what I learned, as a trans Christian, from the postal survey on marriage equality
"So how do you cope with your enemies?', asked my spiritual director recently. I laughed, with a mixture of emotions. 'Well, I certainly realise I have plenty now', I replied! For you don't have to be paranoid to recognise when some people are out to get you. It is particularly sad however when they are part of your own faith tradition...
Some (especially certain desperate leading politicians) have tried to say that, with the postal survey on marriage equality, all's well that ends well. It isn't true. Yes, the survey result was a vindication of decades of amazing work and of the basic humanity of most Australians which refused to bow before a barrage of fear mongering, misinformation and misdirection. Above all, it is an immense and profound joy that full marriage equality has now passed into law (albeit with the one important exception of the continuing need, in most states, to end forced divorce for Australian married transgender people who seek to change their birth certificate to their correct gender marking). The postal survey itself was however a horrid thing. It was not necessary. It caused huge damage to LGBTI+ people and to other relationships. And some of its effects will be long lasting. The ends most certainly did not justify the means.
As a transgender Christian, three aspects of the postal survey were most striking to me. Firstly, there was the sheer intensity of the 'no' campaign and its powerful and deliberate targeting of transgender and gender diverse people. I had wondered why right-wing Australians were so desperate to put everyone through such an exacting experience. After failing with parliamentary attempts to have a proper plebiscite (something which had some electoral party 'mandate'), the even less satisfactory voluntary postal survey both circumnavigated parliamentary and well-established national opinion and stalled the process further. Yet there was more. Knowing that they had already lost the argument, the Australian Right clearly felt that it could at least establish a platform for its reactionary views, in particular using gender diversity as its principal whipping boy-girl. So little of the 'no' campaign therefore addressed the actual postal survey question. From the outset, political figures like Tony Abbott, and religious identities like Lyle Shelton, concentrated on massive misdirection and misinformation about their own misshapen ideas of 'gender theory', 'political correctness', and 'religious freedom'. Meanwhile, the $1 million which the Anglican diocese of Sydney gave to the 'no' campaign was a similar mark of an huge distortion of focus and priorities and a deliberate statement of where to rally in reaction. Boldly, brashly and sometimes barbarically, the message came over loud and clear: we are most certainly out to get you, and how! This, if we ever doubted, we now know well, would be but the first battle in a continuing war. We had been amply warned.
Secondly, for myself and many of my transgender friends, we often found ourselves caught in no man/woman/one's land. Yes, we were, almost to a person, firmly behind the 'yes' campaign and many of us fought hard within it. However we sometimes felt ourselves stranded, as a barrage of bombs flew from one side, but with little protection from the other. The 'yes' campaign did not throw transgender people under the proverbial bus, and just occasionally transgender dimensions would appear (as, for example, with welcome stories about Senator Janet Rice and her transgender wife Penny Whetton). Yet the 'yes' campaign offered little comeback to the propaganda lies and assaults on gender diverse people (not least children and young families.) 'Yes' instead ran a deliberately positive message, centred on happy gay and lesbian couples and supportive allies, which it stuck to impressively, despite the provocations of its opponents. This made good political sense, offering few hostages to fortune and to fear, in terms of the main goal of securing marriage equality. Such a narrowed focus nonetheless came at a cost. Some transgender people understandably simply hid, or waited in shock, as the bombs fell. Others mixed personal and social safety with proactive support for the 'yes' campaign. All of us hoped that this unnecessary diversion from other pressing agendas would at least end in survival and more. None of us however felt at ease.
Thirdly, and most devastatingly of all for transgender Christians, the postal survey revealed and greatly enlarged the profound hurt and antipathy so many LGBTI+ and other Australians now feel towards religion, not least the Christian churches. There is so much pain both out there, and, in churches and individual Christian lives, in here. Indeed, Christian churches in general did not have a good war during the postal survey. Earlier in the year, I had been saying to my own Anglican community, that Christian leaders were clearly painting themselves into a corner: more understandably in the case of the sectarian tendencies of the Australian Christian Lobby and its core constituency; less intelligibly in the case of some Catholic and other leaders. The postal survey was thus a kairos moment, a critical turning/questioning point, for the Christian community. In general, we did not respond well. It was not just because of the so vocal and vehement religious Right, which vigorously ramped up LGBTI+ and wider alienation and plunged many Christians back into confusion, suspicion and negativity. For, as Martin Luther King once said, it was also that 'in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.' All credit therefore to Australian Christians for Marriage Equality, and to those church leaders who did speak out in support of LGBTI+ people, or at least distinguished the postal survey as a civil matter and called for positive support and consideration in other ways. Overall however, the reputation of Christians for disregard of reason and experience, concern for privilege and power, and hard-heartedness or worse, has increased. This makes LGBTI+ Christian lives now even more difficult, as at times we find ourselves attached on one side for our sexuality and/or gender identity and on the other for being Christian.
For this trans Christian, was the postal survey only a disaster then? Certainly not, Again, at least three positive aspects come to mind, leaving aside the hugely important matter of the achievement of marriage equality, albeit with such damaging means . Firstly, there were significant advances in solidarity and 'community'. Several of us have been amazed for example by how many remarkable new friends and allies we have. As in any great movement for change, many of these will prove short-lived now the central goal has been won. Yet some also lay the basis for further positive developments if they can be properly harnessed. The experience of being put through the metaphorical furnace also can have a powerful chastening and empowering effect (for those who survived). Within Christian circles, for example, the practical working of members of Equal Voices may be a great benefit. Not long established before the postal survey, Equal Voices itself then took second. supportive, stage to Australian Christians for Marriage Equality. Yet its bonds, networks, resources and strategic clarity may now be much stronger.
Relationships, resources and resolves have certainly been increased here in Queensland, both through Equal Voices networking and other developments which have emerged from the postal survey struggle. For, secondly, despite the overall patchy Christian contributions, a second positive feature was the increased levels of commitment and ability to stand up and speak up in some places. If the 'yes' postal survey and wider marriage equality campaigns have shown anything, it is that visibility truly counts. It is often painful and prone with risks for many. Yet until LGBTI+ Christians and their allies are able to be more effectively visible, we will continue to struggle. It also runs across the grain of some of us to disturb supposed 'unity' and to become seen as 'problems'. What kind of genuine unity can there be however without our truths being spoken and received? Surely we are not 'problems' unless others make us so, because of their own genuine problems of listening and receiving? What genuinely open future is there for the mission of the Church unless our gifts are offered and honoured?
For thirdly, and most importantly, we return at last to hope and joy. These, among other virtues, were so prominent in so much of the 'yes' campaign. That is why fear could not conquer. I vividly recall the colour, enthusiasm, dynamism and sheer vitality of one particular event in Queens Gardens in Brisbane. Surely, I reflected these are clear marks of the Spirit who leads us into deeper freedom and joy. In contrast to the huge and wonderfully diverse mass of happy 'yes' people, a tiny group were also present. They were dressed drably and formally. They looked angry and depressed. They carried a couple of massive ugly looking black and white placards, with way too many words on them, from obscure biblical texts. Towards the end of the rally, they began to bark more rabidly at the dispersing crowds, seemingly spoiling for a fight. Some police officers began to circle with their own concern. Yet the response was beautiful. Instead of negativity came creativity. One voice broke out in delightful song and others followed in gorgeous harmony. The sad and surly ones gave up the impossible struggle and simply slunk away. The police officers smiled and almost danced with the crowds which remained. It was a lovely symbol of transformation, and of how to treat one's enemies. The churches have so far to go, and may even have gone quite a way backwards in the eyes and experiences of many. Like the journey to civil marriage equality, our own journeys will be very bumpy. Yet the Spirit still sings, and invites us to the dance.
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The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: