A year ago today, I stood at the foot of a large portable stage watching history unravel. Comedian Magda Szubanski, Liberal MP Christine Forster and her partner Virginia Edwards, along with many marriage equality vocalists stood within reaching distance. They were exalted by a crowd of thousands, who waved rainbows and outstretched hands across the sky. Those on stage shared stories, memories and promises. When the time came, a large TV screen to the left of the stage lit up and ABS chief statistician David Kalisch appeared. I turned to the crowd and watched them as David worked his way through to the results. It felt like hours but was really only two minutes. Among the silent crowd, a few voices cried out in anxiousness, telling David to “hurry up” or “get on with it”. Their flags hung silent as the wind continued its duty.
Little did I know then that I’d be writing a comment piece the next day about creating unity. But that was because the cheers were so loud that I didn’t hear the amount of no voters. It was 4,873,987, as I would later realise, and I knew that a celebratory article wouldn’t help.
Nearly a quarter of Australians voted no, and that needed to be addressed. It still does. A majority of them don’t hate gay people, and a good portion of them don’t hate gay couples — they simply couldn’t fathom same-sex couples being wedded. For some, it was a decision based on their religious belief. For others, it was a way of advocating democratic freedom. It was a conviction that they couldn’t shy away from, just like the 7,817,247 of us who voted yes.
I also knew a celebratory article was uncalled for because this postal survey (It’s not a plebiscite! Please stop calling it that!) did more than bring out convictions. It separated people. Parents had lost love for their children, bonds between friends were broken, siblings who were once so close had lost sight of each other. As much as I like to think that this postal survey has paved the way forward and boasted a national discourse around same-sex attraction, the question is at what cost? How many of our youth have contemplated taking their own life every time they saw an “It’s Okay To Vote No” sign? How many parents have had to deal with a son or daughter shutting themselves away from them for fear of persecution? How many avid “no” voters lost their job simply because of their belief? How many “yes” voters were assaulted for just advocating? How many “no” voters were assaulted?
The strongest argument was freedom — given from both sides. And one year on, I still believe that everyone should have the right to do what they want, provided no harm comes to others or themselves. Clergy should have the right to refuse to marry any couple, whether their gay, non-religious, satanic, or whatever. Cake makers should have the right to refuse, too. Same with photographers, florists and caterers. Provided they do it in respect and perhaps offer the couple alternatives. The moment a refusal of service becomes a verbal lashing is when all respect goes out the window.
I’m not here to convert people into fully accepting same-sex couples marrying, I’m here to create unity in a country that has scratched, prodded and played with an issue that transcends demographics and political persuasions. We must remind ourselves that everyone has convictions. We must celebrate that diversity and learnt to compromise.
So, to the four million, eight hundred and seventy-three thousand, nine hundred and eighty-seven of you who voted no, I respect your choice. I will not force you to attend my gay wedding if you can promise me that you’ll respect my democratic right to marry. I grant you the right to refuse to be part of a gay wedding, provided you do it respectfully.
As for the seven million, eight hundred and seventeen thousand, two hundred and forty-seven of you who voted yes, don’t forget to hug a “no” voter. Whether they’re your mum or dad, sister or brother, aunt or uncle, or even your next-door neighbour.
Because unity starts with respect.