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Marriage Equality Is Not The Biggest Issue Affecting LGBTQ Australians

Trust me, I've married my partner four times.

14/11/2017 9:16 AM AEDT | Updated 14/11/2017 2:45 PM AEDT
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With this ring, I thee wed... again.

My wife Rachel and I are literally 'cover girls' for marriage equality.

We met in 2002 and, like any long-term couple, we were different people when we fell in love to the people we are today. We were young, shy and timid. It took days for us to be able to hold hands, let alone upgrade to kissing. When we encountered homophobia, we internalised it and suffered together, but we never quite recovered from or made sense of our experiences. Instead, I stopped holding Rachel's hand in public. She stopped being completely authentic around anyone other than me.

Fifteen years later we have been married four times. Not one of our ceremonies is legally recognised in Australia. We are both dual citizens, so inherently more privileged than many of our peers who have to fly overseas to get married. Just as we used my British citizenship to marry at the British Consulate in Melbourne, we could use Rachel's American citizenship to marry at the U.S. Consulate General in Melbourne or in the United States.

We wedded in an Australian commitment ceremony after winning a 'dream wedding' from a magazine for queer women (March 2013), followed by a British civil partnership (June 2013), then a ceremony to convert the British civil partnership to marriage (December 2015) and, most recently, a mass illegal wedding ceremony that was part of the Equal Love for Marriage and Equality rally (August 2017). Our 'dream wedding' in 2013 was beautiful and rather traditional, and resulted in us becoming cover girls for the magazine, which was symbolic for the movement at large.

Whether the Australian public votes 'yes' or 'no', which, in any case, will not be a binding result, there needs to be an inquiry into why this money was spent in the first place.

Our American friends, including those living in the States and expatriates in Australia, are confounded by the lack of progress on marriage equality in this country. Many Australians are confused by the terminology being used and the legalities of the current postal survey.

Many people keep referring to the current postal survey as a 'plebiscite', which is actually the model that was initially proposed by conservatives. The proposed plebiscite was defeated by Parliament and replaced with the postal survey, which has been widely condemned as expensive (costing $122 million), non-representative and an opportunity for the release of hate speech. The campaigning process has seen abuse ranging from laughably absurd claims about school curricula, which were dismissed by the Education Minister, to hate-filled acts like swastikas painted on houses that bear 'yes' stickers.

The original proposed plebiscite would have been compulsory and binding, unlike the postal vote, which is a non-binding opinion survey. Many Australians have commented on social media that if we are going to start voting on individual issues, rather than sticking to vote for parties and their policies, then there are quite a few other issues they would like to see brought to the table.

In many ways, the original plebiscite was designed to impede reform. The conservatives were no doubt aware of Australians' propensity to vote 'no' on almost any subject, including our continuing national debate over becoming a republic.

John Oliver explored the absurdity of the postal survey on his show, laughing incredulously at the situation. Just like our last few election results, leadership spills, our inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and lack of progress on Indigenous rights, Australia's political responses to marriage and queer identities have also devolved to the point of drawing the attention of media outlets around the world.

Rather than looking forward to the process finishing on 15th November, I am fearful and filled with a sense of dread. I don't know if the survey's result will resolve anything; the idea that there will be clear winners and losers when the result is announced may be dangerously delusional.

The professional pollsters are predicting a big win for the 'yes' vote, particularly in the face of an unexpectedly large turnout: some 75 percent of the voting population have returned their forms. But even a strong 'yes' vote will leave many in limbo. Queer people who don't want to get married may feel even more excluded from their now married friends, while trans people who perhaps could get married now will see no increase in social acceptance. I am concerned that a 'yes' vote will be perceived as significant, almost miraculous progress during a conservative government's term, and that this in turn may lead to other important social issues being ignored.

However, if the majority of Australians have voted 'no', many people will be left devastated. The postal vote campaigns have used advertisements and wide media coverage, for both the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns. I worry that this increased media attention and public discussion over queer identities has led to an exponential increase in mental health issues. I hesitate to write honest pieces about the postal survey, always hoping that a vulnerable queer person won't read my feature or op-ed and feel worse. I worry that interminable social exclusion and alienation -- from both the 'yes' and 'no' voters -- may lead to more people self-harming and suicide. If the vote is close, there will be many voters on either side feeling as if their views are not respected. I know some LGBTQ people who have boycotted the vote or have voted 'no' for various reasons, and I hope they have support when the results are released.

In addition to the emotional and psychological reasons to reject the postal survey, there are logistical nightmares to consider. The poll will be considered not conclusive; some parliamentarians have said they will feel bound by the votes of their own electorate rather than the nation as a whole, which could lead to political and social instability.

Since the survey was announced, Australian mental health organisations have noticed a dramatic 'spike' in demand for services, which led many to take their concerns to the government.

My own mental health has suffered, but not for the reasons that some might think. The postal survey and related public discourse has hurt many people in a way they did not expect. Quinn Eades, a trans and queer researcher, writer and poet, wrote a series titled 'I can't stop crying', which has touched the hearts and minds of many people I know, myself included. In one instalment, he writes:

While I leak tears in and about coffee shops, pronouns, and rainbows, another person dies in detention on Manus island. 25 more refugees are shipped to the US under a transfer deal. Dylan Voller is arrested protesting peacefully against Aboriginal deaths in custody and youth prisons.

I heard similar sentiments from Costa A, an Australian political cartoonist. Costa said to me recently, "The thing that makes me lose sleep is climate change, not the postal survey".

Other colleagues and friends have mentioned a range of issues they are far more concerned about than having access to the institution of marriage, such as Australia's offshore detention centres, treatment of Indigenous people in custody by the police, and increasing white supremacy movements in Australia.

I may have voted 'yes' but I do not believe I will be devastated or even surprised by a 'no' vote. I am far more devastated by the knowledge that our leaders chose to spend $122 million on a survey question that they knew the answer to before they started. I am distressed when I think about all the ways that money could have been better spent on under-resourced institutions, from mental health services in public hospitals to resources for public education. The money could also have gone towards finding and funding new opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers in detention centres, both in Australia and offshore. It could have been used to fund research into Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples' concerns and needs, and could have resulted in a strong and resonant treaty or, at the very least, could have provided much-needed resources and access to life-improving services.

My attitude bemuses some queer friends and allies. I have noticed that some allies appear to be more upset than the queer people they are trying to support. This has implications for the mental health and wellbeing of the broader LGBTQ communities. Even if queer people are able to make peace, individually, with the postal survey and some of the outrageous attacks that have emerged from the 'no' campaign, we are continuously brought back to the negative thoughts and feelings by well-meaning allies. Our colleagues, friends and family members want to know how we are going but do not seem to want to hear a positive response. They are angry about the vote, and rightly so, but unfortunately seem to direct their anger and sadness towards the very people they claim to support. I have had to comfort various allies who are "not coping" with the postal survey, which feels very strange and uncomfortable since I am directly affected by the survey.

I don't want to go to the celebratory events planned by the 'yes' campaign if "we" win on 15th November. My search for representation, authenticity and meaning within my various communities -- and I cross many: gay, straight, bisexual and transgender, as well as wearing my hats as a Jewish, left-wing educator and writer -- is complex and will not be solved by a 'yes' vote.

I don't want to be the "poster girl" for marriage equality anymore. I don't want to pretend that same-sex marriage is the biggest issue affecting LGBTQ Australians, because it isn't. The things that are affecting us include homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, anti sex-worker attitudes, classist or racist or sexist attitudes. It is pretending that marriage equality is the big social justice issue of the 21st century, when it is plainly not.

Whether the Australian public votes 'yes' or 'no', which, in any case, will not be a binding result, there needs to be an inquiry into why this money was spent in the first place. I hope that it will lead to some soul-searching, reflection and analysis, since Australian identity has become tainted by ugliness.

I believe that the postal survey will serve one purpose only: to hold up a mirror, so that we see who we have become, what we engage with, what we are willing to allow our politicians to spend money on, even through inaction and passivity, what we are willing to protest over, and what future legacy we will leave our children.

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