'That pain will not go away'

Same-sex survey leaves an enduring pain for LGBTI people


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Dennis Halloran says he's simply angry other people get to vote about his personal life.

Dennis Halloran has been fighting for the rights of gay people for decades. He was one of four gay flight attendants who took Qantas to court for discrimination more than 30 years ago and has lived through the horror of the AIDS epidemic, losing countless friends.

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Over his lifetime, he's seen laws changed to decriminalise homosexuality and increasingly grant more rights to same-sex couples.

Mr Halloran describes his attitude in the past as hopeful and optimistic. But having endured nearly eight weeks of the same-sex marriage postal survey, he says he's simply angry other people get to vote about his personal life.

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"It's insulting," says the resident of Malcolm Turnbull's inner-Sydney electorate of Wentworth. "I believe equality is a human right."

Whether you agree with the survey or not, time is quickly running out to vote. As of 6pm on Tuesday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will no longer accept ballots. Then on November 15, chief statistician David Kalisch will announce the results of the survey that asks Australian voters one question: "Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?"

The most recent update from the ABS showed 77 per cent of eligible Australians had returned their forms: a return rate that is already significantly greater than recent voluntary votes on same-sex marriage in Ireland (61 per cent), Brexit in the United Kingdom (72 per cent) and the US presidential election that pitted Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton (56 per cent).

The government has hailed the turnout as a ringing endorsement for its controversial decision to hold the postal vote, saying it points to people's desire to have their say. Privately, the Coalition is also heaving a sigh of relief that the count is easily above 50 per cent (and therefore not open to arguments the result was illegitimate).

Dennis Halloran at his home in Paddington. Dennis has had a long history of fighting for gay rights in Australia and is angered over the public vote about basic equality. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Dennis Halloran at his home in Paddington. Dennis has had a long history of fighting for gay rights in Australia and is angered over the public vote about basic equality. Photo: Kate Geraghty

"Yes" campaign spokesman Alex Greenwich says the 77 per cent-plus result reflects 10 years of campaigning before the survey and an effective (current) push to get people to vote. "No" spokesman Lyle Shelton says it shows people recognise the "importance of a change" and that it "would have consequences for them".

But Australian National University political scientist and survey researcher, Dr Jill Sheppard, explains the turnout says more about Australian's obedience than their interest in the subject matter.

"I think what we're seeing is that Australians are conditioned to vote," she says, pointing to our long history of compulsory voting. "When we get something that seems official, our instinct is to respond to it."

Before the survey began, critics warned votes would be lost or stolen. But Dr Sheppard says the survey, which has involved mailing ballot forms to more than 16 million people, has actually gone smoothly, noting that some glitches in any postal survey are to be expected. While there have been a couple of incidents of dumped ballots, Australia Post recently told a Senate committee this happened after delivery and replacement forms were issued.

Logistical concerns aside, marriage equality campaigners have remained vehemently against the idea of a nationwide survey, arguing it exposes the LGBTI community to a hurtful and damaging debate.

Both sides, however, have since reported abuse and unpleasantness. Tony Abbott was headbutted by a man wearing a "yes" sticker (though the man later said the headbutt had nothing to do with marriage equality), while Kevin Rudd's godson was punched while trying to stop a man ripping down rainbow banners.

"No" spokesperson Karina Okotel told the National Press Club "no" voters have been called "brain dead", "homophobes" and bigots". And a doctor who featured in a "no" TV advertisement was the subject of a petition (since abandoned) to have her barred from practising medicine.

"It's insulting," says Dennis Halloran of the postal survey.  Photo: Kate Geraghty

"It's insulting," says Dennis Halloran of the postal survey. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The "yes" campaign has weathered leaflets that labelled homosexuality "a curse of death" and arguments that children of same-sex parents are worse off.

The consensus at the top of the political food chain, however, is there have only been a "few ugly incidents". The Prime Minister told Channel 10's The Project Australians are decent and mature "and they are demonstrating that and confirming that by having a sensible discussion about same-sex marriage".

But experts caution the campaign may have been more harmful to LGBTI Australians and their families than it may appear. Back in September, mental health groups sounded the alarm about a dramatic spike in demand, which they attributed to the postal survey. More recently, youth service ReachOut has experienced an almost 30 per cent spike in demand.

While this coincides with exam season, chief executive Jonno Nicholas says it is also due to distress caused by the survey. ReachOut is preparing for the increased demand to continue for months after the vote is concluded, even if there is a "yes" result.

"It's not really about the nature of the [public] conversation. It's the sense that 'my life is continually up for judgment'," Mr Nicholas explains.

He adds he has also heard stories of LGBTI people who have been left dealing with the fact that family members, such as parents and grandparents, have voted no. "That pain will not go away."

Away from the mental stress, there have also been the more practical considerations for gay people during the campaign. Mr Halloran, who lives on a busy street in inner-city Paddington, says he wanted to put a "yes" sticker on his front window, but his partner of 22 years convinced him not to, arguing "I can just see a brick coming through there".

With just over a week until the official result is known, the "yes" vote is widely predicted to win (acting Prime Minister Julie Bishop said she assumed the "yes" case would get up this week). This follows years of polls that put support at about 60 per cent, as well as several polls taken during the campaign. In October, a Roy Morgan poll of more than 1500 people found 62 per cent would vote yes.

Greens senator and long-time marriage equality campaigner Sarah Hanson-Young says she feels "very confident" the yes camp will win. The "no" camp also appears to be positioning for a loss. "Irrespective of the result ... we know that we will need to keep fighting for the rights and freedoms of ordinary Australians," Mr Shelton says.

Tellingly, conservative MPs who oppose same-sex marriage are gearing up for a legislative fight, flagging up to 100 amendments to the same-sex marriage bill currently on the table. The government is officially sticking to its plan of parliamentary a vote before the Christmas break, but there could be delays and plenty more debate along the way.

And is a "yes" vote as certain as it seems, anyway? We have learned from the recent Brexit and US election results not to discount the unexpected. A Griffith University study this week predicted a narrow "no" win, based on an analysis of more than 450,000 tweets posted about same-sex marriage in October. This method also predicted Trump's shock win last year.

Indeed, despite the growing confidence in the "yes" camp, Mr Halloran is not organising any celebrations just yet.

"I'll wait for the day."

Anyone needing support can call Lifeline on 13 11 14

The story 'That pain will not go away' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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