Australia’s Gay Marriage Survey Can Be a Call to Arms for Equal Rights


Thigh-High Politics is an op-ed column by Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca that breaks down the news, provides resources for the resistance, and just generally refuses to accept toxic nonsense.

The right to marry shouldn’t be a question in 2017, but it is for gay couples in Australia. More specifically, marriage equality is currently being called into question by way of a $122 million postal survey for which the country of nearly 25 million people is being asked to vote “yes” or “no” on the issue in a voluntary, nonbinding poll. (The results will be announced November 15.) The survey comes after the motion for a compulsory national vote was rejected by the Senate. If the optional poll results in a “yes” majority, Parliament will vote on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. If it results in a “no,” conservative lawmakers have declared that marriage equality will be off the table until the next election.

I arrived in Melbourne on Friday, October 20, for the Festival of Questions, a conference put on by the Wheeler Centre, a cultural programming organization. On two panels at the event, and in the days surrounding, I’ve had very few conversations that haven’t led back to the survey. It’s riddled with issues, but perhaps the most crucial problem is the way in which it legitimizes hatred. We have several dumpster fires raging at home in the United States, but I’ve chosen to write about the Australian survey this week because this is a historic moment in the global push for gay rights, and because I think there is something Americans can learn from this, especially with regard to the Trump administration’s positions on civil rights issues.

Voting in Australia is typically compulsory and binding, so a voluntary survey is seen by many as a useless exercise (though one that is wildly expensive and a potentially inaccurate attack on democratic values, but that’s another essay. But raising the question has empowered a small but vocal faction to feel empowered in their homophobia, reframing LGBTQ people’s right to marry as a wholesale attack on conservatism. Back in September, there was a skywriter hired by anti–gay marriage campaigners to spell out “Vote No” among the clouds overhead.

On the flip side, many have been woken from complacency, compelled to voice their support for gay rights beyond simply checking “yes” on the survey. Many wear pride buttons, glittery rainbows sparkle in the windows of local shops, and there’s even a giant Coca-Cola billboard in Sydney featuring the slogan, “We say yes to love!” For the LGBTQ community, which makes up at least 3.4% of the Australian population, to be compelled to defend their humanity in this way can be exhausting. But perhaps it’s energizing the movement as a whole: While the vote is voluntary, on a cultural level, Australians are now compelled to declare a side.

Thousands of miles away, in a country where gay marriage has been legal since 2015, Australia’s gay marriage survey may seem backward. But overall, rates of acceptance on the issue in the United States and Australia are actually rather close. In the States, the Pew Research Center found that 62% of Americans support gay marriage while 32% oppose it. And according to The Guardian, Australians are just below that, at 57% of those polled in approval, with 34% against.

The similarity of overarching popular support reveals the way in which politicians in Australia have been able to turn gay marriage into a wedge issue. Back in August, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged a “no” vote, saying, “If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.” Later that month, a “no” campaign ad featured a woman who said her son’s school told him “he could wear a dress next year if he felt like it.”

But November’s survey is not about any of those things. Either you support marriage equality or you don’t. By connecting the question of marriage to broader fear-mongering around conservative values, it has become entangled in noisy political debate, despite being largely settled in popular opinion. The optimistic reading of the survey, then, is that it will compel Australians to assert their position on this issue — not just on the poll that arrives in the mail, but loudly, and uncompromisingly, in ways they might not have done before. This is what I hope for all of my new Aussie friends, LGBTQ or otherwise, and for everyone who hopes to be an ally in the fight against the Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on marginalized communities at home.

To Australians reading this, please vote “yes” and make your position known. Make it so the cultural majority on this minority rights issue is more powerful than Tony Abbott can possibly imagine.

To my fellow Americans, let’s stand in solidarity with LGBTQ communities around the world, while also asking ourselves what other issues we can be more vocal about. What if you had to vote “yes” or “no” on a survey about whether there should be a Black Lives Matter movement, or fair pay for women, or health care for poor families, or adoption rights for LGBTQ couples, or compassionate immigration policies? None of these items are presented as cut-and-dry issues in our national dialogue. But with marginalized communities under constant attack, I think we could all stand to think about the moral necessity not only of coming down on the right side of these supposed debates, but also of voicing our support with the kind of unquestioning conviction we might have if given the chance to say, simply, “yes” or “no.”

The idea that the Australian government can pose gay marriage as a question in 2017 proves that popular opinion is only as strong as its vocalization. It is not enough to sit quietly on the right side of history, and, particularly in this traumatic political moment, silence is complicity. To cut through the hatred of the bigoted few, all true progressives must stand up and be counted. It’s complicated, and also simple: Think of equality as a yes-or-no question and make your answer known.

To Read:

  1. How Incarceration Impacts LGBTQ Youth’s Mental Health by Brittney McNamara

  2. Will We Believe Her Now? by Katha Pollitt

  3. Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico’s Neo-Colonial Legacy by Jon Lee Anderson

To Do:

  1. Consider participating in the #MeToo conversation by either supporting women sharing their stories of assault and harassment or sharing your own, and follow black activist Tarana Burke, who started the movement.

  2. If you can, make a donation to the Human Rights Campaign, or one of these other 22 organizations fighting for LGBTQ rights at home and abroad.

  3. Stay informed, and be sure to let your representatives know where you stand on the issues that move you. 5 Calls is a great way to make your voice heard.

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