When I was younger and more ashamed, I referred to myself as a man who happened to be gay. I was a student, a critic, a brother, a son. Being gay was a footnote: not irrelevant, but not the main factor determining who I was.
A few years and two-thirds of a ‘respectful’ debate later, I refer to myself as a queer man. It might seem like an arbitrary distinction, but it reflects a major positive transformation in how I see the world. And it’s entirely the result of our Prime Minister’s gutless pandering to people who hate me.
I first came out when I was sixteen. I skipped the first and only class of my entire school life to unburden myself to my friend, and ended up shaking so much I spilled half a carton of ice-coffee over myself. I was fortunate enough to have her accept me unconditionally.
I told more people, my good luck continued – they also accepted me. My parents found out when somebody in the family heard the word on the country town grapevine. They too accepted me, unconditionally. And that, I thought, was that.
It’s weird to say but it’s true: without this whole thing happening I wouldn’t have been catalysed into becoming a far more open, far more loud and far, far prouder queer.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. I’m privileged enough to move in social circles where overt homophobia is rare, although it does happen. But the thing about coming out in a heterosexual culture is that you don’t just say “I’m gay”, magically click your gay fingers and suddenly erase the overwhelming shame that comes from living in the closet. The effects of hiding an essential part of who you are can and do flow well into adulthood.
When the High Court ruled that the same sex marriage survey could go ahead that shame, which I now realise I had displaced onto other aspects of my life, came rushing back. It’s hard to avoid it when every time you turn on the TV or switch on the radio or log onto Twitter or check Facebook or walk past an outdoor billboard or stand on a tram or exist in the world people are debating your sexuality in the background.
Initially I played the game. I entertained semi-sober arguments made by straight acquaintances at the pub. I respectfully argued in Facebook threads for my right to be an equal citizen. I took a deep breath and earnestly braced myself for every conservative think-piece on the issue.
The realisation gnawed at me for days before I eventually let it come racing in: I’d been playing this game my whole life. I’d been deferring to others on the subject of who I was, respectfully segregating my sexuality in order to more easily navigate heterosexual spaces. Why? So I wouldn’t offend people. So I wouldn’t offend myself. It was a way of being, I realised, that was slowly eating away at me.
I decided then and there that I was done with respectful debate. I stopped engaging in endlessly circular arguments with people who couldn’t quite see past themselves. I stopped thinking of my queerness as a footnote – it was now front and centre in who I was.
There has been plenty of hand-wringing about the ‘Yes’ side vocally taking the moral high ground in this debate. “Australians don’t like things being rammed down their throat,” one journalist wrote. “Some people who don’t have a strong view either way could end up voting against the side that annoys them the most.” That may very well be true, in which case it’s an indictment on complacent Australians.
There’s a moment in Andrew Haigh’s masterful 2011 film Weekend where the gay couple at the centre of the movie debate the politics of queer visibility. “But oh, the gays, the gays,” one of them says, mock-gasping. “We mustn’t upset the straights! Shh, watch out, the straights are coming. Let’s not hold hands, let’s not kiss in the street, no. Let’s not upset them. Let’s hide in our little ghettos!”
They both laugh in rueful recognition: it’s always straight society writing the rules. Best not rock the boat too much, best not push boundaries too far. Best not provoke them to disgust.
Employing this timid approach in the current debate is to succumb to a fundamental misapprehension: that “No” voters are engaging in a good-faith debate. Queer people have been arguing that we’re real people too for decades now. Look where it’s taken us. If this hasn’t changed minds, then what will?
I’ve wasted too many years of my life trying to convince these people, trying to convince myself, that I’m a real person too. I’m not really interested in continuing down that path.
Instead I’m using this process to focus on both myself and my community. It’s weird to say but it’s true: without this whole thing happening I wouldn’t have been catalysed into becoming a far more open, far more loud and far, far prouder queer. It’s politicised me. It’s radicalised me.
The best bit? This is just the start. Long after this awful debate has ended, long after we finally, inevitably, oh-god-why-did-it-take-us-so-bloody-long legalise marriage equality, I’ll be revelling in a permanently gayer life.
I’ll still be deeply aware that a sizeable minority of my fellow citizens either dislike or outright hate me. But I certainly won’t be respectfully letting them in, pandering to their prejudices the way that I’ve pandered in the past. And I’ll be a far more fulfilled person as a result.
And I owe it all to you, Malcolm. Mwah.