‘Yes’ victory has changed the game

What better way to celebrate the first anniversary of the victorious “yes” vote for marriage equality than by watching the Liberal Party and the Christian right’s handling of the Religious Freedom Review. 

From Howard to Morrison, the right have positioned themselves as valiant fighters for the “silent majority” against the tyranny of “political correctness”. 

The triumph of the “yes” campaign exposed this grandiose world view as a lie. It revealed that bigotry and state-sanctioned homophobia are rejected by the majority. 

And it exposed an unsettling reality for the religious right: the place where they command the most influence is not in the households of the average battler or even in traditional Liberal-voting electorates, but in the cloistered world of parliament and high church offices. Outside of the LNP’s hard core, it showed that a shrinking minority subscribe to the right’s archaic world view. 

The Religious Freedom Review, headed by Liberal Party elder statesman Philip Ruddock, was established with the passing of the marriage equality last year in order to placate the “no” forces and legitimise their imaginary fears. The plan was to detract from the jubilant “yes” victory by drawing attention to those real underdogs: poor religious institutions denied their basic freedoms by the blasphemous forces inevitably unleashed by the loosening of the definition of marriage. 

This backfired with as much spectacle as their plebiscite own-goal.  

Rather than generate sympathy for bigoted zealots, leaked recommendations from the review have instead shed light on – and generated outrage about – the discrimination already operating in religious schools. A YouGov Galaxy poll taken in May found 82 percent of respondents opposed to discrimination law exemptions that allow religious schools to expel and fire LGBTI students and teachers, amongst other things. 

The leaked recommendations, which suggest these exemptions be generalised and tightened, only drew attention to and sparked outrage about this state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia. 

The levels of anger in response should be credited in large part to the “yes” victory. There’s no doubt that the sense of triumph felt by the tens of thousands who marched for equality, the hundreds of thousands who registered to vote for it and the millions who spent the time looking for a post box to send a message to the government, has left a legacy when it come to attitudes towards LGBTI equality.

The recommendations were leaked on a Tuesday. By the following Thursday, prime minister Scott Morrison, after a few days of trying unsuccessfully to make out they were no big deal, caved to public pressure, assuring the public that LGBTI students would not be discriminated against.

That socially conservative forces are operating in an altered political climate is evidently taking some getting used to. 

On 31 October, 34 principals of Anglican private schools in NSW signed an open letter to education minister Dan Tehan demanding provisions in the legislation to protect their schools’ “ethos”. The plan here was to include the phrase “religious freedom” and substitute “homophobia” for “ethos” a bunch of times and in so doing persuade the Liberals to reconsider. 

Another scramble to regain balance, another tremendously stupid own-goal.  

Within 24 hours, an open letter addressed to these 34 schools was signed by thousands of current and past pupils and employees. It stated, “If LGBT staff are to be discriminated against due to their sexuality, they will have to live in fear that they will lose their job if they are to be themselves. Living like this is not humane nor in any way acceptable. School is meant to be a place of development, open expression and trust. Without this ability to be open, we think that staff will not be able to work to their highest potential”. 

Protests were organised by students and alumni of Abbotsleigh and Barker Colleges in Sydney, and at the Illawarra Grammar School in Wollongong by students and the University of Wollongong student union. All three schools came under media scrutiny as a result, and all three wrote apologetic letters informing their community that the school had now reversed its position. They also called for the relevant exemptions to be dropped. 

“This is the most humiliating moment of my career”, the headmaster of Shore, Dr Tim Wright, told Guardian Australia. “I love the school. I love the boys. I feel I have let them down. I am sorry”. The archbishop of Sydney followed suit. 

The Liberals and the religious right are sore losers. They’re used to getting their way while the rest of us remain disgruntled but passive. Last year provided a rare opportunity to mobilise progressive popular opinion and impose change on an out-of-touch political establishment. 

The decisive “yes” vote has had a lasting impact because it mobilised millions into a fight against a well-organised and powerful opposition – and won convincingly. The resulting confidence felt by school kids organising protests that make even the archbishop run for cover is good reason to celebrate one year on. 

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Kim is the LGBTI officer at the National Union of Students.