I was in one of Sydney’s gayest suburbs, Newtown, when the words ‘vote no’ appeared in the sky above my girlfriend and I.
There was something quite confronting about being somewhere so open-minded yet having the ambience of hate hanging in the air as a backdrop to our morning coffee.
I haven’t been able to place the exact feeling it has brought about, but that weird mix of oppression and liberation has been present in my daily experience of life since I moved to Australia in February.
New York Times editor Damien Cave has been living in Aussie about the same time as me and summarised things well in his Australia Newsletter. He described Australia as being in a “battle between rigidity and flexibility.”
That kind of sums up this marriage equality debate – and life in Australia – to me. It’s been hard yakka these past few months and today I feel overwhelmed; happy but exhausted.
Somehow, my girlfriend and I arrived from New Zealand having forgotten the stress of living before marriage equality was a thing. Call it privilege, but that seemed like another world and another time.
Being in Australia has felt like being transported back to what seems like the political dark ages.
And not just with marriage equality – there’s been the citizenship saga and the deteriorating situation on Manus and Nauru, to name but a few other frustrating tensions.
I’m not a political commentator, nor well-versed in Australian rhetoric and I’m definitely still wrapping my head around the media and political systems here.
But I get the sense that this is a country hampered, time and time again, by a minority of conservatives and a Christian lobby who just can’t seem to accept change or the idea of equality.
These concepts simply don’t serve them.
It’s like these people pride Australia on being a conservative beacon for the West, the country that plays it safe when everywhere else – even countries like the US and Ireland – has caved to the evils of gay people getting married.
Which is why the ‘vote no’ in the sky was just such an uncomfortable feeling, and why today I am elated but still feel a sense of trepidation for the future.
In all honesty, the exhaustion comes from months and months of turning on the television, opening the paper (yes I still do that) and tuning into social media to see my identity being debated and picked apart.
Just take a moment to think about what that feels like, to have people constantly debate about what is, in essence, your private sex life.
Australia has forked out $120 million to decide, in a non-binding vote, who I can legally have sex with for the rest of my life, should I choose to marry.
Then – to twist a knife in – the ‘no’ voters say that if people vote for equal rights, children will suffer.
I just can’t even.
It’s been overwhelming. All of it.
Not to mention this idea of the media having to be unbiased in its reporting on the plebiscite, which effectively gave that small conservative minority equal say in an issue regarding human rights.
Unlike when I was in New Zealand, I haven’t written anything on the debate so far because just living in the midst of these conversations that permeate all my spaces – online and offline – has been enough.
It’s felt like months of screaming “but you don’t know me” in silence.
Yet, the elation of today is shared by the majority of the country. And that hasn’t been in silence. So somehow, here I am, after months of what’s felt like writer’s block, letting the emotions out.
It’s not all bad, in fact the ‘glass half full’ of Australia has been really fricken sweet.
I’m also overwhelmed by the positive support that has been reiterated by so many friends, acquaintances, colleagues since moving here.
This rigidity, oppression and conservatism that permeates everyday life in Australia is at odds with the warmth I’ve experienced from people that I’ve personally interacted with.
Most seem to be embarrassed of Australia’s record on human rights, and that marriage equality has event got to the point of a non-binding plebiscite.
These are the conversations I’ve been having while ‘vote no’ has filled the sky.
There was the Airbnb host in Sydney, who – the mother of a gay man and so connected to the queer community that she organises floats for Mardi Gras – is a key organiser of ‘vote yes’ rallies, and initiates rainbow chalk-ups on streets.
And the guy I interviewed in Brisbane, who had so much energy for fighting back against the ‘no’ campaigners that he organised a crowdfunding campaign and ended up having a giant rainbow flag towed by a helicopter above the same part of Sydney where ‘vote no’ was written.
And our family friends down the road, who made sure all their family members handed in in a ‘yes’ ballot – and have constantly reminded us that this whole plebiscite is baffling to them.
Over the past few months I have also witnessed a quite visceral feeling of passion coming from a huge cross-section of society who, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are fully in support of same-sex marriage.
Today, my colleague even messaged me to offer congratulations on the outcome of the vote – but also to apologise for what we’ve been through.
Meanwhile, my girlfriend’s colleagues have spent the morning celebrating with her, hugging, crying, drinking and long-lunching to take in the enormity of it all.
This is the love I’m feeling and this is also my everyday experience; one of support and indifference to who we are as a couple, who I am as a bisexual woman.
So today I am happy and exhausted and overjoyed. You can write ‘vote no’ in the sky but that isn’t enough to change what’s happening on the ground. People want flexibility, change, equality.
And my goodness that is the warmest wave of relief.
Not only are the majority Australians ready for a law change, but I think most people – regardless of their sexual orientation – are ready to move on from this issue.
I still have trepidation and feel nervous about that minority who will now be trying to fight a bill in parliament and figure more ways to legalise discrimination. It’s not over yet.
The legal side of this debate is really just beginning.
But if there’s one thing I can take from the outcome of the vote, it’s the old sentiment ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’
Words – skywritten, in paper, online – aren’t enough to hide bigotry.
And today, overwhelmingly, is about all the Australians who have not given in to that fear or bigotry; the Australians who have continuously fought for fairness and equality.
Hannah Spyksma is Media & Climate Editor at Impolitikal. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.