I wanted to talk to you for a minute.
I’m not talking to the No voters you see in the news every day. I’m not talking to the ones desperately trying to shore up the rapidly shrinking space for religious influence over public life by appealing to Australians’ worst impulses, like Lyle Shelton. I’m not talking to the ones using the issue of marriage equality as a weapon in a political battle, a launching pad from which to attempt the reinflation of a career souffle, like Tony Abbott. And I’m not talking to the ones for whom homosexuality holds a peculiar horror, who are revolted by the idea of same-sex relationships and genuinely terrified of what soulless gays will wreak upon our society, like Margaret Court.
I’m talking to the No voters who we don’t hear much from, the No voters who I really do believe are out there in great numbers, but who are crowded out by the cynical chancers and the hateful fundies. I’m talking to the No voters who I think are good people, who at the moment are intending to vote No not out of malice or fear, but out of a personal belief that I think is held sincerely and without ill-will, but held, I think, with a lack of understanding as to how hurtful it is to others.
I’m talking to you, No voters, because I believe you are receptive to a reasonable appeal to your better nature. I believe that, like so many others have over the last few decades, you may well be ready to step across to the other side and accept the cause of marriage equality, if only you’ll think on it a while with generosity and compassion.
I think — I say I think, because I’m not going to claim psychic abilities here, but I’ve known a lot of people of a lot of varying beliefs, and I think — that you, silent No voters, are not opposed to marriage equality because you hate or fear gay people. You’re not opposed to marriage equality because you think gays and lesbians are inferior to you, and you have no desire at all to deny them rights.
What I think is that many of you No voters are opposed simply because you have grown up, like so many of us, being told that same-sex marriage is an oxymoron. The belief has been ingrained in you, from your youngest years. You grew up and went out in the world, and you met gay people, and you learned that they were people just like anyone else, and you became convinced they deserved every right that you had. But still, that idea of marriage as between a man and a woman persisted, because that’s just what marriage means, isn’t it? Marriage can’t be for same-sex couples, not because they’re not as good as opposite-sex couples, but because it’s a category that just doesn’t include them. “Same-sex marriage”, you’ve been brought up to believe, makes as much sense as calling a dog a cat.
It’s a simple belief, and one held simply, because that’s the way it’s always been. That’s why, No voters, you’re not out there arguing your case — you don’t really have one. That’s why the No campaign is not being led by you, but by lying buffoons like Shelton. He and his cohorts know that deep down, opposition to same-sex marriage is based on nothing more than habit and tradition: that there is no real argument to be made. That’s why he sees it as his job to throw up smokescreens and red herrings as fast and as frantically as he can, warning about children and Safe Schools and political correctness and freedom of religion and oppressed bakers. He tells us it’s not just about marriage, because he knows that at best, denying same-sex marriage comes down to discomfort with change, and at worst, it comes down to the visceral disgust with homosexual acts that is the greatest motivating factor for membership of the Australian Christian Lobby.
But you’re not Lyle Shelton, No voters. I believe you’re not, anyway. I have faith in your decency. And I have faith in your intelligence. I am sure you know that the passage of same-sex marriage isn’t going to threaten children in any way. You know that same-sex couples can already raise children together. You know that Safe Schools’ future doesn’t rest on the passage or rejection of marriage equality legislation, and that your embrace or opposition of that program won’t be affected by a change to marriage law. You know that religious freedom is not threatened, that currently no religious minister can be forced to conduct a marriage ceremony that they don’t wish to, and nobody proposes that this change. You know that currently businesses are not permitted to discriminate against customers on the basis of their sexuality, and while some people might wish that would change, same-sex marriage isn’t going to add another layer of repression. You know that if anyone wants to advocate that greater latitude of discrimination should be granted, they’ll be able to do so with just as much gusto after same-sex marriage passes as they can now.
You know it comes down to the simple question of granting same-sex couples who desire it the same official recognition of their relationship that straight couples currently have access to. And you’re uncomfortable with that. I understand that. You’ve lived your whole life believing marriage means one thing, and you’re not ready for it to mean something else.
Moreover, you know you that you wish no harm to the LGBTI community. You know you have no hate for them in your heart. It hurts you to be called a homophobe. I understand that, too. When you feel no malice towards anyone, it feels unjust to be dubbed a bigot. I get that. I get that you believe that denying same-sex marriage isn’t a denial of anyone’s rights.
But No voters, because I have faith in your decency, I believe you can come to understand why, despite your belief that you hold no prejudice against gay people, your refusal to countenance same-sex marriage has the same effect as the homophobia that you’d hate to think is within you.
For a start, marriage as it exists in our society is not a purely religious matter. We decided long ago that marriage was something to bear the stamp of the state. This may have been a mistake in itself, but that’s the way we’ve set it up. You know, No voters, that whatever church you belong to, most marriages do not take place under that church’s auspices. The one thing that all marriages have in common is the official recognition by the government.
This has legal weight, and it has even more symbolic weight, because it is saying that marriage, as is so often said, is a special category. It puts marriage in a class of commitment and public declaration of the seriousness of a relationship quite apart from all others. Your belief system may include children in its definition of marriage, but the state institution of marriage doesn’t include that — all it specifies is that a man and a woman, entering into the state of marriage, have declared their relationship to be of that quality which the government recognises as of special importance.
When we deny same-sex couples access to marriage, we are saying their relationships can never attain that level of importance. We are saying that, however loving and committed a same-sex couple might be, their love and commitment will never be of the same quality as the love and commitment that a man and a woman can give each other. We are saying, “the way you feel about the one you love is not the same as the way we feel about the ones we love. You can’t enter into our special institution, because your relationships are not special enough.”
That’s why, No voters, I want you to understand how you’re making your LGBTI friends feel when you say you’re voting no. As civil as you might be, as devoid of hostility or hatred, as filled with genuine love and care for their community, the fact that you won’t relent on that belief, drilled into you for so many years, that marriage cannot be changed, is telling them that you think they’re lesser beings. How can they not be lesser beings, when they lack the capacity for love that you claim for yourself?
Do you want to be responsible for making them feel like this, just for the sake of an article of faith that you hold onto out of habit? Is that doctrine worth the misery it causes?
No voters, I do believe you’re good people. I believe you’re not all Shelton or Abbott or Court. I believe your hearts are not filled with hate. I believe your hearts can lead you to empathy, to understand why you are hurting people, as much as you never wanted to. And once that understanding is reached, I believe you can fight past that ingrained belief to a place where it gives way to your desire for equality and happiness. I believe this because I know how many people, in the last few decades, have found their way to that place. Your beliefs are not fixed in stone. You have the power to open yourself to a greater connection with your fellow humans, by recognising their pain, and doing what you can to take that pain away.
I believe in you, No voters. I believe your “No” is not the end of your story. I believe you can join the rest of us in the sun. There is nothing to fear. Step into the light.