Why a Yes response in the survey is not enough

September 1, 2017
Melbourne's Say Yes rally on August 27.

Ever since it was announced, the federal government’s postal survey on marriage equality has been met with responses questioning both the legitimacy of the survey and demonstrating support for marriage equality — responses that have been vital for the confidence and morale of members of the LGBTIQ community.

Despite this, the right, particularly the Christian right, has demonstrated its determination to defeat the push for marriage equality through the mobilisation of homophobic and transphobic hatred and disinformation.

This opposition and the desire by significant sections of the Liberal and National parties to avoid legislating for marriage equality suggests that a clear and decisive response to the survey in support of marriage equality may be insufficient in itself to achieve that goal. We will need to build the strongest movement in the streets not just for marriage equality but in support of the broader rights of the LGBTIQ community.

The survey has been widely denounced by supporters of marriage equality. There are currently two High Court challenges to the constitutionality of the survey. These cases are scheduled for September 6, just six days before the surveys are due to be mailed out. Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who is one of the High Court litigants, has described the survey as a “sham” and argued that the government is “exceeding its powers and acting illegally”.

Despite this opposition to the idea of the survey, there is a widespread understanding that if it goes ahead, it is important that people engage in the survey in support of marriage equality.

Alex Greenwich from Australian Marriage Equality told ABC News on August 11: “Should we have to deal with a postal vote plebiscite being inflicted upon us, we have a duty of care and responsibility to make sure we campaign for marriage equality, to make sure we campaign Yes for marriage equality.”

This determination to engage with the survey is also reflected in changes in electoral enrolments since the survey was announced. Guardian Australia reported on August 24 that 90,000 young people had enrolled to vote for the first time, along with 675,000 people updating their details. At that time, a further 165,000 forms were still to be processed.

While some of these interactions with the Australian Electoral Commission would include opponents of marriage equality, the latest Newspoll on support for marriage equality indicates that 67% of those polled support marriage equality.

This support has also been reflected in and reinforced by the 20,000 people who rallied for marriage equality in Melbourne on August 26. Protests in support also occurred on August 26 in Perth and August 27 in Wollongong and further mobilisations are planned across Australia over the coming weeks.

The focus of the campaign has been on maximising both participation in the survey and the number of people who respond in support of marriage equality. Achieving a strong response in support of equality will put pressure on the government to  introduce a bill to parliament and encourage its members to vote for that bill, but it may not be sufficient to secure marriage equality.

Despite this broad support, and to some extent because of it, the level of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric from opponents of marriage equality has increased.

Homophobia rising

The clearest example of this has been the appearance of homophobic posters distributed by neo-Nazi organisations in Melbourne and Sydney which have linked equal marriage with child abuse and paedophilia.

The posters drew widespread condemnation from across the community, including forcing sections of the religious right to seek to distance themselves from the posters. Lyle Sheldon, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), did so by arguing the posters were part of a conspiracy by supporters of marriage equality to call into question the legitimacy of the survey. The ACL is seeking to paint the survey as a threat to marriage generally and an assault on religious freedom, with some of its more feverish supporters online suggesting that marriage equality would lead to the need to establish “underground churches”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has sought to normalise this hatred by saying that it is part of democratic discussion around the survey and that people were likely to say things that are “hurtful, unfair and sometimes cruel” but, rather than stifle free speech, Australians should stand up for any friends and loved ones feeling distressed “at this challenging time”.

Turnbull also said: “You cannot ask for respect from the No case if you’re not prepared to give respect to the No case. The vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage are not homophobic and do not denigrate gay people.” This makes how the community has responded to homophobic attacks the problem, rather than the attacks themselves.

The reliance of the right on hatred and fear to mobilise its base is not just upsetting. It is potentially dangerous both in the lead up to the survey and in the wake of any legislation being passed.

In both the US and France, the final pushes towards marriage equality were responded to by the right escalating violence against the LGBTIQ community. This violence did not drop to the earlier lower, but still unacceptable, levels in the immediate wake of achieving formal marriage equality.

In both countries the right have continued to use marriage equality as a basis to mobilise their base to attempt to not only wind back marriage equality but also other rights that have been won by the LGBTIQ community and to block further gains. The clearest example of this push has been the growth, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in favour of marriage equality, of legislative efforts to block trans people from accessing the toilets of their affirmed gender.

The Christian Right and far-right are not as large or energetic here as those in the US and France. But we can see evidence of the right attempting to energise their base through hypocritical and hyperbolic attempts to convince themselves and their supporters that the survey and Safe Schools programs are existential threats to families and particularly children. These attempts have the potential to create a desperate desire not only to maintain the right’s rage against marriage equality but also to increase the physical threat towards visible members of the LGBTIQ community.

Need for mobilisations

This situation makes ongoing mobilisation during and after the announcement of the survey result central to maximising any result. It will also help maintain morale within the LGBTIQ community. Mobilisations will raise the pressure on the government — particularly those concerned that opposition to marriage equality is a vote loser — to push for marriage equality legislation to be passed.

Equally importantly, ongoing large mobilisations will help to create an atmosphere where homophobia and transphobia are not tolerated in our society. As part of our efforts to build mobilisations in support of marriage equality and against homophobia, it is important we build empathy and support for issues facing the broader LGBTIQ community.

We must support efforts to enable trans people to achieve gender recognition, combat broader discrimination against the community, particularly the religious exemptions from the anti-discrimination acts, and actively combat the Australian government’s ongoing racist policies targeting refugees, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

[Lisbeth Latham is a trans woman and a member of the Socialist Alliance. She maintains the blog revitalisatinglabour.blogspot.com.]

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