By Rodney Croome
When I left Australian Marriage Equality (AME) in August 2016 I said it was to more vigorously oppose a plebiscite.
That was true but it wasn’t the whole truth.
I also left because the Equality Campaign that grew up around AME was shrinking marriage equality to a tiny political target by avoiding all the myths and misconceptions being thrown at the issue.
My every instinct as an advocate bucked against that small-target strategy.
I’ve always held to the principle that anti-LGBTI prejudice ought be tackled at every opportunity, but increasingly the campaign I was with was letting prejudice through to the keeper.
At the time I didn’t raise this problem publicly because I figured a perceived division over strategy was worse for marriage equality than the damage coming from that strategy.
But the national LGBTI conference, Better Together, held in Melbourne a few weeks ago, opened my eyes to why this was a mistake and why I should speak out now.
I met transgender people, LGBTI school students and LGBTI private school teachers who felt attacked by the No campaign and undefended by the Yes campaign.
They were bewildered that lies about their lives went unchallenged.
They felt the Equality Campaign had a responsibility to challenge prejudices stirred up by the marriage equality debate, and that it failed in this responsibility.
They felt betrayed because their contribution to the marriage equality campaign was not matched by that campaign’s defence of their rights.
The National LGBTI Community Impact Project released at the Conference confirmed many LGBTI people share these concerns, with some feeling they were thrown under the marriage equality bus.
“Fairness and equality”
The media and campaign managers who were brought into the Equality Campaign during 2016 and 17 to win a public vote, and who were responsible for the small-target strategy, saw things very differently.
Their fundamental concern was that anything but the simplest, blandest message about marriage equality could disengage or push away the soft Yes supporters needed to win a public vote.
They were uncomfortable engaging with the full breadth of issues marriage equality raised, for example stereotypes about same-sex relationships, or the evolution and meaning of marriage.
They particularly opposed engaging in any way, no matter how positively or constructively, with the issues raised by the No campaign like gender, schools and religious freedom, arguing this just legitimised the No case.
Like those major-party sloganeers who insist candidates only talk about “working families” or “jobs and growth”, the 2016 crop of marriage equality managers did all they could to ensure the only words on the lips of advocates were “fairness and equality”.
As the main spokesperson for Australian Marriage Equality I was summarily told not to speak about Safe Schools, even though I had helped develop a version in Tasmania that had strong bi-partisan support and was relatively immune to attack.
I was told not to speak about the Tasmanian Government’s attempts to water down the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act in the name of religious freedom, even though the ultimately-successful campaign run against weakening the Act was a model for how to deal effectively with the religious freedom narrative.
I was also told not to address transgender equality, even though my experience had shown me that one of the most compelling arguments for marriage equality were the life stories of transgender people.
Naturally, there was resistance to this small-target approach from me and others.
To get doubters on board some of the new managers tapped into fears about Trumpism, arguing that the growing power of the chauvinist right meant a public vote might be the only chance we had to achieve marriage equality and that nothing should be allowed to jeopardise their strategy to win that vote.
A balanced advocacy strategy
In the end I rejected all this caution and fearfulness as unnecessary and potentially dangerous. I continue to reject it today. Here’s why:
There was no empirical evidence that treating marriage equality as the big issue it obviously was would turn off soft supporters.
In particular, there was no evidence that addressing transgender equality, inclusive schools and discrimination in the name of religion – when done sensitively and honestly – turned Yes voters off.
In contrast, there was plenty of evidence that after more than a decade of campaigning, support for marriage equality and a desire to “get it done” ran very deep.
It was also clear that the No case would do its worst regardless of the Yes campaign’s response, and that our side’s choice was therefore to either ameliorate the damage or allow it.
Everyday marriage equality supporters understood this.
Repeatedly, I encountered supporters who asked to hear good, strong talking points addressing the No case’s misinformation, talking points they could incorporate in the conversations the Equality Campaign urged them to have.
I also encountered soft supporters to whom the Equality Campaign’s avoidance of the key issues made it look like that Campaign had something to hide.
A balanced advocacy strategy would have kept the focus on key campaign messages like equal treatment, while acknowledging marriage equality is a multi-faceted issue and turning the talking points of the other side into positives for the campaign.
At the very least, a balanced strategy would have identified and empowered other spokespeople to talk to these issues.
To be clear, I’m not talking about dividing and weakening campaign priorities or resources.
I’m talking about building a stronger campaign through being inclusive and sincere, and through modelling the values the success of the campaign was based on.
In my experience this kind of approach both wins existing campaigns and lays the strongest foundation for future wins.
For example, in Tasmania in the 1990s one of the main arguments against decriminalising homosexuality was that it would lead to “radical gay sex education in schools”.
The then State Government went so far as to ban any discussion of homosexuality in schools to underline the talking point that decriminalisation = gay sex in class rooms.
But instead of avoiding the schools issue, we turned it around to our advantage, much like a judo practitioner turns her opponent’s energy into her own.
We talked about the damage anti-LGBTI bullying does to entire school communities and the need for LGBTI students to reach their full potential free of prejudice, all the time bringing the schools discussion back to the need for decriminalisation.
Talking about schools allowed us to promote and reinforce our key campaign values.
It expanded rather than diminished the moral authority that was the chief source of our influence.
Not only did our approach not hinder the decriminalisation campaign, it laid the groundwork for Tasmania to take the lead on support for LGBTI students after decriminalisation.
What this history shows is that far from being the wrong time to address broader issues, the middle of a high profile and heated campaign is exactly the right time.
That is when the greatest number of people are paying attention.
If there are important things to be said about LGBTI issues in schools, or any other LGBTI issue, it makes no sense at all to wait until the public’s gaze has moved on before saying those things.
The sky didn’t fall in
The same could be said for the marriage equality campaign up until 2016.
Between 2004 and 2016 we built majority support within the community and within Parliament, not by avoiding concerns and doubts but by addressing them directly, honestly and in a way that built a solid foundation for campaigns on transgender rights and school inclusion.
By directly addressing the myths being thrown at marriage equality in those earlier years, such as the purported instability in same-sex relationships, we educated the public and forced opponents of marriage equality to devise new and even more tenuous talking points.
Even during the postal survey there were examples of local groups, including Tasmanians United for Marriage Equality, doing what the national campaign was too shy to try, producing written and video materials that addressed and turned around the No campaign’s talking points.
We were able to send the message that the same dire predictions made about marriage equality were also made about decriminalising gay sex; the sky didn’t fall in then and it wouldn’t now.
Again, the result was the opposite of what the Equality Campaign feared, with Tasmanian returning a result above the national average.
The threat of “religious freedom”
There’s even an argument to be made that the failure of the Equality Campaign to have more balance in its advocacy drove down the final result.
Before the postal survey was called, the ABC’s Vote Compass showed about 50% support for marriage equality in electorates across Western Sydney.
This dropped by as much as 30% in some of these electorates in subsequent weeks.
The only explanation for this was that soft Yes supporters were persuaded by the No campaign’s talking points.
If more effort was made to address these talking points the national postal survey result may have reflected the opinion polls by being several points higher.
More importantly, young LGBTI people in Western Sydney may not now feel like everyone around them hates them.
The same questions come up when we consider whether the passage of marriage equality fulfilled its promise of embedding the principle of LGBTI equality.
Small-targetteers will say their strategy won overwhelming support in Parliament, ensuring marriage equality won’t be repealed.
But the overseas experience shows marriage equality is never repealed, regardless of the size of the parliamentary majority that passes it.
As in the US, the real post-marriage threat to LGBTI equality in Australia comes from the “religious freedom” movement that seeks to punch holes in laws protecting LGBTI people from discrimination.
By failing to consistently tackle the myths and lies of the “religious freedom” movement when it had the chance, the Equality Campaign’s small-target strategy has allowed that movement to survive and grow to the point where it poses more of a threat to LGBTI equality than ever.
No more ducking and weaving
Some people will shrug and ask what does any of this matter when the Yes campaign won the postal survey, LGBTI marriage has been legislated, and there’s now more space to address transgender, school and religious freedom issues (even if fewer people are watching)?
My response it that we have to highlight the danger of a small-target strategy so it doesn’t happen again.
The last thing I want to see is the next generation of LGBTI leaders assuming the only way to win the reforms that matter to them is to avoid tackling prejudice, to leave thorny questions hanging, and to speak in slogans when circumstances call for greater authenticity.
I want them to know they can be upfront with the Australian people and can make change without ducking and weaving.
I want them to know that the hard-won wisdom of community campaigners is at least as important as the expertise of those from the professional or corporate sectors.
I want them to know that everyone in the LGBTI community can ride the equality bus free of the fear some of us may suddenly be thrown under it.
Rodney Croome is a longtime LGBTI equality campaigner and was the national director of Australian Marriage Equality until 2016.