The Plebishite: One year later


Words || Lydia Jupp

It hasn’t yet been a full year since the magic number of 61.6% flashed up on our TV screens and Facebook feeds, but the government-funded turmoil Australia’s queer community faced for the better part of 2017 has mostly been forgotten. However, it’s proving harder for many in the queer community to let all of this go so easily. Lets take a little trip down memory lane:

The Turnbull government decided to postpone parliamentary voting on marriage equality by funding a $122 million non-compulsory and non-binding postal vote. The children of queer parents were likened to another Stolen Generation, Lyle Shelton compared the advance of marriage equality to the Holocaust, queer people were physically abused multiple times, the Coalition of Marriage had that transphobic and irrelevant ad with all the concerned looking mums that aired every night, and all of this was part of a “respectful debate.” The mental health of queer people deteriorated, with the CEO of ReachOut reporting that there had been a 20% increase in people accessing their LGBTI support services and Lifeline had spikes in calls discussing the impact of the survey. Nearly every discussion of the postal survey on television or online was followed by mental health resources for those that needed them.

This isn’t to say that the “yes” side was without fault. There were several instances of vandalism and abuse: churches in Melbourne was defaced with the phrases “crucify no voters”; a Brisbane priest said he was spat at and called a “fucking no voter”; and who could forget DJ Astro ‘Funknukl’ Labe, who headbutted Tony Abbott because he “didn’t think it was an opportunity I’d get again.”

In the end, 61.6% of people who voted, voted in favour of same-sex marriage. Australia exploded in a shower of rainbows and bubbly and tears at 11 o’clock on the 15th of November, and it seemed that everything was okay for that day. We were still angry and hurt, but we were also exhausted, and for a moment, the queers of Australia just wanted a moment to celebrate.

The Marriage Act was amended less than a month later, and the start of January saw the first handful of same-sex weddings across the country.

Make no mistake, the legalisation of same-sex marriage was not marriage equality. State laws meant that married transgender Australians had to divorce their partner before they were able to change the gender on their birth certificate, a note that was implemented to ensure that no same sex-marriages were able to happen via a loophole. Trans Australians were forced to choose between their relationship or their gender. The subsection of the Sex Discrimination Act that allows states to ban married trans people from changing their gender on their birth certificate was repealed but doesn’t come into force until December 9th of this year, meaning that trans people still have another few months before they can claim marriage equality. Additionally, some states and territories still require trans people to have gender affirmation surgery before changing their birth certificate, a procedure that is costly, has a difficult recovery period, and is largely inaccessible to many transgender Australians. Not all trans people need or want surgery, so why is the state allowed to decide what constitutes someone’s gender?

On the topic of surgery, the rights of intersex people are often largely forgotten about.  Intersex people may sound few and far between, but statistically, you probably know someone who is intersex. Estimates from Intersex Human Rights Australia recommend a figure of 1.7% of the population with intersex traits, which is about as many people in the world with red hair. Contrary to popular belief, sex is not binary. It exists on a spectrum and is comprised of various characteristics including gonads, hormones, chromosomes, and genitals. Intersex people are medically defined as individuals who have sex characteristics that don’t fit the standard definitions of male or female bodies, such as genital ambiguity (like a vagina and internal testes), or phenotypes other than XY and XX, to name a few.

Upon birth, babies with identified intersex traits are often surgically or hormonally altered in order to fit a more acceptable idea of male or female. These surgeries are unnecessary, physically damaging, and often without the consent, and sometimes knowledge, of the individual themselves. In 2013, the Senate published a report entitled “Involuntary of Coerced Sterilization of Intersex People in Australia”, which reported that these surgeries do take place in Australia and often lead to future medical complications, irreversible infertility, reduction in sexual pleasure, dependency on long-term medical intervention, and occasionally deformity. This report also offered 15 recommendations to better improve the legal and social implemented.

Socially, queer people are still heavily demonised. Conversion therapy is legal in all Australian states and territories except Victoria, and it’s something that’s well known about. It is a direct violation of human rights and many think it’s becoming more common, changing from the “scared straight” camps of movies like “But I’m A Cheerleader” to the more covert, quiet conversions masquerading as counseling or pastoral care. Conversion therapy is not supported by scientific or medical research, and the deep psychological trauma that comes from conversion therapy impacts its victims and their ability to live a full and happy life. With Scott Morrison’s recent comment that addressing conversion therapy is “not an issue” for him, it doesn’t seem that the torture of vulnerable queer Australians is going to stop any time soon.

The Australian government is also directly and actively harming queer people under their care. About 20-30 of the asylum seekers on Manus are queer and are currently facing the choice between going back to their country of origin (where many face death for their homosexuality), or applying to settle in Papua New Guinea, where homosexuality is criminalised and carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Just because this is not happening inside Australia, it does not mean that it isn’t an issue Australia’s queer community should be concerned with.

Despite all of this, Australia is considered to be one of the most liveable countries for queer people in the world. I am not ungrateful to be queer in Australia, but I am still reeling with the effects that a public vote on the validity of my love brought. It’s strange living in a society where the government tells me that I have the same rights as straight and cisgendered people while I can turn around and enroll myself in a program to exorcise my queer demons, while my queer siblings are being forced to go through costly and unnecessary surgery, and while men on Manus are being forced to choose between prison or death at the hands of the government.

During O-Week in semester one, a Macquarie student made a public Facebook post with a photo of themselves standing in front of the Queer Collective stall with a thumbs down. The caption read: “if they have won same-sex marriage and technically that marks the end of their struggle, what are they now fighting for?” I invite them and anyone else who thinks that queer Australians have nothing left to fight for to read the above.