The Australian Federal parliament has removed the gender restrictions from the law regulating marriage, instantly recognizing the marriages of same sex couples married overseas and enabling others to marry here. This is something I am thrilled about and yet I find myself wanting to express sympathy for “no voters” (people who voted against marriage equality in the recent national postal survey). This isn’t my first attempt to do so. My piece titled So many points of no return tried to acknowledge the significant distress marriage equality would cause some no voters without conceding such distress is justified. My most recent post tried to illustrate how even the view that nobody should have gay sex is not necessarily hateful, although I strongly disagree with this view. In this piece I want to specifically critique the othering of no voters. While still wishing they’d voted yes I don’t think of no voters as another type of person to me and my kind. This othering, when I witness it, indicates to me a deep mischaracterization of who no voters are. It’s also affecting how yes voters view themselves in a profoundly unhealthy way.
38.4% of eligible voters who participated in the postal survey to permit same sex couples to marry, voted no. For some people this was astonishing and while a majority yes vote felt great they couldn’t understand how so many people could see same sex relationships as so inferior they wouldn’t allow them to get married. This however is the harshest possible way to understand no votes – as a condemnation of same sex love. If the vote had of been a simple “Should the law reflect the opinion that gay relationships are wrong” such a position would have had very little support. The official No vote campaign knew this and made sure the discussion was about anything else other than a direct condemnation of gay people.
A more accurate understanding of no voters would acknowledge that some of those voters were simply cautious, inclined to vote no for any change. Such voters are why it is always difficult to pass any referendum in this country regardless of the opinion polls. The presence of such voters was supposed to be a real asset to the no campaign and was why people like Abbott pushed for a plebiscite. The more like a referendum the vote seemed, the more momentous the change appeared, and the more cautious voters who would vote no regardless of the issue. These are the voters who are swayed by the non-argument that we can’t know what will happen. The no campaign reminded these voters that heterosexual marriage has been around for eons, that it is a fundamental element of society and changing it… well…. I’ll leave that to your imagination. You can think of these voters as voters with generally pessimistic imaginations. I don’t share that pessimism in this regard but I do understand it. I myself like to be a second generation adopter of technology – to let the guinea pigs go first . I feel vindicated by every health and environmental scare caused by a product like Teflon or Polar fleece. Now that change has happened these cautious voters are increasingly going to exhale and accept the sky has not fallen. Most will wait and see but few will push for a reversal of marriage equality. Some will already be supporting it as the new status quo. Who can say what will happen if we change things back?
An even stronger support for marriage equality would be found, now, amongst the no voters who were only against change to the marriage act because it was a bother. These are the people who have zero interest in gay rights either to oppose them or support them. Although we can suspect that Bob Katter harbours some homophobia, by his own words he is happy for gay love to bloom but has bigger fish, or crocodiles to be precise, to fry. Some people sharing this sentiment would have voted yes in the postal survey, just to get the bloody thing over with, but some would have voted no as a punishment for the time they feel has been wasted on the matter of same sex marriage already. We can expect that now the issue has been voted on publicly and in parliament such no voters would have no interest at all in revisiting it. They would punish any politician who re-opens the issue whether conservative or not. They are not a base a conservative movement can build on.
A third group of no voters are those I call the “Because you asked” no voter. Many of these no voters wouldn’t normally make a big deal over homosexuality, in fact some might prefer never to mention it. Some would be happy to be friends with gay people, work for or with them and could support the claim that they “don’t have a problem with it” with multiple examples of not running around screaming “this one’s gay.” This group doesn’t think gay relationships are exactly equal to heterosexual ones. Some of them might think gay couples shouldn’t be raising kids but are otherwise equal. Some might have a lingering doubt that gayness is healthy and maybe they hope none of their kids turn out to be gay. Some might even have the view that homosexuality is like a mild mental illness, generally harmless but not to be encouraged, akin to a philia for vinyl records. I’m not trying to sugarcoat these views as decent ones. They are patronizing and ignorant and make life more of a drudge for all involved, especially queer kids. They warrant being labeled homophobic. But they don’t constitute the mentality of an army prepared to undo marriage equality or a group of people you could say “hate” gay people. Yes, if another public vote occurred they would probably vote no again but it would be “because you asked” and until such time the matter won’t be raised by them.
If you are dismayed that a portion of people have this sort of soft distrust of gayness then I have to wonder what kind of a charmed life you have lived. Thirty years ago this attitude was the most many gay people felt they could hope for from their friends and families, let alone their churches. This was the world in which in 1984 Elton John got married to Renate Blauel. Remember that when Ellen Page, an actress whose fans are predominantly young and hip, came out as lesbian in 2014 there was still the fear she was trashing her career. The mood had changed though. The cognitive distance between the don’t ask, don’t tell philosophy of the 80’s and marriage equality is huge. What’s remarkable to me is how many people have crossed this distance over three decades. This group was never a bedrock of support for the no camp and I believe the no campaigns’ loss in the postal survey was largely due to crumbling historical support from this group. You could call that the Magda effect.
Then there are the hard no’s. These people may punish their representative at the next election for voting for marriage equality. These voters are going to push for ways to constrain and contain this social change. As private citizens, they don’t recognize same-sex marriages, and many want to ensure as much as possible that they don’t have to when acting professionally either. Even this group can’t be considered to be an homogeneous group. Some of this group would be adamant that protections for gay people in employment or in receipt of services should be maintained – outside of wedding services. Some would be those who advocated for civil unions instead of marriage equality. They would include those who wanted to find any solution to the difficulties gay people face in being treated equally short of permitting them to marry. Under scrutiny almost all of this group are not inclined to see same sex attraction as healthy or “of god” in the same way as heterosexual relationships, but not all of this group should be tarred with the same brush as the next and final category of no voter.
Lastly we come to the true haters. These include the ones whose self-hate has been cultivated in the dark of their own closet. They want others to know how disgusting they find gay sex is by describing all their extensive research into it, especially the bottoms. They think gay people are an invention of Communism through Hollywood and that you are the idiot for not seeing it. With a cavalier attitude to mixing historical analogies these people also refer to the Gay Gestapo and Rainbow Nazis as the vanguard of Cultural Marxism. Such people exist. They are real. They vote. They will be the continued core of an extreme-right conservative movement. But they are not 40% of the Australian population. I suspect they are less than 10%. Maybe less than 5%
5% is still enough to win Senate seats after preferences. 5% hatred in a population is hardly something to stick on a tourism brochure. It’s just not a group the major parties can court openly. When we imagine that all the 38.4% who voted no belong to this group of haters we massively inflate the power of this group. We support the narrative that Cory Bernardi wants to sell – that there are a large number of disaffected conservatives who will rally to him to create a viable third force in Australian politics. We create for ourselves, as activists wanting to support a post-heteronormative world, an overwhelming enemy. We depress our confidence in our communities and for no good reason.
The flip side of imagining all no voters as part of this hater group is that yes voters can see themselves as an equally homogenous but holy group. Yes voters can be broken up into as many categories as no voters. Some of them will be people who have worked for a long time to break down prejudice against same sex relationships. Some will have ticked this box as a continuation of standing up for their own relationships or the relationships of others close to them. But some yes voters will have barely thought about heterosexual privilege and their yes vote will be the first and last act they expect to make to dismantle it. Some yes voters will have voted so that they can stop hearing about homosexuality. For people confronting the condemnation of same sex attraction and those who experience it, it is a nice fantasy to imagine that 61.6% of Australian voters have our back. It’s not necessarily true. Reality is a lot more complex. In two years time people who voted either yes or no may even have changed their minds.
Recognising this changeable and complex reality is especially important when understanding the way in which country of origin impacted on people’s votes in the postal survey. Individuals who having voted yes feel entitled to make sweeping generalizations about areas with high no votes are indulging a fantasy in which they get to be white knights rescuing queer people from their oppressors. Yet the only rescuing act that was made was a tick in a box and a walk to the post office. The thin veil of righteousness over racist and classist remarks is undeserved self-congratulation. Magda Szubanski by contrast has already indicated that after a long justified rest she wants to take the time to listen and build relationships with people in the communities which overwhelmingly voted no. Those who want to create change with her will likewise need to embrace a layered understanding of who voted no and yes for marriage equality.