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Why I fought so hard for marriage equality in Australia

Why I fought so hard for marriage equality in Australia

Shannon holding a yes sign up and smiling surrounded by thousands of people at a rally

Exactly a year ago today I felt the most nervous I think I have ever felt in my life.

I hadn’t slept or eaten much in days, but I managed to stress bloat so much I couldn’t fit in to any of my clothes.

That day, 15 November 2017, we found out whether the Australian public had voted to make same-sex marriage legal.

It was a sunny day in my hometown, Melbourne. Hundreds – maybe even thousands – of people gathered on the lawns on the State Library to watch a livestream of the results.

After saying hello to friends, colleagues and fellow activists, I found a spot perched above the crowd so I could film a live video of the crowd’s reactions.

My hands shook and tears streamed down my face as we learnt Australians voted for marriage equality.

people standing outside trades hall, they're standing with their hands above their heads cheering
Volunteers after a phone bank session for marriage equality in Australia | Photo: Shannon Power

WTF is a postal survey?

The battle to achieve marriage equality had waged for 14 years. It culminated last year in an expensive and unnecessary postal survey.

Australia’s then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, lived in Australia’s gayest electorate (Wentworth) and personally supported LGBTI rights.

Despite that he caved into pressure from a small number of conservatives in his ruling Liberal Party to hold the postal survey. When he could’ve simply put the question to parliament – there had been 24 marriage equality bills since 2004.

The voluntary and non-binding survey asked Aussies to vote yes or no to the question:

‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’.

Shannon's 'yes' vote for marriage equality
Shannon’s ‘yes’ vote for marriage equality | Photo: Shannon Power

Close to eight million people or 61.4% of people who responded, agreed the law should change.

That didn’t guarantee the law would change though. Federal politicians would still be able to vote with their conscience, that’s even if the issue managed to see the light of day in parliament.

Thankfully, Liberal senator, Dean Smith and a cross-bench group of senators introduced a new bill on 17 November and same-sex marriage became law in December. By January this year LGBTI couples across the country started getting married.

The lasting impact of the survey

The postal survey campaign lasted about six weeks. But the scars of the traumatic campaign are still felt.

The public debate about LGBTI communities’ private lives was toxic and at times violent.

Calls to LGBTI helplines rose dramatically, as did anxiety amongst LGBTI people, advocates and allies.

The campaign drove many to seek counseling – myself included.

Why we had to win

Obviously same-sex marriage is important because it allows LGBTI couples to be equal.

In reality, marriage equality wasn’t entirely necessary under Australian law. Many states recognized same-sex couples’ rights. So we didn’t really ‘need’ it in the same way other countries did. I will admit in terms of symbolism, and the message it sends out about people being equal, it remained vitally important.

If we didn’t win the postal survey, politicians would the shut the conversation down for many more years to come.

Achieving marriage equality has also made space for LGBTI advocates to work on other crucial policies for the community.

The majority of Australians had backed marriage equality for more than 10 years, so if we lost it would’ve been a crushing defeat.

Shannon (L) with popular Aussie comedian, Kirsty Webeck they're standing in front of marriage equality posters looking at each other and laughing
Shannon (L) with popular Aussie comedian, Kirsty Webeck | Photo: Supplied

Why I campaigned harder than ever

For me, making sure we won went beyond LGBTI rights.

I believed it was critical to win this on behalf of all marginalized groups. If we couldn’t make this happen despite having the public’s support for more than a decade what chance did we have affecting change on other more polarizing issues?

So I campaigned hard during the survey, more than I had done on any other issue.

Shannon making calls for marriage equality
Shannon making calls for marriage equality | Photo: Supplied

In those six weeks I made hundreds of phone calls, door knocked, recruited friends into campaigning, put up posters, went to rallies and inundated my social media with pro-marriage equality propaganda, reminding people to post back their survey forms.

I did so much letterboxing, I think even my dogs got sick of all the extra walks.

I also hosted some marriage equality events in Hong Kong to encourage expat Aussies to vote.

three people sit at a desk with marriage equality posters behind thme
The Hong Kong marriage equality event | Photo: Shannon Power

For me, if we didn’t get a positive result it meant all hope was lost.

Not because I believed marriage equality was the most important issue facing Australia. The plight of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres, Indigenous rights and trans rights were far more important in my mind.

But because if politicians were willing to put the LGBTI community through the hell of a public debate on their lives, despite how easy it could’ve been to deal with in parliament what hope did we have of protecting other groups?

What now?

Australia’s marriage equality journey can only be described as farcical the entire 14 years it existed. The way we resolved it was a national embarrassment.

Our leaders made it clear they were willing to use vulnerable communities in games of political point scoring rather than just doing their jobs.

But the efforts of campaigners cannot be underestimated and they have to be commended for their work and their stoicism.

We know the fight for LGBTI rights is not over in Australia, or the rest of the world for that matter.

Achieving marriage equality has allowed advocates and activists time to focus on other critical issues. That includes helping achieve marriage equality in other countries that are facing a public vote like, Taiwan.

I’m so happy we finally got marriage equality, but now it’s time to get shit done for other groups. We’ve proved how good we are at getting results no matter how hard it is, it’s time to help others now.

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