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To Those Voting No

The campaign for marriage equality is now all around us. It is almost unbelievable that since 2004 when a piece of legislation was first proposed to the Parliament — that’s thirteen years ago - we are still debating this. Other countries with which we typically and routinely compare ourselves have all dealt with this some time ago, introducing marriage equality without their societies falling apart, their churches closing down or all kids turning into the opposite gender. And our polls here have only gone in the one direction since this first began. Support for marriage equality has steadily increased year after year after year, to the point where more than two-thirds of everyday Australians now consistently support the change. That means that most of us reject the apocalyptic predictions of the ‘No’ campaign, and instead understand giving people a fair go means giving gay people a fair go too.

I understand that you are intending to vote no. Of course, I don’t know why, and I don’t know how well you’ve thought through the issues and sifted the chaff from the wheat. Maybe you have done a lot of that, or maybe it just hasn’t been that important to you, and you’ve hardly given it a second thought. But I wonder if you’d be good enough to read this piece through with an open mind and maybe even by the end of it, be prepared to re-consider your vote.

You wouldn’t be the only one who’s had a change of heart when they’ve looked at the information and done some self-reflection. I have talked to a number of folk intending to vote no, both online and in person, always respectfully, and have had good listeners in return. I’ve invited an open mind in the manner of John Maynard Keynes famous quote, “When the facts change, I change my mind”. Many folk I’ve chatted with bring up all sorts of things that have nothing to do with marriage, or they cite so-called facts from disreputable sources, journalistic, religious and even scientific ones sometimes, and together we’ve unpicked them to see what the premise of an argument is or why a ‘scientific’ paper is not held in high regard by the rest of the science community. But at the end of the day, I think there are lots of good reasons to vote yes and some important ones not to vote no, far too many to canvass here.

So if you would, allow me just to speak about two important issues that really dovetail together and that seem very powerful and persuasive to me:
1. empathy
2. logic, or as I might call this one, joining the dots.

I don’t think outright bigotry, as in the “I hate gays” camp, is what most people are about. There are some like that of course, but I discount their view as it is not a developed or sophisticated position to take. The “I hate gays” camp can have no more to say to a modern Australia in the twenty first century than the “I hate black people” or “I hate women” camps. Their prejudice is ugly, and I think to any fair-minded person, it pretty much disqualifies them from the conversation. So I am thinking that your intention to vote no is a little more sophisticated than that kind of thing and is based on the merits of some particular position. It also strikes me that if you’re going to be intellectually honest, which we all have to be, it leaves open the possibility that new facts or thoughts, should they be persuasive enough or evidentiary enough, may be able to change your mind.

Now I think it’s important for you to know where I come from in this debate before I move into my two points above, because I hold my position, not in a vacuum, but as a result of personal experiences in life’s crucible over a very long time. So please allow me to introduce myself.


I am Stuart Edser. I live in Newcastle. I am in my late fifties, a former High School teacher, and am now, going on twenty years, a Counselling Psychologist in Private Practice. I am the third of four sons to wonderful supportive parents and a proud out gay man. I lost my Dad on Christmas Day 2011 to Lewy Body Dementia. He was 84. A dreadful time. My mother passed away recently aged 89 on 11 September after a very aggressive cancer took her from us after just five weeks of us knowing the diagnosis. Mum was a huge supporter of me all the way through my personal journey and was very close to my husband Chris who was with her alongside me as she passed.

My three brothers are all married and straight. I came to self-acceptance and came to live my more authentic life quite late by today’s standards, in my early thirties. The delay was due to the fact that in the days of my youth, I lived a strongly religious life in both the Catholic and non-Catholic wings of the Church, which, as you can imagine, caused me a great deal of inner turmoil and suffering due to my sexual orientation. The cognitive dissonance, as we psychologists call it, impeded what would have have been my normal trajectory and kept me trapped in a type of self-disgust sin consciousness. They were very tough years for me and I would not want any young person to go through them like I did.

With something of a breakdown as a result, for in those days you couldn’t be gay and Christian, I sought scientifically-based therapy, and came to accept myself, finally finding freedom and joy. In the year 2000 at the height of the Sydney Olympic Games, I met a man named Chris and we gradually formed a lifelong relationship. Chris has been a constant and a stalwart in my life since. We have plenty of similarities to make it easy, but enough difference not to drive each other mad. Chris now stands with me every step of the way as we navigate the vicissitudes of life together. We love each other very much and know that we are there for each other for keeps no matter what.

Chris and I knew from a couple of years in that we would be together. But marriage then was out of the question politically so we never bothered too much about it. However, we both knew that one day we would marry when Australia legislated the change. So we waited and waited and waited, and nothing happened. Of course I had wanted my parents to be at my wedding, so we waited for successive governments to get their act together. But then my father died. I had waited too long. After this monumental event in our lives, with no change on the horizon and my mother already 84 at the time, we decided we could wait no longer and we would marry. We would not risk the loss of my mum before our marriage. She deserved to be a part of it as she was with her three other sons. We would have our ceremony, call it our wedding and make it legal when the law changed, and we would do it all while my mother was still alive.

On the long weekend in October 2014, we gathered our friends and walked down an aisle of people, Chris’ folks either side of him taking his arms, and my 86 year old mum taking my arm and walking me through, absolutely beaming with pride and happy that her third son had finally found happiness himself. It was so joyous and so meaningful. We wrote our own vows and everybody paid tribute as to how wonderful an afternoon and evening it was. They were right. It was the happiest day of my life. But now, it is a great sadness to me that I have lost Mum before Australia has made the change to allow same sex couples to enter civil marriages.

In 2012, I published my first book Being Gay Being Christian (Exisle). It took me four years to write and research. I brought together all of the scholarship on gay sexuality from psychology, biology, genetics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, history, Biblical studies and theology in one book. Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby wrote the Foreword. It was a huge effort, similar to doing my PhD, and it has been well received both here and around the world. In Being Gay Being Christian, I not only addressed my remarks to LGBTI people, young and old alike, to reassure them that if they wanted to be a follower of Jesus, their sexuality did not preclude them from doing so. But I also addressed the book to the Church itself, to challenge it that it was high time it revisited its teachings on gay sexuality and grounded them in more sophisticated scholarship. Far too much harm has been done to gay people by these traditions. Many in the Church have welcomed my book.

So why do I tell you this personal stuff? I don’t have to, and ordinarily, I would be a bit more private in a forum like this. But this is an extraordinary time in Australia. LGBTI people like me have been forced to endure a nationwide opinion poll on the worth of our lives and relationships. I have been on the receiving end of some dreadful bigotry and ugly homophobic abuse since it all started and like other LGBTI folk, I have found the whole thing very demeaning. It is more than just ironic that though I do marriage counselling myself and have helped save hundreds of marriages, at present, I am not allowed to be married in law myself, and if I ever am to be married, I have to ask the whole nation’s permission. If this were happening to you, I wonder how you would feel. I cannot be sure but I suspect you’d feel pretty much the way I do.


Empathy

So this brings me to my two points above, empathy and logic. Let’s start with empathy. At the end of the last paragraph, I asked you to imagine for a moment how you would feel if you were faced with what I am facing, that your worth and your relationship was up for evaluation by your neighbours, and was to be judged even by people who hate you for just being who you are. I was appealing to your sense of empathy. Your ability to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. To understand someone, not by thinking and intellectualisation, but by feeling what they’re feeling. I wonder could you do that for same sex couples, even if you personally don’t know someone who is gay? In psychology, empathy is considered a higher order ability that denotes emotional maturity. So it’s a big deal. In the Christian faith, it denotes someone who can ‘love his neighbour’ and be a ‘Good Samaritan’ as Jesus taught.

LGBTI people come in all shapes and sizes. We are just ordinary Australians, tax-paying citizens of our great country, working and caring and keeping the social contract. We are represented at every level of society. We are doctors, dentists, aged care workers, nurses, teachers, tradies, professional sportspeople, journalists, psychologists, accountants, lawyers, politicians, priests, policemen and women, skilled and unskilled labourers, and more.

But most of all, we are just human beings. As a psychologist, I can tell you all human beings have the need to love and to be loved, to be affirmed, to be nurtured and protected, and to grow and develop. When these basic fundamentals are denied any of us, we suffer. It is only in the last forty years or so that society has begun to recognise our basic humanity and to accept LGBTI people and even to enjoy us and celebrate us. In my own State of NSW, it was still technically a crime for me to have sex until 1984. That’s not so very long ago. Although we are everywhere, compared to the number of straight people, there are not many of us. But there are enough of us, like left-handers or blue-eyed people, to be a significant minority, maybe somewhere between 7 and 10%. And it has always been a touchstone of civilised nations that the way a society treats its minorities is often a gauge by which others can judge the national ethic and the national mood.

Marriage equality touches me, not just theoretically, but personally. This is not academic for me or other LGBTI folk. It is very very personal. If you’ve ever proposed to your partner or fallen in love or planned a wedding, then you’ll know what I mean. Chris and I would love to make our ceremony legal. My family would love that to happen. So would his. Our friends would love to see the change. Our work colleagues would love to see this occur. A change in the law, just in my own life, would affect so many people, apart from Chris and I. As it is, my dad never got the chance to see his third son married and my mum has missed a registry ceremony where we would make it legal. That is something I can never change. And of course I am not alone. There are thousands of same sex couples around Australia with elderly parents and family members who are very keen to get on with this. It is so incredibly sad to see families lose the opportunity forever if a beloved elderly parent passes away before change comes.

Then there are older couples themselves, men and women who have been trailblazers in LGBTI reform, who want to marry. There is a great sadness if one of them passes away. We saw this recently with Peter Bonsall-Boone, known to his friends as Bon, who waited for marriage equality to marry his partner of 50 years Peter de Waal, but who sadly lost his battle with cancer and passed away in May this year. Does that not move you? It does me. It broke my heart and I didn’t even know these wonderful men and their incredible story. Fifty years together is a rare and amazing thing.

And what about if it were your son or daughter? Have you ever asked yourself that question? If your son was gay and in a committed relationship with a great guy, would you still want to vote no? What if it was your daughter? What if you had walked one daughter down the aisle, but you refused to do the same for your other daughter? Could you do that? Could you treat them differently? I can think of two well-known people who have been faced with that very dilemma, and decided their parental responsibility trumped any other concerns.

Shelley Argent and her son James

Shelley Argent is the National President and Spokesperson for the PFLAG group (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). She tells of her two sons. One is straight, the other is gay. She asked herself ‘how could it possibly be okay for her as a mother to be comfortable with one son having rights and privileges in Australia that the other could not share’. How could she be okay with one son marrying and the other not being allowed to?

Nick Greiner

Former NSW Liberal Premier and now Federal President of the Liberal Party Nick Greiner has recently acknowledged the same dilemma. One son, straight, one daughter, gay. He was not able to reconcile rights for his married son but not for his daughter who is in an equally committed and loving relationship with her partner as is his son with his wife.

Parents of gay children feel this awful injustice keenly and want a different fairer Australia.

Right now, there are thousands of couples waiting to get married. Good people. Wonderful people. If you fell over in the street, they would be the first to stop to help you up. They’re not interested in the downfall of the Church or anything else vaguely revolutionary. Like the rest of Australians, they just want to follow the same trajectory that others do. Meet someone, fall in love, grow together and arrive at the knowledge that they want to share their lives together. One or both of them propose and they plan for a wedding where they can commit themselves to each other, say their vows and enjoy the affirmation of their families and friends. My day was beautiful in every respect; as I said above, the happiest day of my life. I want the same opportunities for others and it’s hard to believe that fair minded Australians would want to deny that milestone of life to same sex couples, who are equally committed, equally loving, equal period.

Would the sky really fall in? Would society crumble? Would religion end? Would your marriage be contaminated? I wouldn’t have thought so, unless you’re already in trouble. I am asking you to put yourself in the shoes of others for a moment and feel their feelings on this issue. I am asking you for some emotional maturity, for some empathy. If you decided to vote Yes based on your empathy for other human beings, you would be making such a difference.

Joining the Dots

Joining the dots is another way of saying, ‘I have looked at all the pros and cons and I can see my way clear to arriving at a logical conclusion’. Provided you are not one of the “I hate gays” camp, which is just patent homophobia, then I respect you. The ‘No’ camp has made it abundantly clear that they do not want to talk about the substantive issue at hand, ie., two people of the same sex being allowed to marry in civil law ceremonies (where over 70% of Australians already marry). Instead they want to talk about everything else but marriage equality.

Their strategy has been to catastrophise marriage equality by saying, ‘if you pass marriage equality, then you also get this other terrible thing’. Now I’ve got to say, having been on debating teams, that that tactic is a pretty weak one and is generally seen as the refuge of those who’ve got nothing to say. First of all, you’ve got to prove that one follows the other, and that’s pretty well nigh impossible for most things as no-one has a reliable crystal ball. Second of all, there are some in the ‘No’ camp whom I would call homophobic and who will stop at nothing to impede any kind of progress in our country that helps LGBTI people. Yes, they are there. I and many of my friends have been on the receiving end of their invective since this all began. It has been very nasty.

So, here are some issues you might consider as you keep in mind that marriage equality is about two committed people marrying, like people do every weekend throughout the year, and that’s all that it’s about. Nothing more.

Marriage equality is not about free speech. It is ridiculous to say it is. People are saying all sorts of terrible and untrue things about gay people and about some imaginary rainbow agenda. As an activist, I think I would know about a vast gay plot if there were one. But some in the the ‘No’ camp want to be able to say things about gay people and the LGBTI community that are harmful and insulting. As things stand right now, our law states that they will still be able to speak that way. Fundamentalist Christians can still call us abominations and get away with it. But there are carefully constructed laws governing what is acceptable speech and what is not. If people cross the line, there are consequences. You can land in court. So free speech, yes, hate speech, incitement to violence etc, no.

Marriage equality does not mean that ministers of religion will be forced to marry same sex couples, either their own LGBTI parishioners or outsiders. No proposed legislation for marriage has ever contemplated such a move. Ministers of religion have exemptions under our Anti-Discrimination laws to be able to refuse their services, which they can do right now, to anybody, straight or gay. So no change there. Churches will not be forced to use or rent their buildings to same sex couples. It’s a beat-up.

Marriage equality does not mean some stupid slippery slope where ‘the next thing you know they’ll be asking to be able to marry their pets or the Harbour Bridge’. That proposition is not only ludicrous, it’s also very insulting to people like me. So no, no inanimate objects, no animal marriages. Why not, you ask? Because no-one remotely psychologically balanced would want to do that and the law would never allow it. What slippery slopers are really fearful of is society changing, that all the old markers of our culture will disappear. Well, clearly that’s not going to happen. Good traditions stay the course and others evolve over time, usually at a glacial pace. But we are all hopeful that the next generation will grow up with far less sexism, racism, bigotry and homophobia, and that LGBTI people will be accepted along with everybody else as valued members.

What about the children? This is the big gun of the ‘No’ camp. So, let me start by saying that parenting and education policy are not the issue here, nor the focus of the survey question, no matter how much the ‘No’ camp tell you they are. Straight couples don’t have to pass a parenting test before they’re allowed to get married. They just marry. So strictly, this is a complete furphy. We are talking about marriage law, not parenting styles or parenting abilities. But to answer the question anyhow, it’s actually not that complicated. I personally know three different gay couples who have kids. The kids are wonderful, well-adjusted, doing fine and as happy as the other kids their age. Their own emerging sexual orientations follow the normal pattern as for other kids, no more, no less, most straight, some gay. They are loved, nurtured and protected. And there are thousands of other families I don’t know. It would be great for the kids themselves and for family life if their parents could get married, don’t you think?

Wouldn’t marriage equality make more gay couples have kids? No, not at all. Couples, straight or gay, are usually pretty clear on whether or not they go ahead with having a family, whether they’re married or unmarried. The only change would be that existing children of LGBTI couples would have their families recognised as legitimate and valued by their community.

Are the kids psychologically okay? Again, we’re talking about marriage law, not child psychology. But to answer the question. Absolutely the kids are okay. My own professional association, the Australian Psychological Society, of which I am a general Member and a Member of its College of Counselling Psychologists, ordered a full literature review which found that all the studies from peer-reviewed respected researchers show that children growing up with same-sex parents do at least as well as children with heterosexual parents on a range of psychological, social and educational measures. Something that the ‘No’ campaign conveniently forgets is that kids are growing up safely and loved already in single parent homes, step-parent homes and in grandparent homes, so growing up in an intact same-sex parented home full of love and support is at the very least, just as good. You can find the whole APS Literature Review if you’re interested in reading it, here.

Will children be taught gender fluidity? Once again, this is an education policy debate, not a comment on Australia’s marriage law. This conversation belongs properly in education circles and in universities using academic rigour. Gender fluidity is actually an old term, not something new, that researchers have used to describe the experience of some people who do not feel they are part of an either/or gender conceptualisation. This experience, while definitely a real experience, is not well understood to date and individuals and researchers in the field continue to talk together to try to elucidate yet another complex aspect of human sexuality and gender. So no, gender fluidity as it is being portrayed by the religious elements of the ‘No’ camp, is not and will not be taught to children as a matter of course. With only a little thought, the idea is preposterous.

So how should we deal with issues of sexuality and gender in school? Well, for a start, everything should be age appropriate, like it is now. What we can say absolutely confidently is that most people are straight, but some are gay, and most people identify with the gender of their of their biological birth, but some don’t. Where young people are navigating such difficult terrain, ie., sexuality or gender, they should be cared for very compassionately, protected from bullying and verbal harassment, nurtured and helped to know their own minds and hearts, educated in the concept of the journey, and kept if at all possible free from mental health problems like Major Depressive Disorder which can lead to suicidal ideation. I do this work myself in my own Consulting Rooms. I can tell you straight off that when young High Schoolers in this group come in and talk to someone who understands about their sexuality or gender and is on their side, there is palpable relief.

Telling a young gay boy to ‘be a man, it’ll pass, get back out there’, or a young transgendered girl to ‘stop being silly, put your boy’s clothes back on and get on with things’ is not only unspeakably cruel, it is a recipe for disaster.

The inclusion of human sexual diversity in the High School curriculum that deals with these matters, just acknowledging that there are gay and lesbian people and that they should be treated respectfully and equally, is hardly radical to today’s youth. LGBTI is not a foreign land to young people as it was in my time. They know gay people and many have gay friends. And there are even transgendered young people in schools these days and for the most part, the other kids just take it as a matter of course. This is not ‘radical gender theory’ as some in the religious ‘No’ camp would have it. Rather, it is just part of the facts of life as we understand them today. I have yet to see any opponent of marriage equality explain to me exactly how and when these dire predictions for our education system will come about. For example, how and when will ‘radical gender theory’ be taught in schools throughout the land? Who will generate the curriculum? What would it be? Wouldn’t teachers and parent bodies have something to say? Which government would pass it in legislation? How would they get it through the Parliament?

I’ve seen more argument over the teaching of phonics in primary school to ever let me think something like ‘radical gender theory’ would ever get past the post. Seriously, logically, practically, it is a complete nonsense.

I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to a society in which the old traditional bigotries and homophobia are a thing of the past. I place great hope in our young people. Australia is in good hands.

Will marriage equality de-gender marriage? I have been blessed with a modicum of smarts and I cannot for the life of me work out what the ‘No’ campaign means by this. The same number of straight couples will continue to marry opposite sex partners as always, and gay couples will marry same sex partners. How is there no gender, in either situation? On the contrary, I think there’s plenty of gender there, more than enough for everybody.

What about the bakers and the florists? Will bakers and florists who don’t like same-sex weddings be forced to bake cakes and provide flowers? Well if I have anything to do with it, absolutely they will. But don’t forget, just like with the education stuff, the marriage law and the discrimination laws are very different laws. They are not the same thing. But here’s the way I see things.

Australia has a culture, in fact a multiculture, that is the envy of the world. Part of our culture is the gradual and persistent dismantling of discrimination over the years whenever something comes to light. Anti- discrimination law is a safety net designed to prevent both injustice and cruelty. It’s that simple. If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviour or practice or policy, you’ll scream bloody murder at the injustice of it, make no mistake. Your inner sense of unfairness will rise up. We are simply not accustomed to being treated differently from others in this country.

If you happen to be in business and/or you deal with the public, then right now, you are obliged by law to serve everyone. You are not allowed to refuse service on the grounds of anyone’s race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, or ableness. It is against the law. Can you imagine if we gave exemptions to people who don’t like gay people on religious grounds? Presumably then, it would be okay for the anti-Semitic person to refuse service to Jewish people. Or the racist vendor who didn’t like Indian folk could refuse service to an easily identifiable Sikh in his turban. Where do you draw the line? Or would it be just the gays? I hope not because that sounds to me an awful lot like pure homophobia.

Would the conservative Christian exempt from discrimination law be happy to serve murderers, thieves, adulterers, drunkards and slanderers, so long as they’re not gay? Is that what we’d be letting ourselves in for? No, if you are in business, like I am, you serve everyone who comes through your door. And if you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be in business. Now of course, no self-respecting same sex couple would want to go to a such a place of business anyway, but the principle is important regardless. But here’s the thing. Given that LGBTI people are a minority, it is not straight bakers and florists who need protection from gay couples, it is gay couples who need protection from bigotry. That’s why we have anti-discrimination law in our country. And at the end of the day, marriage equality is about couples marrying each other, dare I say it, and not about bakers and florists. So where do we draw the line? We draw the line with a one rule for all Australians, no exemptions.

Conclusion

I’ve asked you to think about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. I have asked you to empathise. I’ve also asked you to listen to reason, join the dots and, if you’re not one of the ‘I hate gays’ camp, to be open-minded enough to reconsider your position. When Chris and I had our ceremony, not a single straight marriage was affected, none in my family, none in his family. No-one would have known of our ceremony had they not been part of our day. Almost all the couples at our wedding were straight and the only effect on them was that they had a good night. Our wedding was beautiful and it meant the world to us both that our parents could be there to celebrate and give their blessing to us. No harm was done. I think society was strengthened. Our vows to each other meant something and we take them very seriously. We have just celebrated our seventeenth anniversary. We have done the hard yards in our relationship and have grown as a couple and as individuals as a result. I hope we can make it legal before the eyes of Australian law soon. Can you not find it in your heart to vote Yes to something like this?

Australia will join those other countries in legislating marriage equality. There is no doubt. Most Australians are fair-minded and think there is no impediment why same sex couples should be segregated and treated differently to everyone else. Don’t be on the wrong side of history like those who voted against women obtaining the vote in the 1890s and early 1900s. Or those in the 1967 referendum who voted against our indigenous people being recognised in determinations of Australia’s population. I am sure that after the years went by, there were many many people in those ‘No’ camps who wished they could have their vote over again. But sadly, they missed the boat.

I urge you to think again. Listen to the facts. Use your empathy. And Vote Yes.

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