Stop wasting our lives: marriage equality now!

March 17, 2016
March 12 rally in Sydney for the Safe Schools program. Photo: Peter Boyle

The federal government continues to drag its feet on marriage equality. It is now clear that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will not initiate a marriage equality plebiscite before the end of the year, as promised.

LGBTI community organisations are increasingly losing patience with delays and broken promises. Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome described a plebiscite as “an incredibly costly and harmful opinion poll”, after PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimated it would cost $525 million.

The plebiscite is a delaying tactic. This is crystal clear. It should also be understood that a conscience vote is too. If Labor was to bind its vote, we could have marriage equality. At its national conference last year Labor decided not to bind its vote until 2019. It needs to revisit this policy as a matter of urgency.

Turnbull's approval rating has dropped since becoming Prime Minister. He projects himself as the smooth talking civilised face of the Liberal Party, but his act is starting to wear thin. On marriage equality and a range of other issues, he has proven no better than his predecessor Tony Abbott.

The LGBTI community pays a heavy price for Turnbull's delays. The delays create a political climate where the bigots can get organised.

The shameful attacks on the Safe Schools program are a case in point. Australian high schools have been very dangerous places for LGBTI youth. The miseducation of youth has been a big part of this problem: sex education has always had a heavy heterosexual slant.

The Safe Schools Coalition is an alliance that schools can join, to educate all students about LGBTI people and foster a culture of respect on campus. But right-wing politicians, such as Cory Bernadi and George Christensen have made outrageous claims about the program. Bernardi said it would “prematurely sexualise” children, and Christensen compared the program to “paedophile grooming”. There were also claims that it promoted Marxism and pornography.

Now Turnbull has caved in to the bullying tactics of the right-wing homophobes in his own party and allowed the Safe Schools program to be gutted. Changes made on March 18 sharply reduce the lesson content, restrict it to secondary schools, shift the program to a government website, remove all links to other material and sites, and add a requirement that students obtain parental consent and schools get parent-body consent before opting to use its materials.

Education minister Simon Birmingham said it was a “strong but measured response” that left intact the program's core aims — to give support and guidance to students grappling with questions of sexual identity and to allow them to feel safe at school. But a triumphant Christensen said he expected the Safe Schools Coalition to reject the new conditions and, if that happened, the minister had assured him the remainder of the program's funding would be “pulled”.

However, despite the attacks from politicians and the corporate press, no schools have been bullied out of the Safe Schools Coalition. But 35 new schools have signed on, making a total of more than 500 schools nationwide in the coalition. There have been large rallies in Sydney and Melbourne to stand up for the Safe Schools Coalition.

While the government twiddles its thumbs on marriage equality, trans and intersex people, in particular, continue to suffer.

The case of CJ Palmer, a trans woman currently jailed in a Western Australian male prison, highlights the dire situation of trans people. This imprisonment is a terrible insult to Palmers's identity, and she should not have had to endure public humiliation by the police and corporate media who aired her case in the most sensationalist way.

The good news is that the LGBTI community is flexing its political muscle. The campaign for Palmer has been gathering steam in Perth, raising $4000 in just 19 days so Palmer's family can be with her. The goal is to raise $7000.

Both Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten attended the Sydney Mardi Gras parade. But they have been rightly criticised by queer community leaders for using the platform while denying basic human rights. They tried to pinkwash, but we were not fooled.

Shorten and the Mardi Gras organisers have been slammed for their heavy handedness with the No Pride in Detention (NPID) float standing up for queer refugees. The float was popular, expressing unprecedented LGBTI community support for refugees. The Labor Party float was directly in front of it. Organisers moved the NPID float and told its organizers, “If you say something to Shorten, you're not in the fucking parade”.

These are difficult times for the LGBTI community. Our most vulnerable are paying the price. While marriage equality will not resolve all the injustices it will make the next battles easier to win: we also need prison reform and safe schools.
The government could very easily make a big difference to our lives if it would just put the bill for marriage equality and pass it. We have had enough!

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