Good afternoon sir/madam, I’m just calling today to ask pretty please will you consider treating me equally? Thank you, bye!
This is the phone conversation I’ve had with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of complete strangers. I’m volunteering for the “Yes” campaign during a fraught time for LGBTQ people in Australia, as the country is embroiled in a painful plebiscite over same-sex marriage. In a fairly typical call, I dial a number and inquire sheepishly whether I can count on the vote of the stranger on the other end of the phone.
“For fuck’s sake,” a woman responded earlier this week. “Are you for real? First of all, where did you get my number from? And second, how is the way I’m going to vote any of your fucking business?”
This person feels like their privacy has been invaded. They feel the intrusion was unwarranted and they’re offended that mesomeone they’ve never even metwants to influence something so deeply personal to them. I squeeze my stress ball and wonder if they realise just how much we have in common right now.
“I don’t like being a debatable citizen,” comedian Hannah Gadsby said in a recent interview, a rare departure from her sardonic humor. “It makes me feel sub-human.”
That perfectly sums up the current mood among LGBTQ people in Australia.
On Aug. 8, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull invited the entire country to have an open debate about the validity of my relationship and how equal I’m allowed to be. It’s demeaning and insulting to be singled out in a poll which is as expensive as it is unnecessary. Politicians have spent the past three months surveying the public about a question to which we already knew the answer.
The plebiscite is a cruel joke. And it’s one had at the expense of LGBTQ people who just want to be treated with the same humanity afforded every other Australian.
Being forced to beg for your rights on the phone every day is already a ludicrous proposition. But what’s perhaps most demeaning about scrolling through a list of people who are just waiting to hang up is that my phone call might not make the slightest bit of difference. The poll, whose results will be announced on Nov. 15, has been devised as a plebiscite rather than a referendum. A plebiscite is voluntary and non-binding, designed as a friendly suggestion to lawmakers on whether or not to introduce legislation.
Should the public vote “Yes” next month, that means the Australian Parliament can ignore or dismiss the result if they like. Some right-wing MPs, including Eric Abetz and Cory Bernadi, have refused to say whether they’ll abide by the public’s decision.
But we already know what the masses think. Nearly every single poll conducted over the last decade has demonstrated that the majority of Australians support marriage equality. A Galaxy Research survey conducted in May 2011 found that 65 percent of the public is in favor of legalizing same-sex unions. A poll published this August found that nearly every sector of Australian society is in favor of full recognition for LGBTQ relationships. This includes the heads of all three major political parties.
I can hear the strain of being forced to repeatedly have the same discussion with the voters I talk to on my volunteer shifts. Their annoyance with me isn’t just that I’m interrupting their dinner. It’s that the conversation feels like it was over 10 years ago.
And yet bringing it all up yet again has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of harm. Billboards and train carriages have been defaced with homophobic epithets ( “Vote No to Fags!”) and violent hate speech (“Bash a Gay Today!”). Gay Australians’ homes have been vandalized, swastikas spray-painted over Pride flags. Two lesbians in Redfern woke up in October to discover that dog excrement had been thrown on their doorstep.
Although Turnbull insisted that Australians would be able to debate my rights civilly, members of Parliament were repeatedly warned this would happen. That warning came from those who had the most to lose in this debate: LGBTQ families.
Same-sex couples travelled to Canberra with their children to show legislators the human faces behind this situation. A flier distributed in Melbourne portrayed same-sex parents as predators who are exploiting the institution of marriage to abuse children, but these are loving mothers and fathers with well-adjusted children, ones who have suddenly been thrown into the spotlight. With their kids cradled affectionately in their arms, these families sent a message to our MPs that should have been obvious by now: “Our families are no different from yours.”
Ashley Scott, who serves as co-chair of the Rainbow Families advocacy group, testified to the absurdity of our national nightmare in an emotional plea to Parliament. “Rainbow Families oppose a plebiscite because we know what the impacts will be, both for our families and for vulnerable people in our community,” Scott said. “A plebiscite is a political fix that will do harm and put lives at risk.”
Same-sex families challenged the ensuing plebiscite at the high court, which was pursued over their ardent cries. But the government pushed back. The bid failed.
It’s one thing to plead for your rights. It’s yet another to learn at such an early age how truly vulnerable your rights are, ones you weren’t aware were up for debate. These children, who should be worried about who they’re sitting next to at lunch and whether they did all their homework, have to ride trains that refer to their parents as “faggots,” “degenerates,” and “perverts.” Kids are switching on their televisions to see people like Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby refer to them as a “stolen generation,” a reference to Aboriginal children were were ripped from their homes decades ago as a matter of government policy.
Turnbull and the other members of Parliament may have forgotten their faces, but I haven’t.
Those children are firmly planted in the back of my mind as I dial my next number and get down on my kneesfor the umpteenth time this eveningand ask politely to be treated equally. I beg for their families, I beg for everyone who has experienced hate come knocking on their doorstep, and I beg for this misery to finally be over. The government has suggested that ballots be mailed in today, in order to be counted before the November cutoff.
The person on the other end of the phone heaves with an aggravated sigh. I can feel their weight through the phone. I grit my teeth, squeeze my stress ball, and hear the line go deadthat old familiar refrain.
I dial my next number. I take a deep breath. And I continue to beg.
Photography: Cassie Trotter / Getty Images