It has been a momentous week. The sheer joy that came from the overwhelming yes vote on Wednesday sparked celebrations like I have never seen before. There is a sense of validation in our queer community – a feeling that Australians are finally embracing queer people.
We cannot overstate how important this feeling of validation is. In Ireland two years ago, we saw similar celebrations. And that feeling continues to last. Following the Irish vote there was a huge spike in young queer people coming out. Young queers who previously saw their country as deeply homophobic suddenly felt more comfortable being public with their sexuality. The vote also created momentum on other issues – from anti-discrimination laws to abortion reform.
I suspect we will see similar trends in Australia, and for this reason this will be a moment etched in the history of queer politics in Australia for years to come.
Yet underlying this celebration is one uncomfortable element for many. While 7,817,247 people voted in favour of marriage equality on Wednesday, another 4,873,987 people also took the active choice to vote no. While this number is a clear minority, it is literally still millions of people, and it is a number that for some is dampening the mood.
A friend of mine in Canberra for example, one who is in a long term relationship and recently had a child, posted about the immense sadness of knowing that one in four Canberrans voted against marriage equality. As she said, that’s one in four people who don’t think her relationship is valid. Fears are particularly intense for those young LGBTIQ people who live in electorates that voted no. I see growing concerns that this could create increased feelings of isolation, potentially leading to longer term mental health issues.
Underlying the celebrations there still remains an immense feeling of hurt and pain — hurt that this vote occurred in the first place, and pain that amongst such a strong yes vote, so many still decided to choose no.
Yet, while this hurt is of course natural and understandable, I think there is a lot we can also learn from it. Even though the data is not perfect, if nothing else, this vote showed the level of homophobia that still exists in our community, where it exists, and the impact it continues to have on queer Australians. For the first time ever we literally have a map that highlights the different perceptions of Australians on the issue of queer equality.
This map has already caused some consternation. Some for example have used the strong no votes in Western Sydney as a way to attack multiculturalism. Daily Telegraph columnist Caleb Bond for example tweeted on Wednesday; “Many of the 17 electorates that returned a majority No vote were areas with a high Muslim population in south-west Sydney. Surprise surprise. #SSM”
While we must reject this sort of reactionary xenophobia, the data gives us an opportunity to examine why homophobic views are still so high in this region, and to think what we should do about it. Carrie Hou for example has pointed out the issues that led to the no vote in Western Sydney — the strong no campaign, class divisions in the region, the lack of engagement from the yes campaign, and the incredibly white nature of yes messaging.
Just as one example, this highlights the potential momentous impact this vote could have. Through this campaign we’ve been able to see some of the different and complex divisions that still exist in our society when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. It has given us the space to debate how to deal with this at a local community and a national level – something we have rarely had the opportunity to do in the past.
There is no doubt that this has been tough for LGBTIQ Australians. Having these homophobic views out in the open was hard to watch. Seeing them manifest in over four million people voting no is hurtful.
But this is also the homophobia that queer Australians face every day. It is the small things that continue to dominate our society and our lives – the moments of violence, discrimination and bigotry that still are prevalent in a heteronormative society. Now, potentially more than ever, those moments are out in public view for all of us to see.
This does not, of course, diminish the huge yes vote. On Wednesday we saw how far our society has come, and how far ahead the public are on issues of homophobia compared to our government. But we also saw how much work still needs to be done. If we want to make sure this vote has a long-lasting legacy, committing to that work is what we now need to do.
- Simon Copland is an Australian freelance writer, specialising in sex, culture and politics