... It was a soul destroying scene.”
Within weeks, the amendment passed easily in the senate (38 votes to 6) and read:
Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.
We’d been caught off guard. Or maybe it was more about community ambivalence. We’d been told for decades that gay relationships don’t last. Many in our community believed it too. A self-fulfilling prophecy perhaps? Gay relationships and straight relationships are different I’d been told numerous times when I first came out. And marriage is a heterosexual model we should reject it. There were as many vocal anti-gay marriage proponents in our community as there were outside.
Then something happened.
Gay and lesbian people can be ghettoized not only geographically but also socially. They’d lived for years in a bubble of acceptance. They hadn’t really known harsh discrimination or had to fight battles as previous generations had.
For the first time, many were hearing religious conservatives and politicians say cruel things about us, our relationships, families and children. Not only cruel things but lies. LGBTI issues were constantly being debated and headlined in the media. Same-sex-marriage was the last straw for religious conservatives. Institutions only rise when the feel threatened.
We changed our language and went from gay marriage to same-sex-marriage to marriage equality. Something had kicked in. “You’re saying I can’t do what because I’m gay?” A consciousness about the inequality not realised before. An indignancy at the injustice rose. Unlike battles of the past this one wasn’t only gay and lesbian people who fought, but our families and friends got on board.
With a renewed sense of injustice we campaigned. And campaigned like never before. The polls for marriage equality kept rising from 38% in 2004 till the vast majority of Australians were saying YES!. Towards the end it got quite messy. Plebiscite or a vote in parliament. Lobbying, lobbying, lobbying. Never before in Australia’s history had we taken up so much news space and the term LGBTI became vernacular in the media.
Finally the embarrassment of Australia taking so long to sort this out came to an end. I’m sure there is not a gay person alive today who will ever forget the day. The celebrations were amazing. Tears flowed. When the battle is long and hard, the victory even sweeter. No one really understood what a profound impact this would have.
We’ve lived for years now with engagements, weddings, anniversaries. No one thinks it strange. You can walk into any newsagency and buy same sex cards for all these joyous occasions. Today, LGBTI people shed more tears of joy than sorrow and pain.
The old religious guard has either passed on or retired. The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) was been taken over by people who focused on true Christian values instead of gay bashing. Schools have become a safe space for LGBTI young people coming to terms with their identity. Suicide rates amongst our youth are down substantially. Pentecostal churches, like Hillsong, have finally become affirming. Marriage equality forced them to see our orientation is about our hearts not our parts. No more “we love you but…..” it’s now “we love you” full stop. Islam has had to take the journey Christianity did. They might be a bit behind still but change has happened none the less. Marriage equality helped there too.
I’d often wondered what it would be like to live in a completely accepting society. So glad I got to see it.
Marriage equality was the final frontier. Australia is a better place. More love. More acceptance. But most of all equality.