A Personal Journey to Marriage Equality in Australia (Gay Times)

This article was originally published in Gay Times magazine.

I was a closeted thirteen-year-old when, in 2004, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard amended our nation’s Marriage Act to inexplicably state its exclusion of same-sex couples. The move was an entirely symbolic and unnecessary one (same-sex couples had always been excluded from the institution of marriage). Behind the political white noise, Howard was reacting to quiet murmurs for change; assuring our nation’s powerful religious factions that members of the Australian LGBTIQ+ community would remain othered into the foreseeable future.

Back in 2004, only 38% of Australians supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I recall reading this statistic in a newspaper during my first year of high school; feeling isolated by the sheer magnitude of those who, for one reason or another, disapproved of my being equal. Even then, before I’d begun wading through the murky waters of my own emerging sexuality, I was being warned that most of Australia would view me differently because of it. This knowledge slowly festered into a stomach-twisting anxiety and depression; one that kept me suffering in silence until I was sixteen-years-old.

By then, the percentage of Australians in favour of marriage equality had grown to a clear majority of 57% — and with it, my fears began to subside, to the point of feeling emboldened to share my truest self with family, friends and classmates. For the most part, they were incredibly supportive — I know others aren’t so fortunate.

In 2010 I graduated high school and entered a world of half-hearted diplomas, uncertain employment, and drunken nights being felt-up by the weathered gatekeepers of Oxford Street. It was, as is so often said of one’s early-twenties, a period of messy self-discovery. Marriage couldn’t have been further from my mind. Indeed, against a backdrop of Sydney’s bustling inner-west, I didn’t feel discriminated against. I felt ‘normal’ and accepted — a luxury not afforded to older members of the LGBTIQ+ community who’d grown up in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

It wasn’t until I met my boyfriend, Brad, four years ago that my mind once again returned to the growing campaign for marriage equality, which had been churning away in the background; the ever-so-resilient little train that could. Together, we began marching at rallies, contacting our local members for parliament, and having occasionally difficult conversations with friends and family.

My mother, who is both a widow and divorcee, initially had some reservations on the subject. Having experienced hurt and disappointment in each of her marriages, she couldn’t quite grasp why I felt so compelled to get down on one knee — why Brad and I were fighting to be included in what many view as increasingly irrelevant institution. I explained, as I had done so before, that it wasn’t so much about getting married, but about having the choice to celebrate our ongoing commitment in the same way our cisgendered, heterosexual peers can. The very next weekend, mum marched proudly down Oxford Street wearing one of her wedding dresses, waving at honking cars as they passed. Some months later she would catch a bus to visit Parliament House in Canberra, arranging numerous meetings with politicians who opposed equality.

The re-emerging conservatism of Australian politics ensured the journey to equality would be a long and frustrating one. Despite support for marriage equality reaching 66% by 2015, our leaders remained hell-bent on complicating the path to reform, with then-PM Tony Abbott (a staunch opponent to same-sex marriage, despite having a lesbian sister) introducing the plan to hold a national non-binding plebiscite on the issue. This approach was problematic for a number of reasons, namely due to the destructive impact such a process would have on young and vulnerable members of our community. We had the numbers. We weren’t looking to be the subject of a glorified opinion poll — we just wanted our politicians to do their job and legislate change.

When the proposed plebiscite was voted-down in the senate last year, our new Prime Minister (I know, we sure do churn through them), Malcolm Turnbull, introduced an even less popular Plan B — a national postal survey on marriage equality. Despite being challenged by marriage equality advocates in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, the shonky plan somehow grew legs as a ‘fair compromise’, and by August of this year Australia was transformed into a political battleground for both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics began mailing out postal surveys on September 12th, with ballots due to be returned by November 7th. During this time, newspapers, radio and television were awash with hateful debate and misinformation. The ‘No’ campaign lined highways with posters saying “It’s OK to say no” — playing on the fears of those weary of change. Spending millions on television commercials, skywriting, and full-page advertisements, they deliberately steered conversation away from same-sex marriage, focusing instead on the purported slippery slope of LGBTIQ+ education, transgender rights and religious freedoms.

For members of the queer community, it was an emotionally trying time. Mental Health organisation Reach Out Australia reported an increase of 20, 30 and 40 per cent in clients during the survey period, with crisis support service Lifeline also noting a dramatic spike in calls regarding the impact of the survey.

Still, our vibrant community and its allies rallied together, painting large-scale murals and decorating their homes and small businesses in support of the ‘Yes’ campaign. Before long, judgement day was upon us; bringing with it the strangest combination of dread and excitement. Standing alongside my mother and gay uncle in a crowded Sydney park to hear the results on November 15th is an experience I’ll never forget. The crowd collectively held its breath, leaning on one another for support, as David Kalisch, head of the Bureau of Statistics, stepped up to the microphone to share the outcome.

After several minutes of preemptive rambling, he announced that 61.6% of Australians had voted ‘Yes’’. We had not only won, but we’d done so decisively — with a huge 79.5% of the country participating in the voluntary process.

The crowd erupted — I burst into tears and wept into my mother’s shoulder.

“You’re paying for your own wedding,” she laughed, overcome with relief.

Despite facing every imaginable hurdle — despite coming up against a multi million-dollar smear campaign, the campaign for marriage equality had crossed the finish line victorious.

Samuel Leighton-Dore