It is time for me to tell you a story. It is about my relationship with my wife, Rachel, and about our marriage. While I could write a book-length piece* dissecting the political aspects of marriage equality debates and the plebiscite, I’ve noticed there aren’t as many personal stories being shared by the media about the impact of this ongoing and highly unnecessary battle. But first, I want to explain the most glaring problem about a plebiscite in February 2017.
There will be no 'equality' with a plebiscite, even if a yes vote is returned. Because unlike heterosexuals, we have to ask for permission
— Whiskey Houston (@RobCoco) August 23, 2016
*Actually, I am writing this very book. Watch this space.
The plebiscite problem at hand
The next six months are going to be difficult for many LGBTI Australians. The Federal Government has proposed to hold its $160 million plebiscite on marriage equality in February 2017. The plebiscite is a terrible idea for many reasons, but worse than the expensive, non-binding and largely unwanted plebiscite itself is the anti-equality campaign that is almost guaranteed to happen in the lead up to February.
Our opponents should not be handed this expensive gift of a plebiscite, which provides them with such a public avenue for prejudice. They’ve done enough harm already.
A ‘no’ campaign, and the homophobic, biphobic and transphobic sentiments that are likely to be at the forefront, will cause further damage to a community that already experiences inordinate suffering.
Studies indicate that LGBTI people have an increased, and disturbingly high, risk of depression and anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, believed to be heightened by prejudice and discrimination. Young LGBTI people with a history of verbal, sexual or physical abuse have significantly higher levels of mental health problems than heterosexual young people. However, those at schools with protective policies in place are less likely to be physically abused, to suffer other forms of homophobic abuse, to self-harm and to attempt suicide, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report, Face the Facts.
Judging by last year’s Irish plebiscite on marriage equality, these campaigns are likely to be harmful for the LGBTI community. These ‘no’ campaigns usually feature heteronormative ideals, represented by a white, ‘model’ nuclear family, to illustrate the point against same-sex marriage. They use language to suggest that marriage equality threatens children, indicating that ‘no’ campaigns are likely to focus on children and families in the lead up to the plebiscite.
Ironically, the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s public inquiry warned that a plebiscite would be harmful to children and the LGBTI community. The negativity and hostility of the debates leading up to the plebiscite are expected to be distressing.
Senator Penny Wong warned that “a plebiscite designed to deny me and many other Australians a marriage certificate will instead license hate speech to those who need little encouragement,” and described the abuse, assault and prejudice that LGBTI people face.
“I don’t oppose a plebiscite because I doubt the good sense of the Australian people,” Wong said at a lecture at the Australian National University in June. “I oppose a plebiscite because I don’t want my relationship – my family – to be the subject of inquiry, of censure, of condemnation, by others.”
Like Wong, I don’t want my relationship to be the subject of ridicule, analysis, debate and condemnation. I have had my share of this during my 13-year relationship with my wife, Rachel.
One story out of many
In 2013, Rachel and I won a wedding in a lesbian magazine’s ‘Dream Wedding’ contest.
This wedding was actually a ‘commitment ceremony’ since same sex marriage wasn’t, and still isn’t, legal in Australia. This meant that our wedding was largely symbolic, with no legal rights or recognitions afforded to us.
Early on in our planning, our celebrant, Taylor, informed us in a regretful voice that she wasn’t allowed to call our ceremony a wedding. “In fact, if I use the word wedding and get audited, I can lose my license,” she said.
We were very nervous about accepting the prize, mostly for emotional reasons. We had overcome family conflict and societal judgments in the decade we had been together prior to our engagement, but weren’t sure how people would react to our earnest expressions of love. Coming out, and the subsequent rejection and alienation, had made us very anxious people.
There were also some strange physical aspects that we had to think about. Things that I had previously associated with heterosexual weddings, like flower arrangements, hair and makeup, dresses and accessories, had suddenly become topics of conversation.
Finally, there were financial concerns. Although we had won many parts of our wedding, it had still cost thousands of dollars.
But we needn’t have worried; the wedding had been wonderful. As many family members and friends told us, some with surprise, “Your wedding was a fairytale.” Others said, “Yours was the most beautiful wedding I have ever been to.” Apart from our anxiety, it had really lived up to its ‘dream wedding’ title.
Everyone had behaved themselves, even the two babies and dog who made the trip. We had shared our vows on the veranda of a vineyard, as people wiped away tears, and then kissed passionately, before moving to another venue for our eccentric and highly personalised reception.
Our wedding had taken place in autumn, while the weather was still warm and optimistic. Soon after, the weather shifted into brutal and depressing shades of winter. My Seasonal Affective Disorder, characterised by a bleak and flat state, in addition to depression, returned with a vengeance.
As soon as I woke each morning, my heart raced and my mind created a list of things to worry about that day or worked out how much money we had to transfer to the credit card.
As we stressed over finances, work and our postgraduate studies, our honeymoon to the Hawaiian Islands loomed brightly. I didn’t bother making an appointment with my psychologist; I was busy, I figured. I didn’t have the time or the funds to spare. It turned out that saving money by not seeing my psychologist before our honeymoon was a bad idea.
During the lead up to our honeymoon, we contemplated the idea of having a second wedding, which would be a Civil Partnership at the British Consulate. We were fortunate enough to be able to do this as I am a dual citizen. It wasn’t a wedding, but it was a lot better than any of the marriage options available to us in Australia.
I feel guilty that we had the opportunity and privilege to enter a Civil Partnership, when so many LGBTI Australians do not have this option. While my friends in the LGBTI community are happy for us, and we did not detect any jealousy or animosity, it is unfair. I know others who flew to Canada or other countries to take advantage of the marriage laws there. It turned out that there is marriage equality for LGBTI Australians, but only for those with money or the right passport. And even for those of us who are the lucky few, our marriage isn’t recognised in Australia.
Despite this, we decided to go ahead with the Civil Partnership ceremony.
“This way,” I said to Rachel, “we can make our marriage official and legal before our honeymoon.” We loved the idea of getting married on a Friday and then flying to Honolulu soon after. It sounded relaxing and stress free.
It turned out that a simple wedding was demanding and stress inducing, too. Of course, we felt it had to be perfect; it needed Ellen and Portia style luxury. I imagined a romantic ceremony followed by a perfect meal, ideally catered by a vegan personal chef.
As I researched and planned the day, it hit me that it was going to cost a lot of money. A month before the planned ceremony, I couldn’t hold in the panic. In the car with my sister, I said meekly, “Maybe we should postpone it. There’s no rush.”
“Why would you do that?” she demanded. She had already booked flights to return to our city, Melbourne, for the ceremony.
“It would give us more time to plan it and work out what we want to do on the day,” I replied.
“You’ve already had your big wedding! You don’t need to do anything!”
We decided to go ahead with the ceremony but remained so stressed that we continuously postponed planning. It didn’t help that we both had university studies and work occupying our free time.
Eventually, the moment arrived; it was time to sing “I’m getting married in the morning” but we certainly didn’t feel like singing. The night before our wedding, we had nothing planned, apart from a last minute restaurant booking for a celebration after the ceremony. At midnight, we emailed our vows to the Vice Consul.
When we woke up, Melbourne was proudly displaying its worst winter qualities. Rachel and I rushed out to buy a last-minute cake to bring to the dinner, driving and cursing through peak-hour traffic. It couldn’t possibly be our wedding day, I thought miserably (admittedly Wedding 2.0).
My parents and sister had flown in and I spent the rest of the morning fretting about their wellbeing, wondering if I should go and be a good host.
“Maybe we should go over to their hotel to get ready,” I suggested, visualising them pacing around their posh hotel room. I’m a people-pleaser and felt guilty for not being a good host. I tried to justify my suggestion by adding, “It’ll have really good lighting and mirrors.”
“Honey, it’s our wedding day. They’re fine. They’re having a good time. Let’s get ready and enjoy this time together,” Rachel said. She could see right through my reasoning.
It rained all morning. I walked to an ATM to take out cash to pay the consulate. We dressed and left the house, both tense. I was so stressed about money that a taxi seemed out of the question.
We boarded a tram to the city and sat in the front row. Teenagers chattered behind us in their school uniforms, and I had to remind myself that it was a normal day for others and that nobody on the tram could tell it was our wedding day. I felt guilty for not having planned a thing for the wedding.
We had thought the second wedding was a great idea, and had loved the idea of making our married status more official before we went to Hawaii. Instead it seemed to be causing unnecessary anxiety, for two people who were already close to breaking point.
This wedding turned out to be special, in its own modest way. It didn’t have the epic country views of our first ceremony, nor did it have the handpicked decorations and music.
But the warm and friendly staff ushered us into a room with striking city views, a portrait of the Queen, and the Union Jack flag, and welcomed us sincerely. They were excited to be part of our wedding. Our families gathered around us and listened to us repeat the vows we had written for our first wedding. My family brought along a beautiful bouquet, which I held during the ceremony. Rachel and I kissed, everyone cheered, and the Vice Consul called up our sisters as witnesses to sign our certificate.
Later, I wondered why I had been so worked up. Our first wedding, only three months earlier, had been perfect in every way. Why had I felt the need to try so hard for the second one, which was really just a legal ceremony?
It wasn’t too difficult to work out. Our guests would have known that our first wedding – the truly meaningful and romantic one – wasn’t really a wedding. Not in the way that seems to count, which is a binding commitment with associated rights and responsibilities. Plenty of queer people have no interest in getting married, and I support and understand that decision. But currently, we lack the privilege of making that choice. I do have many privileges; I can stand up and declare my love for a woman without fear of persecution, being jailed or killed.
Our government acknowledges us in every way as a couple except we are not allowed to call our wedding a wedding. And I think that now, after 13 years together and two wedding ceremonies, we would really like to call it a wedding and mean it.
Two days after our ceremony, we headed to the airport for our honeymoon.
It turned out I was taking emotional baggage with us. There had been no grand moment or epiphany that made my anxiety go away.
I knew I wasn’t well, emotionally or physically, when I found myself anxious on our honeymoon. Things were about as good as they get in life, as joyous newlyweds exploring idyllic beaches. But I found myself chatting online with the phone company, worried that we had been overcharged for roaming. I fretted over the price of meals, transport and currency conversion rates, instead of enjoying the moment.
Rachel and I went on a day tour around the island. At the start of the tour, the guide asked if anybody was celebrating anything. I looked around at the mixed tourists – from retired couples wearing sun-safe hats to the All-American families in their matching souvenir t-shirts.
We didn’t call out that it was our honeymoon, but another young couple did.
“Oh!” The tour guide winked knowingly at the couple. “Watch out for the two lovebirds, everyone.”
For the rest of the day, the other tourists and guide joked with the newlyweds. At one point, we stopped at a beautiful lookout and the guide offered to take a romantic photo of the couple. “Enjoy this,” an older woman said to them as they posed playfully and kissed. “It’s such a special time.”
It seemed safer not to say anything. Safe but painful, it turned out. I wondered whether it would have felt better or worse if we had said something and received judgmental looks or comments.
I held Rachel’s hand tightly, thinking of our weddings. We were newlyweds, like the other couple, even if we hadn’t said anything. Maybe we would finally start feeling proud in our identities, the way we were proud of our relationship.
A month after our British Civil Partnership, the United Kingdom passed legislation to allow same-sex marriage.
Less than six months later, same-sex marriage was legalised in Hawaii. Two years after our honeymoon, the United States Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage nationwide.
Last year, we converted our Civil Partnership to a full legal marriage, again at the British Consulate in Melbourne. On their soil, we are legally married.
As a couple with three citizenships between us, we are fortunate and have choice. We could move to America or the United Kingdom and live as a recognised married couple. For now, we continue to live in Australia. We have rights and freedoms, but have to leave the word ‘wife’ behind, either on the soil of the British Consulate, or back in Hawaii, hopefully with the rest of our baggage.
This week, after the plebiscite was announced, Rachel and I discussed how it would have affected us if it had taken place prior to our wedding. We recalled our fear, self-consciousness and anxiety in the lead up to both our Commitment Ceremony and Civil Partnership. We cringed as we considered what it would have been like if we had encountered an ‘anti’ marriage equality plebiscite campaign in the lead up to our wedding.
“We were already so overwhelmed about the public perception of our wedding that having a campaign like that would have fucked with us mentally,” Rachel said.
Remembering the anxiety and depression I experienced after the intense lead up to our wedding, I am filled with dread when I think about what the campaign could have done to me, and what it might do to others.
I asked Rachel whether she thought that the plebiscite would make it harder to tell people that we are married. Personally, I struggle to use the word ‘wife’ or ‘married’ in front of most people, and that’s without the plebiscite pouring gasoline on the flames of homophobia.
“In some ways,” she said. “It would strengthen our insecurities because we would be more aware of the fact that there is a lot of hate against us. It would make it so present, when it used to be more of an undercurrent, which meant we could move through life trying to ignore it as best as possible.”
Aside from being harmful, a plebiscite just doesn’t make sense, politically.
The former Justice of the High Court, Michael Kirby, implored the Australian public to “reject the proposal to hold a plebiscite as a precondition to the enactment of same-sex marriage legislation by the federal parliament.” Instead, he argued in The Australian and on ABC radio, our politicians should decide on the law in parliament.
Currently, Labor and Green MPs are deciding whether or not to block the plebiscite. It is crucial for LGBTI people and our allies to take action, now.
If you feel strong and resilient at the moment, and your mental health is under control, it would be truly helpful to participate in some activism and campaigning. The ‘against’ or ‘no’ campaign will be filled with hate; let’s tackle it with a combination of anger and love.
Visit Equal Marriage Rights Australia, Australian Marriage Equality, Make It Law and GetUp! to learn more, join the campaigns and, most importantly, to contact your MPs and send a strong message against the plebiscite.
There are a few points to be considered in relation to this activism.
Firstly, it is important to ensure that LGBTI campaigns don’t fall into the trap of featuring a white, heterosexual, middle class family as the base level ‘ideal’. This transmits a dangerous idea that this mainstream, ‘normal’, group is the most important voice on this issue. Australian Marriage Equality have created a petition that takes a stand against using taxes to fund either side of the plebiscite campaigns. This petition features ‘Daniel and Rebecca’, who, according to the website, are “husband and wife and parents to three young children”. While I like the idea behind the petition, I can’t help but wonder why they chose a white, apparently heterosexual couple with children as the face of it. This bothered me, as does my worry that the push for marriage equality is creating a distinction between “good gays and bad gays”, with the former being monogamous and conventional, and the latter being transgressive and unacceptable. We should be careful not to equate marriage equality with more traditional, conservative expectations for couples and families; all people should have an equal voice in this movement, whether they are or aren’t interested in marriage.
Secondly, let’s ignore the cries from conservative media, which remind LGBTI people that rejecting the plebiscite would be “a strange and self defeating step”. The Australian and the Herald Sun, or undoubtedly any Murdoch press, is shrilly imploring our community and its allies to band together and support the plebiscite if we want equality.
I implore you to ignore these cries, and Andrew Bolt’s sneers.
If you look at the etymology of the word plebiscite, it comes from Concilium Plebis, which was the Plebeian Council in the Roman Republic. It was the forum in which the plebeians, or commoners, had their chance to vote. I am passionate about the right to vote, but in this case, I don’t think the plebiscite is the way to achieve democracy. We’ve already voted, and now it’s time for our politicians to listen to their constituents, to stop being afraid, and enact a law that we already know the majority of Australians want.
And if you still need more convincing?
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