Glitter canons erupted at colourful gatherings across the country on 15 November 2017 as the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 61.6 per cent of participants had voted yes in the marriage equality plebiscite. Yes Yes Yes: Australia’s journey to marriage equality, published on the anniversary of that historic day, illuminates the official campaign’s manoeuvres.
Drawing on the recollections of two of Australian Marriage Equality’s most prominent spokespeople – independent NSW politician Alex Greenwich and Shirleene Robinson, an associate professor at Macquarie University – Yes Yes Yes commences in Canberra on 7 December 2017 when the legislation was finally passed in the federal parliament. Oddly, it offers few personal insights into the jubilation of the day. This approach is maintained as the book proceeds with a fairly straightforward timeline of events.
The opening chapter notes that the origins of the movement trace back to the 1970s, ‘or even earlier,’ but that activists had focused, by necessity, on decriminalisation and de-stigmatisation, and then on the onslaught of HIV/AIDS. The chapter also notes many campaigners, ‘saw [marriage] as contradicting gay liberationist and feminist thought’.
The authors assert that the Daily Telegraph’s ‘outing’ of high-profile Kerryn Phelps in 1998, following her legally unrecognised Jewish marriage ceremony to partner Jackie Stricker in New York, was, ‘a very important step in growing mainstream support’. A more significant step came in 2004 following the marriages of couples Jacqui Tomlins and Sarah Nichols, and Jason and Adrian Tuazon McCheyne in Canada, where marriage equality was introduced in the province of Ontario in 2003, and then nationally in 2005. The couples sought legal recognition before the Victorian Family Court, prompting Prime Minister John Howard to introduce the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
At times castigated publicly for toeing the party line, Labor Senator Penny Wong campaigned strongly behind closed doors against her party’s prompt acquiescence, announced by shadow attorney general Nicola Roxon at the National Coalition for Marriage conference in August 2004. Wong argued, ‘if the discrimination that is proposed were on the basis of any other attribute, age, race, disability, not a single person in the caucus would countenance it, but you are prepared to do it to people who are gay’. Tanya Plibersek, speaking to the Sydney Star Observer, is quoted as saying, ‘I’ve told Nicola in the strongest possible terms that I feel betrayed by what she said yesterday and I take very seriously the fact she’s not followed proper caucus procedure.’
A Galaxy poll commissioned by GetUp in 2007 found support had risen from thirty-eight per cent three years earlier to fifty-seven per cent. The election of a Labor government that year led many to hope that the issue would be resolved. Both Prime Minsters Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard put paid to that, and when the conservatives returned to power in 2010, under Tony Abbott, the momentum seemed all but lost.
Yes Yes Yes is at pains to credit supporters on the centre right, including Liberal National Party MP Warren Entsch and Senator Dean Smith. Some ire is directed at Malcolm Turnbull, who seized office only to kowtow to the hard right in his party, but there is also joy at the political engagement of high-profile celebrities, notably Magda Szubanski.
The book might have gone further in exploring the stark rift that emerged within the Australian Marriage Equality campaign over how to respond to Abbott’s proposal for a national plebiscite. This led to the dramatic departure of long-time activist Rodney Croome, who would not countenance accepting the policy. Greenwich, who also wished to avoid a plebiscite but felt they must plan for one, recalls, ‘our friendship never recovered’.
The book is prone to sweeping statements such as, ‘so much depended on a victory and a loss would have broken the country’s heart’. Occasionally, there is a lack of perspective that comes from being so close to the campaign. Had an outsider written it, Yes Yes Yes might have dug deeper into the campaign’s failure to more visibly involve women and minority groups like Recognise.
If Yes Yes Yes comes from the white, middle-class, cisgender heart of the push, then Going Postal: More than ‘yes’ or ‘no’, one year on: Writings from the marriage equality survey makes space for voices at the margins. Collating missives written during the postal survey, from published columns to social media posts, cartoons to soaring poems, it arose from writer, researcher, and poet Quinn Eades’s I Can’t Stop Crying blog posts published by The Lifted Brow. Eades notes the collection is ‘an acknowledgement of scars – some that … may never heal’.
While activist and drag artist Simon Hunt – aka Pauline Pantsdown – and writer Dennis Altman are well known to those following queer rights campaigning in this country over the last few decades, the majority of contributors are newer voices.
Nayuka Gorrie writes that Indigenous Australians are, ‘no strangers [to] having our identities dragged through the mud by bigots’. Writing of the structural difficulties in enrolling and accessing postal services when living in remote communities, she says that the concept of marriage is a loaded one for many First Australians. ‘Our pre-invasion marriage was essentially destroyed by missionaries and the State … the white marriage that was introduced has traditionally been a tool for patriarchy …’ Gorrie nevertheless feels that the push for marriage equality is ‘striving to live lives that resemble heterosexual “normality” just as assimilation is striving to whiteness. Neither represent liberation.’
Some of the most affecting entries in Going Postal are its most succinct. A tweet posted by Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani on 21 August 2017 is powerful in its precision: ‘As a person who has been excluded from Australian politics I fully support marriage equality in Australia. From Manus prison camp I vote Yes.’ Writer and bisexual Muslim man Omar J. Sakr shares his poetry and addresses the backlash against predominantly non-Anglo communities in Western Sydney that voted no. Transwoman Joni Nelson adroitly confronts the legal complexity that allows her to marry some women. ‘In most cases, the law boils down to “penis and vagina go together”. Say it out loud in a five-year-old kid’s voice.’ Intersex Australian Morgan Carpenter notes that, ‘During the postal survey our diversity was invisible.’ Jess Ison votes yes out of a sense of harm reduction, adding the caveat, ‘Historically, the idea of incremental change has been a way to advance the privileges of the already privileged.’
A clarion call for true equality, Going Postal is dedicated to late performance artist Candy Royalle and includes an essay first published in Overland (5 February 2018) in which she insists, ‘I will chant “Love is Love” when I know all my brothers and sisters are free from oppression, not just when we queers are free.’
Read together, Yes Yes Yes is a useful historical artefact, but Going Postal sings from the bruised and battered heart of so many who felt unheard. One year on from the win, their voices speak loudest.