Laws against hate speech have come too late but doing what’s right hasn’t

Supporters of same-sex marriage at the Town Hall in Sydney.

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By now, you may have received the postal vote issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in relation to the national survey asking eligible citizens to vote on marriage equality. The survey asks respondents to answer a simple yes or no to one question: Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?

At a cost of $122 million, the non-binding vote is an expensive way to instil anxiety and mobilise hate speech against our country’s LGBTQI community. Many of those people will have a history of trauma related to homophobia and/or transphobia enacted against them by people frightened of difference. That trauma is being ignored or jeered at now in favour of a conservative narrative that positions the real victims of this vote to be the “no” voters who have to hear that their homophobia may well be a sign of their homophobia.

Claims that “yes” voters are “bullying” and discriminating against people who are otherwise fine with bullying and excluding the queer community have featured heavily, with some people seemingly unable to clock the irony of their outrage.

The abuse heaped on proprietors of a small, community run ‘zine shop in a Melbourne subway station has been almost laughable – it seems that denying people the right to enter an institution considered (certainly by “no” voters) as “fundamental to the foundations and identity of Australia”, is a far less egregious act than declaring a tiny shop held together by paste and staples to be a homophobia free space.

Initially, there were no safeguards in place to prevent the application of hate speech or vilification in the lead-up to the vote. However, this week the government moved (with bipartisan support) to install temporary laws to punish those who are found to have used both. A fine of up to $12,000 is applicable.

The government can pretend all it likes that they’re taking this seriously, but the truth is it’s too little, too late.

We knew this ridiculous vote would unleash a tide of hatred. We knew that children – the same children whose wellbeing is invoked by organisations like the ACL – would have to listen as people said their parents were perverted, their families illegitimate and their defence of both these things the result of “homosexual brainwashing”.

We knew that queer people would be forced to revisit the shame that so many of us learned in our adolescence. We knew that homophobic people would whinny at the prospect of publicly declaring same-sex marriage to be a slippery slope to normalising paedophilia, to teaching children about anal sex (as if porn doesn’t already do this), to allowing them to wear clothes that make them feel comfortable instead of clothes that police their gender expression.

We knew that trans people would be even further marginalised and abused, that marriage equality would be exploited by some to loudly protest their rights to use a public bathroom in peace or to affirm their identity as adolescents in a safe and secure environment rather than painfully hide it (and from it) because to come out could pose a real life threat to them.

We knew this. The government knew it. And yet, here we are – engaged in the muck of it, even as we also know that it will probably just be the largest, most expensive exercise in “feeling the pulse” of a nation that has ever been conducted without obligation to follow through.

I don’t personally care for marriage contracts or its reverence as an institution. I look forward to the time when a formal government acknowledgement of lovers’ commitment to one another – particularly one whose formalisation was historically used to pass women as property between men – might be rejected outright.

But I have also watched as friend after friend has been demoralised and beaten down and crushed by an invitation extended by our government to those who take sadistic delight in pressing the most tender of those wounds caused by codified homophobia and transphobia; wounds that began laying their tracks in childhood, on the same kinds of children that these small-minded bigots are exploiting to perpetuate their own hatred and fear.

When people advocate in favour of marriage equality, we are thinking exactly of those children who might be given the opportunity to grow up in a world that celebrates their love rather than abhors it.

Here’s what else I know. I recently sat among a crowd of friends and family who had all gathered to witness two incredible people pledge their love to one another, in a country that has sensibly recognised that marriage equality is a non-negotiable issue. My two friends – the brides – walked down the aisle together, having been delivered to its entrance by both sets of parents. Later, those same parents gave beautiful speeches welcoming their respective daughters-in-law into their families, and expressed such joy that each had found someone who made them so happy.

And the part that everyone I spoke to mentioned as being their “moment” in the ceremony? It was when they both said that they would now no longer have to walk alone because they would be by each other’s side.

So knowing all this, this is what I would ask the fence sitters or the not-quite-sure or the in-danger-of-being-swayed-by-propaganda people to remember when they receive their postal vote, the one that asks them to answer a simple yes or no to whether or not some of their fellow human beings should be accorded the same rights they take for granted: this is not about you.

It isn’t about your rights, because you won’t lose any. It isn’t about the degradation of marriage, because an institution that supposedly celebrates love can only be strengthened by allowing more love into its fold.

It is about your children, because some of your children are gay and they need to know that they won’t have to walk alone either; that the first people to walk beside them, proudly, will be their parents.

It’s about empathy. It’s about generosity. It’s about kindness. But more than anything, it’s about doing what is right.

Anti-vilification safeguards were, like the entirety of this exercise, applied in a haphazard and ill-considered manner. To claim as the Prime Minister did that they wouldn’t be needed because people can apparently conduct themselves with dignity is just more evidence that he lacks the ability to properly lead this country.

We may not have adequate examples of it in Canberra, but now is the time for the community to show leadership and vision.

Please, vote yes.

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