Sunday 18 August 2019

Actions 'defo' speak louder than words

Missing out on the Yes vote on same-sex marriage induces a bout of homesickness for Sophie Donaldson

A FAIR GO: Celebrations on Sydney’s Oxford Street after results from Australia’s marriage equality postal vote came through. Photo: Steven Saphore/Reuters
A FAIR GO: Celebrations on Sydney’s Oxford Street after results from Australia’s marriage equality postal vote came through. Photo: Steven Saphore/Reuters
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

The suburb I grew up in is within a sprawling residential district called Belconnen, located to the north of Canberra's city centre. Until last Wednesday, the most exciting thing to happen in Belconnen was the arrival of a Starbucks.

Last week the results of the postal vote on same-sex marriage in Australia were read out at the headquarters of the Australian Bureau of Statistics in Belconnen, as countless anxious people watched. The announcement that 62pc of respondents had voted in favour of change was met with scenes of utter jubilation.

For those who haven't been keeping up with the political to-and-fro surrounding the question of marriage equality Down Under, it is not standard practice for Belconnen to be the epicentre of such historic announcements.

While it is compulsory for Australians to vote in referendums, this was not a referendum. When a proposed plebiscite was blocked by the Senate in August, the government opted for a non-legally-binding postal vote conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics instead of the Electoral Commission.

This was despite the fact that, unlike the Irish referendum in 2015, it was entirely possible to make the necessary changes in Parliament by simply amending the Marriage Act. Polls showed that the majority of Australians were in favour of marriage equality.

Despite being a longtime advocate for marriage equality, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was unwilling to bring the matter to Parliament, a move that would have spared his LGBT+ citizens the demeaning, damaging process that entailed, and instead handed it over to the general public.

There are few things that will quell your homesickness faster than feeling you are being discriminated against by your own country. Suffice to say, like many other LGBT+ Australians, it's been a mixed bag of emotion I've been feeling for the place over the past few months.

Conversely, there are few things that will induce homesickness more than feeling you are missing out on a momentous occasion. When I woke up to reams of delighted text messages and a newsfeed of rainbow flags, happy but tear-glazed faces, proclamations of love and marriage proposals, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I am sure so many Irish people living in Australia at the time of the 2015 referendum felt exactly the same way.

Among all the things that distance gives you perhaps the most powerful is perspective. The result of growing up in one place is that you are ingrained with a certain understanding of your surroundings. It is only when you leave and view it from afar you get to see the bigger picture.

As children we were told that Australia was "the lucky country" - a land of opportunity, a relatively classless society that affords all citizens equal opportunity. It prides itself on being 'multicultural' - the subtext being that no matter how different you are to your neighbour, your race, religion or ethnicity would never be a barrier. Your orientation would never denote you as different.

Perhaps that's why it was such an unpleasant surprise that the No campaign was so, well, unpleasant.

Just as we make assumptions about our own identity, so too does the outside world have its preconceived ideas about us. Australians are often considered good-natured larrikins who, as Leo Varadkar put it, are willing to give everyone a fair go. We are rowdy beer drinkers imbued with a sunny disposition and so laidback we 'defo' can't be bothered to pronounce words properly.

Aussies might be considered a loud-mouthed bunch, but actually we are not big talkers. We are not necessarily the most eloquent of nations or the most adept at expressing our vulnerabilities, particularly our young male population.

The macho Aussie stereotype still pervades - perhaps a hangover from a British colonial past that would have been rife with stiff upper lips, and overly emotional displays are regarded with suspicion. Indeed, when Senator Penny Wong, the first openly gay female senator, was photographed weeping into her hands after the results were delivered, she quickly assured everyone she was "embarrassed".

After she had afforded herself a moment of uncensored sobbing, the following day Senator Wong was back on form and delivered a moving speech to the Senate in which she observed that the debate had brought out "the best of our country and also the worst".

That's the other thing about being away from home; you come to accept the good with the bad. As you realise some uncomfortable truths about the place you thought you knew so well, you also come to appreciate the things that make it unlike anywhere else.

You understand it is flawed but that there are still many things about it to be proud of. Australians mightn't be the best talkers but thankfully, this time our actions have spoken louder.

Sunday Independent

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