Caroline Layt speaks with sporting identities Ian Roberts and Kirsti Miller about how the same-sex marriage survey may change their lives.
Both Kirsti Miller and Ian Roberts laugh – though there’s a bitter edge to their mirth – when the right, including leading politicians, suggest the queer community does not suffer discrimination in Australia.
Miller, a transgender woman who as a male represented Australia at the 1983 world championships in modern pentathlon, says hate speech is alive and thriving, though it has become less direct because of the safeguards afforded by the contentious section 18c of Australia’s anti-vilification laws.
She told Hatch those laws have simply forced those espousing prejudicial and bigoted views to become smarter about how they express their views to avoid prosecution for vilification.
Both Miller and former NRL gay footballer Ian Roberts believe Australia’s same-sex marriage survey has given rise to a flood of anti LGBTIQ sentiment across the country. They point to the anonymous leaflets, posters and graffiti advocating for rejection of gay people and same sex marriage have become commonplace.
Much of the bitter attack on SSM and its advocates has focused on Christian ethics and the highly arguable premise that children are best served by being raised by conventional heterosexual parents in a loving married home.
Figures released by ABS show there were 48,517 divorces granted in Australia during 2015, an increase of 2019 (4.3 per cent) from the previous year. The 2012 census statistics indicated 961,000 families and 15 per cent of children were raised in broken/single-parent families. Family violence is at an all-time high.
The “NO” campaign has studiously ignored the truth that marriage as the churches and the law envision it is no guarantee of domestic bliss. It likewise ignores the fact that many children are raised successfully by caring, loving same-sex couples as shown recently in a heartwarming ABC Australian Story about fostering.
Miller’s position is more complex, but her family is no less loving. She has three daughters from her marriage, as a male, to her female childhood sweetheart. She married young and remains close to her children and six grandchildren.
Roberts also has strong family ties. “I have three nieces and nephews and they are never going to have issues with uncles Ian and [my partner] Daniel,” he told Hatch. “When acceptance is treated as normal there is no issue. Kids are fine [with it].”
He is convinced, from personal observation, that discriminatory behaviour is largely taught by bigoted elders.
Despite the obvious negative and often hurtful commentary being spread in opposition to SSM by conservative commentators and politicians have claimed repeatedly that discrimination against LGBTIQ people no longer occurs.
They should try telling that to Miller, a Wagga Wagga Hall of Fame sportsperson who was vilified just four years ago in her hometown of Broken Hill during a game of Aussie Rules football.
Miller, who transitioned in 2002 and had gender reassignment surgery in 2006. She identifies as female.
While playing for the South Broken Hill Roos women’s team she overheard spectators, officials and players from the opposition team – North Broken Hill – say “Don’t touch that thing; you’ll get aids,” as well as “Don’t touch number 30; it’s diseased” and “Show us your cock, number 30” she told Hatch. The incident was reported in Sydney papers at the time. [For the record, Miller is HIV negative.]
That was the last time she played in four years because her club, rather than support her, deregistered her.
To add insult to injury, her own club offered no support after the incident, warning her to keep quiet. Both she and her partner, a cisgender* woman, were made unwelcome after that event. Not one of the four rules clubs in Broken Hill would register them again. It would be four years before they found a club that would give them a game.
Her partner Nikki Phillips blames the experience on nothing more than the fear, lack of education and understanding that, she believes, drives the “concerns” of most people with transphobic views.
The question of her and Miller playing had simply become “too difficult” for the management of Broken Hills’ footy clubs to deal with so they washed their hands of the matter, leaving the couple to sit on the sidelines for four years.
Rather than rock the boat further the couple decided they would have to change how Broken Hill thought: “I didn’t fight back with hate, I fought back with love, to educate people.”
Miller, having started life as a male, and having legally transitioned to being a female, can now legally marry a male – but not her partner.
They used their roles as taxi drivers in the city of 17,000 to familiarise people with themselves and their status as decent, law-abiding and tax-paying citizens who threatened no-one. After four years in limbo they finally were accepted by a club and have begun playing footy again.
It’s a vital step for them personally, but just one small step in their battle for equality in law. They remain unable to married as a same sex couple, though they are hoping the national survey closing next week will pave the way to a definitive change.
For the moment Miller’s status in law demonstrates that, as far as Australia’s marriage laws go, the law at this moment is an ass. Miller, having started life as a male, and having legally transitioned to being a female, can now legally marry a male – “But I am unable to legally marry Nikki, my same-sex partner of four years.”
Roberts told Hatch he struggled to stomach the outpouring of bile from the extreme Christian right wing during the survey campaign. He was astonished that the “NO” campaigners could keep straight faces or avoid blushing while protesting that discrimination against LGBTIQ people has largely disappeared from Australian society.
He points to the suicide of 13-year-old Tyrone Unsworth last November. The boy was bullied and physically assaulted by a fellow student at school for being an effeminate gay kid.
It tore him up, Roberts said.
“I’m sick of hearing these stories; it’s so sad. As a gay man, all your senses become heightened when you hear stories such as Tyrone’s through the media.
“Being gay is healthy when you’re happy with it, it’s wonderful. It’s the negatives [from society] which create problems for gay kids.”
It should be a no-brainer, he says, that when family and friends are supportive about an individual’s sexuality or sexual identity, with no negative connotations aired, kids – and even adults – will be more comfortable with themselves.
“I was always comfortable with my sexuality,” he said, but wishes he – and others – could have been more open about their sexuality at school. “Since I’ve left school, two of my mates have become screaming queens. I would have never come home if I knew they were,” he joked.
As a former professional sportsman, Roberts expressed delight at the lead taken by major sporting codes this year in supporting the “YES” campaign and paving the way for wider recognition of LGBTIQ identity and rights.
Early this year the AFL teams the Sydney Swans and St Kilda highlighted Gay Pride in a match held during Mardi Gras season. Since then, the AFL has formally supported the “YES” campaign for same-sex marriage.
The National Rugby League administration followed suit, publicly endorsing the “YES” campaign and engaging US rapper Macklemore to sing his gay anthem Same Love at the league grand final.
“All of the professional sports codes should follow their lead; it’s literally saving lives,” Roberts told Hatch.
For the moment, we have to watch and wait for the ABS’s announcement when it has tallied the survey results. The bureau received 400,000 survey forms last week taking the total response to 12.3 million at the weekend. More than three quarters of Australia’s eligible voters have had their say. (If you haven’t submitted your form yet, get cracking. You have until 6pm of November 7 to get it in.)
The latest commercial opinion surveys suggest the “YES” vote will win by a substantial margin, 60 per cent to 40 per cent. That’s lower than the 72 per cent support found by reliable polling last year, which may reflect an (anecdotally) lower participation rate by young and disillusioned voters and a high participation rate from older Australians – traditionally the most politically conservative group with the strongest affiliation to conservative religious denominations.
Even so, the vote will be decisive and should force the Coalition to introduce a conscience vote in Parliament before the final sitting of the year, in December, to decide the matter.
When the dust settles and the record is written of who helped bring about this much-needed change in Australia’s law, it should be noted that the AFL and the NRL stood up to be counted, telling LGBTIQ youth they are loved. In doing so they may very well have helped save lives too.
* Cisgender is the formal term used for people whose sexuality and gender identities match the gender they were assigned at birth. It is the opposite of the term transgender. A cisgender person can be gay or straight.