Evan Gallagher, Canberra Regional Meeting
On 15 November 2017, we had a historic moment that should never have occurred; a majority of Australians supported marriage equality in a national postal survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
As a gay man, who has waited with my husband David since 2007 to have our Quaker marriage recognised, I didn’t feel like celebrating. I felt relief that the survey was over. It had been an unpleasant experience, as the value of one of the most intimate aspects of our lives, our relationship, had been unnecessarily subjected to public debate and some pretty horrible rhetoric. I also felt a bit of disappointment that the survey only returned a 62% Yes vote. I wondered what hurdle the “No” campaign would throw in our path next. For the postal survey itself had been nothing more than a hurdle—constitutionally unnecessary, and a violation of human rights and basic morality as the equality of a minority was subjected to a majority poll.
When the legislation passed through Parliament on 7 December, again, I felt relief. The majority poll had not been enough to stave off last minute efforts to water down the legislation to the point that it would have made LGBTIQ people less equal than before, but such efforts had failed. A lot of horrible things had, however, been said along the way in Parliament, together with many affirming things. But we had got there.
On one point I must, with regret, speak plainly. Most of the judgmental, unloving and prejudiced commentary on the personal lives of LGBTIQ people came from Christian churches and those lobbyists and parliamentarians calling themselves Christian. Of course, ordinary Christians and even individual Christian churches also spoke in support of marriage equality, but theirs was not the dominant voice in the media. It is little wonder, therefore, that many LGBTIQ people have a strained relationship with religion. The preachers of love mostly practise fear and exclusion in our case. They will forgive many sins, but not the love of LGBTIQ couples.
As a Friend, I was lucky. My religious community spoke with a clear voice of support for LGBTIQ people, and had done so for decades. This meant a lot. It was one of the reasons I was a Friend. And it meant that I was confident of a positive response when, back in August 2017, I approached Canberra Regional Meeting about the importance of Quakers speaking up during the postal survey and parliamentary debates. We needed to provide a counter-narrative of love. We needed to show that ‘religious freedom’ was not about the right to exclude people from our communities, but the right to include them.
The response was immediately supportive. I am grateful to Kay de Vogel as Clerk of Canberra RM for raising the issue to Jo Jordan as Australia YM Presiding Clerk. There was support for a group to work on the issue, but for right ordering it would need to be a subcommittee of the Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee (QPLC).
The Marriage Equality Subcommittee was established quickly with QPLC’s assistance. We needed to move fast. As each day passed in August and early September the unfortunate prospect of a postal survey firmed up. By this stage, legal challenges were before the High Court, brought by some of the equality campaign to prevent the survey going ahead, but we needed to be ready if they were unsuccessful.
The Subcommittee comprised Vidyá, Peter Williams, Dorothy Broom, Peta Cox and me. We had terms of reference approved by QPLC. We were to speak in support of marriage equality, but also be sensitive to a diversity of views among some Friends.
Our first steps were to prepare an Open Letter from the AYM Presiding Clerk to the Prime Minister reaffirming, clearly, Australian Quakers’ support for marriage equality. The Subcommittee also circulated an internal message for Meetings alerting them to the challenging times ahead and pastoral care needs of LGBTIQ Friends and those who may feel isolated due to their different views on the issue.
The Open Letter almost drafted itself. After decades of discussion and consideration by AYM and Regional Meetings, a discussion I joined in 2005, the principles of equality and love resounded clearly through everything Friends had said. The Open Letter sought simply to distil the outcomes of this discernment.
The Open Letter was widely circulated on social media, particularly Facebook. I was struck by two things as I followed the comments being made. Firstly, many in the broader community were surprised by Quakers’ position, and overwhelmingly positive about it. While not the purpose, it raised awareness of Quakers among many people who may never have heard of us. Many thanked us for supporting the rights of LGBTIQ people, and one drag performer even expressed solidarity with our position of recognising the “divine” in all people! Quakers’ support for marriage equality was even cited in a myth busting post relating to arguments of the “No” campaign—refuting the argument that religion necessarily opposed marriage equality—which was reposted widely on Facebook.
Secondly, many Friends also expressed appreciation that we, as a Yearly Meeting, had spoken up on the issue. This meant that individual Friends could engage with the issue as Friends.
Social media proved to be our most successful means of communication. We shared a series of personal stories of f/Friends whose lives were affected by the issue of marriage equality, whether as LGBTIQ couples, heterosexual couples who had deferred legal recognition of their own relationships, or as registering officers. This attracted a lot of interest and reinforced the message that the issue was about real people, not simply an abstract argument about definitions. I am grateful to all f/Friends who shared their stories.
We were less successful in engaging with the traditional media. A letter to Crikey was published early on, but a number of things held us back from publication in the major newspapers. The papers were being deluged with letters on the issue. Publication required being immediately responsive to the 24 hour media cycle as well as reaching out to multiple publications. Quaker process is not designed for this, and it was extremely challenging without a full-time media officer, who had the skills, time and established relationships to coordinate with newspaper editors. All of us had other calls on our time, such as work.
We sought to get around these challenges by sending Op Eds through the Equality Campaign media team, which was very helpful. But this meant a lot of negotiation about language and tone. Removing ‘Quaker speak’ was understandable (despite best efforts, we have a quaint turn of phrase sometimes), but ensuring such changes did not lose the integrity of the Quaker message took almost as much time as engaging with newspaper editors would have. Ultimately, while our draft Op Eds attracted interest, we were not successful in being published.
As part of the campaign, the Subcommittee also worked to formalise Australia Yearly Meeting’s endorsement of the Equality Campaign, as well as the newly established Australian Christians for Marriage Equality. The latter organisation brought together a significant number of churches that supported marriage equality, but I understand that only Quakers and the LGBTIQ-focused Metropolitan Community Church supported marriage equality as ‘denominations’.
My personal impression was that Australian Christians for Marriage Equality welcomed Quakers’ support, but seemed a little uncertain about how to engage with us or include us. Their campaigning focused on getting people in clerical garb photographed supporting the cause and refuting biblical arguments against same-sex attraction. Without priests, gothic church buildings or a biblical focus, Quakers did not look or sound the part. But Australian Christians for Marriage Equality did commendable work in countering the argument that traditional Christianity necessarily opposed equality for LGBTIQ people, and included Quakers in a number of ecumenical events.
After the postal survey, when the matter came before Parliament, it moved quickly. Too quickly for Quakers to establish relationships with MPs and get time to speak with them. Our discussions with Britain Yearly Meeting during the postal survey highlighted how effective Quakers had been in influencing the UK parliamentary debate on marriage equality in the years leading up to 2014. But the pace of parliamentary debate had been more measured in that case, and Britain Yearly Meeting had a parliamentary liaison officer who was a familiar face in Westminster and had the requisite understanding of parliamentary processes.
Ultimately the result in Australia was as good as could reasonably be hoped. Marriage equality became law on 9 December 2017, with only some minor compromises allowing ‘bodies established for religious purposes’ to discriminate against LGBTIQ couples. These provisions were far preferable to what had been proposed by the “No” campaign, which would have seen LGBTIQ people relegated from second to third-class citizens, just as their right to marry was recognised. For this, I am grateful that the majority of MPs and Senators stood up for what was right.
And Quakers can say that we, too, stood up and were counted when it mattered. Sadly, I believe we were almost alone among the ‘recognised denominations’ under the Marriage Act to do so, though many congregations of other churches stood with us and LGBTIQ people. Let us hope that more and more religious communities follow both Quakers’, and their own congregations’, examples in years to come.
But the issue is not entirely over. We currently await the findings of the Philip Ruddock Review of Religious Freedom, established during parliamentary consideration of the marriage equality amendments last year and due to report at the end of March. This could very well recommend expanding the scope for churches and religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTIQ people and others by providing expanded exemptions from anti-discrimination protections. QPLC has put in a submission highlighting that the introduction of marriage equality expanded religious freedom in Australia, by allowing Quakers and others to celebrate LGBTIQ marriages under the Marriage Act where we had previously been prevented. Let us hope that love continues to carry the day.