If you pay any attention to news and current affairs, you’ve probably heard about the marriage equality plebiscite proposed by the Liberal government. “Great,” you may be thinking, “Now we can finally have our say marriage equality, and move forward with other first world countries.” But this is a gift horse – a term I use very loosely – that must be looked in the mouth.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s proposal for a nation-wide vote is problematic from various different angles, leaving 85% of our LGBTQIA+ community, as well as informed allies, calling for an amended approach.
The very notion of a plebiscite raised eyebrows from the beginning given that, by definition, it can only gauge the nation’s feelings towards an issue; it cannot directly affect the Constitution. While it is helpful for our government to understand the way the country feels, the plebiscite is not guaranteed to sway their decision when it comes to the parliamentary vote. Essentially, it’s as if the government is asking us to cast a fan vote in a talent show – whose outcome affects the basic rights of members of the community – but the judges still have the final say.
Moreover, the draft question currently under deliberation is reportedly, “Do you approve of a law to permit people of the same sex to marry?”. As former WA senator Brian Greig points out, this suggests that an amendment will not be made to the current Marriage Act to make it applicable to any two consenting, non-familial adults, but rather a separate act will be added. Not only would this segregation of ‘gay marriage’ be grossly antonymous to our fight for equality, the term ‘same-sex’ itself excludes intersex individuals and those who do not identify with a gender binary.
Whilst this comparatively subtle ‘other-ing’ and internalised anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric is worrisome, it is only a single raindrop next to the storm of homophobia likely to rain down on the LGBTQIA+ community if this plebiscite goes ahead. A vote means campaigns, and campaigns mean that potentially vitriolic opposition to marriage equality will be publicly broadcasted under the guise of free speech.
The level of emotional toll on LGBTQIA+ identifiers, as well as questioning or closeted people, is unspeakably devastating even at this hypothetical stage. Australian Marriage Equality is naturally very concerned about this possibility, noting US research that found the mental health of LGBTQIA+ people suffers greatly during electoral debates on marriage equality.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten shares this fear, voicing that he doesn’t want “to give the haters a chance to come out from underneath the rock and make life harder for LGBTI people or their families, to somehow question the legitimacy of their relationship”. Furthermore, such verbose anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric will only cement ignorant, hateful beliefs into adults and children who have little to no access to inclusive resources.
While we can live in hope that such campaigns and debates would be fuelled by civility, as Mr Turnbull and Attorney General George Brandis believe they will, one cannot ignore the evidence that suggests the contrary. When Tasmania debated to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania in 1997 – yes, less than twenty years ago – politicians were encouraging the use of derogatory terms, and describing the community as “no better than Saddam Hussein”, leading former Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome to believe the plebiscite would fuel more hateful speech. Additionally, as recently as last month a Sydney man was charged with filling a lube dispenser with hydrochloric acid (a highly corrosive chemical) at a gay and bisexual sex club, with the intent to cause physical harm to those in attendance.
The Labor party as well as the Greens are pinned to oppose the plebiscite, with the former hoping for a parliamentary vote only, saving a reported $160million and closing wide avenues for potential hate. While it is unlikely for this to be the case, if it did come to a parliamentary vote, marriage equality would now easily pass through the house of representatives, as at least 76 of 150 MPs, and 41 out of 74 seats in the senate, support a broader definition of the union.
We won’t know whether the plebiscite will go ahead for a little while, but the lead up to the proposed February date looks grim if the government decides to proceed. Grimmer, however, is the fact that in 2016, 11% of our population are still pleading for basic human rights.