Getting back into the fight

It’s been a big few weeks in marriage equality land.  Despite intense efforts, Australian politics handed down its verdict on same-sex marriage:  no.  First comprehensively in Federal Parliament’s Lower House, and then not long after, narrowly in Tasmania’s Upper House.  The political dust has settled and emotions have been vented through social media.

The good news is that there’s no shortage of opinions, amongst those who support the push for marriage equality or don’t, as to what should happen next.  The bad news?  The same.

Before that, what actually happened?  After a great deal of speculation about modern-day Australia’s readiness to embrace change, marriage equality supporters finally found out where we stood: nowhere near as close as we’d like.

This was the vote we had to have, not the result we had to have.  Following years as an “axis of marriage equality evil” to their opponents, a trio lobbied relentlessly to get marriage equality fair and square on the national political agenda.  Made up of smiling assassin Alex Greenwich, strategic mastermind Rodney Croome and mum-on-a-mission Shelley Argent, they gathered the winds of change in their sails to take the issue from an occasional opinion piece in progressive media, to regular headlines in even the most conservative outlets.

Yet the heady momentum of public dialogue, poll improvements and public “outings” of high profile supporters of all persuasions did not translate to the vote result many had hoped for.  Instead we were offered a sobering assessment of how far off the not-so-holy grail really was.  You could never accuse Australia of hastily making big decisions about major social change.

Whether we like it or not, we needed to know where we stood.  A small corner of Silicon Valley will whir with analysis of what it all means, but the outcome is clear: most federal parliamentarians see marriage equality differently to us.  Whilst marriage equality supporters see it as a human right, and the denial of it as an act of discrimination, opponents and resisters see it as an extra, special or even trivial right.  Through the noise of the media storm, those opposing change or resisting it said time and again that they were against any form of discrimination against same-sex couples.  But.

And once again it’s all about the ‘but’.  So often wrapped up in and hidden behind religion, this is merely a strategic distraction and deflection.

So what now?  Accepting that, supportive for the push or not, marriage equality is part of the march to social justice, we need to have new conversations to move ‘buts’.  This was the very reason I accepted Australian Marriage Equality’s (AME) challenge in late 2010 to develop and deliver workshops around the country for marriage equality supporters of all flavours.  Rather than focusing solely on the practicalities of lobbying politicians, AME observed that changing key people’s hearts and minds came down to two things: sharing our stories and challenging homophobia.

Everyday supporters were armed not only to approach politicians, but also people in their natural, everyday networks.  Looking at polls over time, support for marriage equality has remained fairly consistent, suggesting that we’ve consolidated the supporter base, talked to each other (on the liberated side of the room) and had few new conversations.  It was these workshops that prompted some long-time advocates to concede that they hadn’t told their stories to many of those around them.

When we’re only talking to each other, it creates the danger that there is no room for the very people we need to be engaging most: the ‘unsures’.  When someone is unsure about how they feel about same-sex couples, families and marriage equality, plenty of people are quick to shout them down, label them as behind the times and condemn them to being on the wrong side of history.  Cue cheers, laughter and self-congratulation.

There are plenty of funny one-liners and those clever things they call memes, but what about those who are genuinely reconciling old beliefs and attitudes with new thinking about, what is for many of them, new love?  How do we understand where they are coming from, find points of commonality and sow seeds for real change?

If we are to drop to one knee, fulfill new dreams or bemoan an unwanted increase in wedding invitations, we face more work to make sure the unsures see that marriage equality is not about handing us something extra, special or trivial.

Marriage equality supporters have three choices: give up, continue on or snap and do the things I cannot write about for fear of accusations of inciting violence.  I’m going to assume that some will want to give up, but won’t.  A Melbourne University professor once said about ‘snapping’, “there cannot be a revolution in a country that wants to watch it on television”.  Perhaps now it might be “in a country that wants to follow it on Facebook and Twitter, with highlights watched on YouTube”.

So we’re left with continuing on, rather than being seduced by what feels like lost momentum.  I’m not buying into melodramatic assessments of apathy or people giving up, even if Alex Greenwich’s standing down as AME convenor was described by some as abandonment – perhaps because we’re accustomed to the likes of the tireless, career-activist, Rodney Croome, rather than era-activists.

If people’s confidence has been shaken, their motivation temporarily frozen or their dreams put on hold, then there is no better time for those of us less shaken, less frozen and dream-rich to have new conversations.  Although reluctant, a great many ‘unsure’ people await the permission and excuse to talk.  Alex demonstrated this time and again with politicians behind the cold, closed doors of Parliament House, often away yet another night from the warmth of his now-husband.

It’s not quick nor glamorous, yet it’s never been more necessary.  We’re clearly overdue for what we’ve been patronisingly told is ‘inevitable’, and we all hoped everyone else would finally get that.

Alas, not yet, anyways.  Now who can I talk to next?

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About the author

Daniel developed the ‘Pride & Prejudice’ educational package, allowing all secondary school teachers to challenge homophobia in their own classrooms. ‘Pride & Prejudice’ became the only educational program in the world to pass rigorous psychological testing; in six weeks it improved student attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. In February 2010, Hawker Brownlow Education launched Daniel’s first book, Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’: Challenging homophobia in Australian schools. Daniel also completed a 38-week national challenging tour of regional and rural Australia, Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’.