I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve shared a story with me about struggling with being gay. Either about their own experience or that of their adult children. About people who are gay feeling ashamed, ostracised, abnormal and that they don’t really belong.
In polite society, we like to think this is a relic. That’s there’s no need to feel this way because modern Australia isn’t like that. Of course they belong. And it’s true – we’re certainly a lot more accepting than we were 20 years ago. We should celebrate that.
But as most gay people will tell you, get in an argument with the wrong person, and it’s not long before they reach for an anti-gay slur. It’s certainly happened to me.
And that, in a nutshell, is why a lot of people oppose a plebiscite on marriage equality. Because they know that when the debate starts, the slurs won’t be far behind. We’ve already had marriage equality advocates compared by conservative commentators to the Nazis and ISIS because all three are apparently ‘totalitarian’ in their approach. That’s an extremely hurtful comparison when you consider the murderous behaviour of these groups towards homosexuals.
And then there are the brochures that talk about children of same-sex couples being more likely to suffer from abuse and neglect. Really?
To be clear, we know this isn’t most Australians. Because most Australians support marriage equality by a margin of around 60-70 per cent, depending on the poll. And to be absolutely clear, many of those who disagree with marriage equality are perfectly capable of debating the issue civilly. I’ve had many of them put their views to me directly.
But some are not. And the damage they can do to the tolerant and diverse society we’re proud to have built is enormous. So is the damage they can do to individuals who already feel like they don’t belong. To put that in perspective, lesbian and gay Australians are twice as likely to have a high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers.
That’s why some 200 leading doctors and health workers recently signed a petition calling for the plebiscite to be dropped, because they know what the basic emotional toll of a well-funded and focused ‘anti’ campaign would be on people who are gay.
Anti-marriage equality advocates say this argument is censorious. That it brands people who disagree as homophobic. And that it’s insulting to imply Australians can’t have a mature debate on the topic.
My response to this is simple. We’ve been debating gay rights in this country for a long time. And we think we’ve argued the case for equal rights – which is what this boils down to – pretty comprehensively.
With that in mind, it’s not unreasonable to expect Parliament to vote on marriage equality without asking a $200 million question. That’s how we make almost all major decisions in this country, and the shift in opinion polls away from a plebiscite suggests most of the electorate thinks so too.
With all the airtime devoted to the plebiscite debate recently, I’m not surprised to hear people say they’re growing tired of it. They want our elected officials to make a human rights decision on merit, not based on political overlays.
For the sake of all those who have told me their stories, let’s hope good leadership prevails.