Conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the survey asks, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” Residents of age and registered by Aug. 24 have until Nov. 7 to return the form.
The results of this vote are not binding.
The Australian Parliament elected in August to avoid an internal vote, putting marriage equality instead to the people. Advocates with whom the Washington Blade spoke said that this process is “highly unusual.”
“It honestly sometimes feels like a war zone,” said Sally Goldner, a bisexual and transgender advocate in Melbourne who works with the Bisexual Alliance Victoria, Transgender Victoria and other groups.
Australian elections are usually compulsory, and many believe because the survey is voluntary, it has shifted the political landscape.
“These are very trying times,” Goldner said, “And we need support from the outside world right now against all this negativity. The far end of the no campaign is loud and shrill.”
“We’re really having to dig into our reserves,” Goldner added. “These groups are trying to say that it’s a decision to be trans and acting like we don’t know anything about our own lives. LGBTI people have to send the strongest message of support possible, and then we’ll go from there.”
Jo Hirst has experienced the impact of the no campaign’s rhetoric firsthand.
Almost two years ago, she wrote a children’s book called “The Gender Fairy” so that trans children like her son could see themselves in a story.
“I wrote the book out of love for my child and for all transgender children,” Hirst said.
Hirst said that 18 months ago, her book was made into an anti-LGBT scapegoat, first by the Australian Christian Lobby and then by the anti-LGBT Coalition for Marriage.
An ad released on Sept. 15 accused Hirst’s book of being a part of the “radical sex and gender programs” that would endanger children, part of the coalition’s strategy to mobilize a “no” vote.
“These people have come together and put my book as an example suggesting that if there is same-sex marriage, my book will be read in schools — as if that’s somehow a bad thing?” said Hirst.
She was quick to denounce the ad, releasing a statement saying that “transgender children should not be fodder.”
— Jo Hirst (@thegenderfairy1) September 17, 2017
“I really don’t see the link to my book and furthermore, I don’t align myself with any political party,” Hirst said. “I am just a mom. They’re trying to weaponize my love for my child.”
The Coalition for Marriage’s arguments often put parents and children at the center of its opposition to same-sex marriage.
“Many parents are concerned about their rights as radical gay sex and gender education classes become more widespread and even compulsory,” said Sophie York, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Marriage in a press release.
LGBT faith advocates with whom the Blade spoke disagree.
“This violent discourse is so divorced from the teachings of Jesus,” said Benjamin Oh, who works with several organizations in New South Wales at the intersections of LGBT and cultural minorities with faith communities.
“How is this possible?” said Oh. “It is as if there is an international playbook that they are drawing from to frame LGBT people as anti-religious and disordered, looking to break up families and communities.”
With Obergefell v. Hodges still so recent, LGBT groups such as GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign have offered support to Australian advocates in their path towards marriage equality.
“After years of both state and federal battles, advocates in the U.S. have learned that those who fight marriage equality use rampant lies and misinformation to try and prevail against equal rights,” said GLAAD Senior Director of Education and Training Ross Murray.
GLAAD visited the country before the postal vote was in the works, working to empower activists on the ground.
“As a country that has lived through a lot of this ourselves, we want to make sure they avoid some of the pitfalls we have seen,” Murray said. “This has to be run like a campaign, from phone banking to reaching out to loved ones, and Americans have gotten used to running campaigns.”
HRC sent staff to Australia to share lessons around its experiences in campaigning for marriage equality at the state and national levels in 2015 and 2016.
“It is incredibly cowardly the way Australian leadership has resisted moving forward with an open vote,” said HRC Global Director Ty Cobb. “By choosing not to, the parliament is wasting taxpayer funds and requiring advocates to divert focus from other opportunities to advance equality in Australia.”
The organization maintains contact with Australian advocates and is calling on its networks to mobilize Australians in the U.S. to submit their vote.
“We are seeing the same types of scare tactics in Australia that as we saw in the United States,” Cobb said. “One of the strongest ways we can help is to turn out the vote.”
Misty Farquhar, a PhD candidate and bisexual advocate based in Perth, is worried about the impact of the public debate on the lives of ordinary LGBT people in Australia.
“The debate around the vote has brought some of the nasty things people may have thought into public without thinking about the impact it can have,” said Farquhar.
Farquhar, who uses gender neutral pronouns, expressed frustration over the language of the campaign on both sides of the aisle.
“The whole thing is quite distressing,” they said. “You hear terms like ‘gay marriage’ and it’s quite exclusionary. Many bisexual, transgender and intersex people are feeling persecuted from both sides without even being able to voice it for fear it disrupts the process.”
Farquhar said that the vocal anti-LGBT statements make it hard for committed advocates to keep moving forward when they are unused to such vicious campaigning.
“People are calling for allies to help take the lead because of the emotional impact all of this misinformation is having,” Farquhar said. “We’ve seen it in our young people. While the debate might not be the direct cause, much of what’s being said can easily push people already in distress over the edge.”