19 July, 2016
As the dust settles on a long election campaign and vote count the composition of the 45th Parliament of Australia is now relatively clear. Now governing with the slimmest of margins, Malcolm Turnbull will continue as Prime Minister. The Senate, its exact composition still to be determined, will have the largest cross-bench in recent history, with a range of parties spanning the political spectrum. In this context, it is clear that every of piece legislation, and every budget measure, will be subject to considerable negotiation. This includes a number of health issues that we at cohealth will have an interest in, but today I want to focus on just one – the proposed marriage equality plebiscite.
As a human rights based organisation we strongly believe the issue of marriage equality should be dealt with by the Parliament, by our elected representatives exercising a free vote, as with all matters that relate to deeply held philosophical and ethical issues. After all, marriage is first and foremost a legal right afforded to citizens. More than 60% of Australians who choose to marry do so in a civil ceremony, underscoring that in a pluralist democracy marriage equality is an issue of legal right not religious belief – a distinction that needs to be remembered. A plebiscite will effectively require those seeking the right to marry, to again campaign (beg) for their rights. To suggest that there needs be a significantly higher bar for law reform on this issue is to perpetuate a long history of discrimination and prejudice – and this is why advocates oppose the proposal on principle.
The other reason we at cohealth strongly oppose a plebiscite, and would encourage others to do likewise, is because the research is unequivocal. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people already experience some of the poorest mental health in Australia, with high rates of serious mental illness, significant distress and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Young LGBTI folks, and transgender people are particularly at risk. This poorer mental health is as a result of what’s been described as ‘minority stress’ – the experience of living day to day in a hostile and stressful social environment marked by stigma, prejudice, and discrimination.
Those advocating for a plebiscite say that it is important that all views be heard and argue that it will be possible to have a ‘respectful debate.’ However there has been nothing respectful in the debates had about LGBTI people’s lives and rights to date. As recently as last week one of our new Senators managed to somehow connect marriage equality with paedophilia – providing a disturbing insight into what is to come.
Every one of these debates results in LGBTI people facing renewed hostility, more stigma and prejudice, and young people in particular suffer. It is a dreadful truth that support services report significant increases in demand for psychosocial support from LGBTI people every time the validity of our lives are debated in this way. There is also strong evidence of the link between hate speech and acts of assault and violence.
Should a plebiscite go ahead, the risk of real harm to LGBTI people’s health is significant. Many lives will be adversely impacted in countless ways. As a mother who has witnessed firsthand the impact on children from LGBTI parented families, I am particularly conscious of the collateral damage that occurs when these debates are given airtime and spill into the schoolground.
The impact on the day to day experience of LGBTI people as the plebiscite debate ensues will be significant- in public spaces, workplaces, tearooms, radio stations and on social media. Young isolated people will be profoundly impacted, as will those who struggle with their own identity, and those whose identity is not known to others. Even those of us visible in public will not be immune to all manner of random, misinformed, harsh and discriminatory prejudice.
For this reason should a plebiscite go ahead, it will be essential that – in addition to the estimated $160m to be spent on running the vote itself, and the money that will be poured into the respective campaigns – significant resources are directed to ensuring that there is sufficient capacity within both mainstream and LGBTI specific organisations to support the increased numbers of people who will inevitably feel under siege. Organisations such as ours will also need to actively develop and send positive messages that will counteract the negative – directly supporting individuals in distress and building community awareness. Allies will need to be informed, visible and stand up for what is right.
Far better, however, would be for the plebiscite not to go ahead at all.
Whereas a plebiscite carries with it real danger to the lives and wellbeing of LGBTI people, we know that social inclusion and acceptance produces improved health outcomes. With this in mind, and for these reasons we urge the Prime Minister not to proceed with his plan for a marriage equality plebiscite. Should legislation for a plebiscite be brought to the Federal Parliament, we urge all members of Parliament and Senators not to support its passage. The health of LGBTI people, of their families and loved ones, depends on it.