Why I am voting yes
Last month I sat down to watch one of the latest queer on demand shows Rise Up. What I thought was going to be a quick late night Netflix after putting my daughter to bed, ending up being a crash back of triggers deep into the 80's of queer oppression. I think many of us are being triggered at this time. As I sit down in my comfy home, with my family, its easy sometimes to forget that family was something we literally traded in at one if we chose to come out. Family, children and a place in the world were not on offer for people like us. We were and in many ways are still the others.
As I watched scenes of gay clubs being raided by police I was instantly taken back in time. That frozen moment in the dark corner of the Terminus club on Brunswick. My sanctuary place. Down some stairs between strip joints, a place of disco music, drag queens, queers and lesbians dancing and laughing till dawn. That moment, when I froze as I heard the yelling of the word RAID! I remember not being able to breathe. Being gay was still illegal in many states in the 80's and debate still raged publically about whether gay people are sick and could be cured. We were a danger to society and ourselves. No one trusted us. But in these spaces we didn’t need to fight or explain, we were alive, we were free.
Police started coming in the back door. I stood frozen, I was 18, people started running past me. Rushing up the narrow stairs at the front that were already blocked by more police. A young guy burst out crying saying help me someone I’m 17. A drag queen looked at him and in one move picked him up over her shoulder and ran him into a cool room and hide him behind boxes. A police officer told me not to move. People were pulled out onto the road, searched, parents and family members called to let them know what sort of place we were in. A Gay Club! I watched people break down on the side walk realising they could never go home again. I was silent, I was full of rage. Cars of men drove by yelling out die AIDS faggots and laughing loudly. Another man in a group walking by deliberately pushed into my shoulder and almost knocks me over, as he walks by watching the police spectacle, as he mutters every dyke just needs a decent fucking. I remember just standing there, frozen, surrounded by police, not being able to yell back. Waiting.
We didn’t let that stop us coming out the next night. In fact we would just go out more. We wanted more and more connection in this climate. We would walk in groups to stop the bashings or rapes. We would watch the legal fights going on with excitement for the inevitable change coming. As people continued to be classified as mentally ill for being gay we watched as people cheekily started using their sick leave by calling into work queer. Sorry boss, I’m too gay to come to work, government says it’s a sickness, so sorry. We were seeing change, radical change. I don’t remember coming back to the club sad about the humiliation of the night before. We came back and danced, we threw glitter and acted out dramatic drag numbers until we cried in laughter.
Occasionally we yelled back at the Bogans in the cars yelling faggots, queers or dykes at us. Even if they threw eggs. Drag queens would blow kisses and wish them love, or thank them for the compliment of queer. It was a confusing time for them.
Then something much worse started happening. One night in my beloved sanctuary I noticed men walking around with t-shirts saying talk to me about safe sex. Condom baskets started appearing on the bar. Then people started getting sicker and sicker. KS sores were everywhere on the young men in the bar. Men in their teens and early 20's starting looking old as the muscles in their face wasted away. HIV had found us.
I remember one of those frozen moments in time when I stopped dancing and just stood in the middle of the dance floor, and slowly looked around. There were two young men in wheel chairs covered in KS sores to the right of me and looking close to death. To the left of me were two young men using walking sticks with severe muscle wasting trying to dance. A lot of the young men were not dancing at all, but at tables resting and very visibly sick with HIV/AIDS. I turned to my friend and said what the fuck is happening? Are queer people all going to die? He said I don’t know? Maybe? But if I have to go to another funeral I’m going to die. Our happy place of dancing and unity was looking more like a palliative care unit.
Now more than ever, ending oppression mattered. Men’s and women’s movements could not remain separate. We needed to unite. Homophobia could not wait to be dealt with. People were dying and families were suddenly finding out about their queer sons, and it had to be dealt with then and there. Partners were losing their homes of 40 years, and not having access to visit their partners in hospital because they were apparently not considered family. This was our time to not find sanctuary in quiet clubs, but to fight. Forget the dark safe space down the stairs at night, everything was now about being viable, very visible. We had to come out as a community.
We marched, we wore t-shirts and rainbows and did public talks at Southbank and in the City. One public gathering at the new Southbank Piazza with hundreds of community members and family members. My close friend Phillip was studying at the conservatory of music. A group from the con had just performed there, a song from Les Mes about rising up, about the blood of angry men. This song followed just after a mother had given a talk about the loss of her son and overcoming homophobia in her family before he died. We were all in tears. Phillip, was in his early 20's and living with HIV, and he was sick. He always said he was fine, but he was sick. I remember him walking over to me as we lit the candles to remember the many dead that year. He said promise me you will always come and light one for me. The reality of his death hit me hard at that moment. No, they will find a treatment, they will find a cure! He held me really tight and said no, not in time for me my love, remember me. I sobbed deeply into his shoulder, knowing he was right. Then together we placed a candle in the sand. The first of many I have placed for him over the last 20 years.
Just like the TV series I then spent time creating public action. I made a 20 metre red ribbon, and sat around for days sowing it with trans women, gay men, queers, lesbians and parents who had lost sons and then I and hung it from the story bridge in Brisbane. We tried to work out a way to paint that big white triangle (that is on the bridge going to Mcwirters in the valley) hot pink. The pink triangle was used to identify gay people in Nazi camps. A symbol used as often if not more than the rainbow flag in the early days, as a reclaimed symbol of pride. But couldn’t get up there. Services that that were homophobic were zapped in the middle of the night by Act Up groups. The government then refused to provide any funding to HIV unless it was directed a religious organisation. No problem, the sisters of mercy applied for funding and then gave it to radical queers working the beat and bathhouses providing condoms and education. This collaboration saved countless lives.
So here I am now in 2017, twenty years later. People go out clubbing and enter relationships without fear of prosecution or jail. New medication has meant HIV does not progress to AIDS anymore. Gay people have families and lives, often without having to live two lives anymore. But this week a postal vote will out. A vote that asks Australians if people like us have the legal right to marry. Its not hard. It’s a question of equality. Do we have the same right to share the same space as you? Are we really equal now? Has this fight meant anything? When people were asked about people of colour having the right to use the same water fountains and toilets, it really wasn’t about water fountains. It’s a central issue of civil rights. Its an issue of equality beyond rainbows, beyond words. The question is fundamentally — are we equal to you?
For many of us marriage is not on the cards. In fact, for many of us marriage is something we actively question. However, the right to exist in the same space, and have the same freedoms must be upheld. What we do with our new-found freedoms is then a choice of our own. As it is for heterosexual people. I don't know why people who don't care about our families or safety get to vote about our future. But I want a future where people are not afraid of rape or bashings for being who they are. Where suicide isn't far too common. I want my seven year old girl to grow up in a world where her family is not considered something that needs to be questioned, debated and voted on. Or in need of protection from hate speech and violence. I want her to belong. I want her just to be a kid. Rainbows and all. I believe in change, I have seen it happen. So I know we can do this for the next generation. So next week I will vote YES, and I am crossing my fingers that a lot of Australia will do the same.