I have been uneasy about the plebiscite debate.
Lets be clear that the plebiscite is a nasty ploy that goes well beyond seeking to gauge public opinion (which has been clear for years) or even a delaying tactic. The extreme right are hoping to shift norms about the acceptability of expressing homophobic views. They are hoping that if they can pick off the scab of what is acceptable to say in polite company, they will reveal there is a darker underbelly of prejudice and hate, and that their views are more widely held.
The gay community is right to fear this process. This occurred dramatically in Britain with the BREXIT vote, where views began to be expressed in mainstream debate that would have been unthinkable only months before. There has also been a corresponding increase in hate crime and attacks on minorities. The process gives people permission to unleash their darker sides and to lash out at their fellow citizens.
Nonetheless, despite it being a right wing set up, it still sits uneasily to oppose the plebiscite. As horrible as the lead up would be, the victory would also be really powerful. A ‘yes’ vote would send a powerful message of acceptance. I also fear the message we send young gay people when we run from the fight. It suggests most ordinary people are against us and we’d lose. It feels dis-empowering to shy from it.
The great difficulty with political debates about gay issues is that they are almost never about us. They are a vehicle for discussing other issues, usually the roles of men and women and social norms about heterosexuality.
The slogan ‘every child needs a mother and a father’ is seeking to tap into public sentiment about straight family breakdown and the rage of ‘lone fathers’. It has nothing to do with most gay couples that don’t have kids, or the many who do and operate on extended family models. It also raises the fascinating proposition that butch femme families would be fine, but mirroring relationships with an even split of roles are not.
I think we could have won this fight because while some people are energized by this, I think the belief in love is deeper than the belief in gender roles as the defining feature of marriage. Increasingly everyone has gay people in their extended families and embrace the importance of love in happy lives.
More recently, the issue has started to be used to symbolise something else. It has started to get linked to the anti- elite sentiment which is sweeping the English speaking world. Rage about globalisation and migration is starting to be turned into resistance to a whole range of ideas, including the equality movements. If gay marriage were to become totemic of this debate, it would be horrific and we could actually lose.
Hopefully the fact so many people are out now, and we are spread throughout society, it would be harder to turn on us than to turn on Muslims. That is certainly what John Howard found when he tried to use gay issues as a wedge, but ended up having to agree to some of the most important gay rights reforms in our history to get his marriage bill through. But as the world takes this frightening turn it is impossible to be sure.
This leaves me feeling ambiguous about the plebiscite being blocked. On the one hand in this febrile environment the likelihood of it being mobilized as a symbolic issue in the fragmenting Liberals is almost certain, and it will end up being about so many things other than us.
On the other hand things aren’t necessarily going to get better. The tide of history is moving in a dangerous way at the moment. It has the feel of the 1930s. We might not get another go at this for decades.
So I feel ambivalent about this tonight. It is not necessarily the wrong decision, but it is not necessarily the right one either.
To all my friends who have been working so hard on this – this why I have been silent and absent. I want to applaud your efforts for working so hard for what you believe in.