Indigenous activisits have long supported the movements for LGBTQIA+ equality. Now, Rodney Croome calls on fellow LGBTQIA+ activists to mobilise and campaign in support of an Indigenous Voice to parliament.
Rodney Croome, founder of Australian Marriage Equality, has been one of Australia’s fiercest advocates for LGBTQIA+ equality for 34 years. Instrumental in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania, he began campaigning for marriage equality in 2002. Rodney campaigned on anti-discrimination protections, parenting equality, military service and gay blood donations. Also for classroom inclusion, trans recognition, and bans on conversion practices and intersex surgeries. A Member of the Order of Australia since 2003, his home state named him 2015 Tasmanian Australian of the Year.
As a queer, Indigenous writer, I constantly look to reconcile the powerful voices from the respective communities I belong to. In doing so, I aim to identify the ways in which these communities can uplift and empower one another. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rodney regarding the movement for an Indigenous Voice to parliament.
What role have Indigenous activists historically had in mobilising movements for LGBTQIA+ equality?
“Indigenous activists played a greater role in inspiring the Australian LGBTIQA+ movement than is often acknowledged.
“The Aboriginal civil rights movement that led up to the 1967 referendum showed LGBTIQA+ advocates that change in Australia was possible. It was a forerunner of the early movement to decriminalise homosexuality.
“Indigenous activists consistently drew the link between land rights and improved health and education outcomes.
“This inspired LGBTIQA+ advocates to highlight the link between issues like marriage equality and better mental health.”
“When I first started advocating in a state that denied the existence of a local LGBTIQA+ community, I drew great strength from Tasmanian Aboriginal advocates who had fought against and overcome the same kind of denial.
“If they could ‘come out’ as Indigenous in a hostile social environment, there was no excuse for us not to come out too.
“Today, advocates like me are inspired by the movement for a Voice to Parliament because it holds out the promise that an entire community can make itself heard, instead of being ‘represented’ by the voices of bureaucrats, politicians and unaccountable lobbyists.”
Do LGBTQIA+ activists have a political responsibility to uplift the movement for an Indigenous voice to parliament? How should they go about doing this?
“Every Australian should support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament as a matter of justice and reconciliation. Losing the vote would be a significant setback to Indigenous rights.
“But LGBTIQA+ people have a special responsibility to actively support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
“We have a duty to repay the inspiration Indigenous leaders have given us over the years and their support for our human rights.
“Indigenous leaders from Ray Minniecon in Sydney, Sani Ray Townson from Townsville, Aunty Nancy Rooke in Albury through to Blackfellas for Marriage Equality were leading voices of marriage equality.
“Many of these Indigenous advocates drew the link between the ban on same-gender marriage and the states’ control over Indigenous marriages up until the 1960s.
“We also have a duty to stand up to fearmongering and misinformation. The Voice is being demonised in exactly the same way LGBTIQA+ human rights are demonised. Through fear of the unknown, predictions the sky will fall in, claims of ‘special rights’ and vague allusions to ‘unintended consequences”.
“If we let fear win against an Indigenous Voice, it will be that much stronger when next we confront it.
“Ultimately, all LGBTIQA+ people, Indigenous and not, will benefit from a Voice to Parliament. It will show that Australia can be a fairer and less prejudiced society where the voices of marginalised and disadvantaged communities matter.”
What has the movement for marriage equality achieved for the most marginalised members of our communities?
“Marriage equality seems to have reduced levels of prejudice against same-sex partners, including those who are Indigenous or otherwise marginalised.
“But the backlash to marriage equality, especially in the form of attacks on trans rights, on school inclusion programs and on existing discrimination protections in the name of ‘religious freedom’, have made life worse for already-marginalised LGBTIQA+ people.
“This backlash has even spilled over into attacks on Indigenous rights. The Morrison Government’s defunct Religious Discrimination Bill threatened to take away the right of Indigenous people to legally challenge those who demean traditional Indigenous cultures in the name of coloniser religions.
“The backlash against trans and gender diverse people makes it particularly important that sistergirls and brotherboys play a key role in the campaign for a Voice and that the proposal for there to be gender equity among representatives on the Voice does not mean non-binary Indigenous people are excluded.
“To defeat the backlash we need to do exactly what we did with the Religious Discrimination Bill, form coalitions of groups threatened by an erosion of discrimination protections.
“These include people with disability, women’s health groups, minority faiths, CALD communities, unions, businesses, LGBTIQA+ people and Indigenous people.”
What can we learn from the movement for marriage equality moving forward?
Rodney told me the marriage equality postal survey provides valuable lessons for the Voice referendum campaign. He said marriage equality campaigners did not take majority support for granted. Currently, polls show majority support for an Indigenous Voice, about the same level as for marriage equality. But Rodney said opponents can erode that majority through fear-mongering, racist dog-whistling and deliberate distraction.
“The marriage postal survey showed a well-resourced and coordinated Yes campaign is essential to keep support over 60%.”
The Voice to Parliament: stories and conversations
Rodney stressed the imp[ortance of fostering stories and conversations.
“For years the marriage equality campaign conducted workshops across Australia teaching supporters how to talk effectively about the reform.
“I urge leaders of the Voice campaign to also not leave such a critical element of social change to chance.
“The Voice campaign must not make the mistakes the marriage equality campaign made. These include minimising the issue so it became a tiny political target, deliberately dodging the ‘No’ campaign, abandoning communities where support was lowest and throwing vulnerable members of the affected communities under the bus.
“Australians were ready to accept that marriage equality was a big issue with big implications. They wanted to hear a strong case against the fear-mongering. They didn’t want some areas like Western Sydney to be left behind; and they wanted to vote for equality for all LGBTIQA+ people, not just couples who wanted to marry.
“The marriage ‘Yes’ campaign failed to provide leadership on any of these matters. It was too closely tied to Malcolm Turnbull, and he held hostage by the right wing of his party.
“As a result, the legacy of the postal survey is deeper polarisation than ever before between Australians who affirm LGBTIQA+ people and Australians who resent and despise us.”
Work hardest where support is least
“My advice to leading Voice advocates is don’t minimise the importance of a Voice. Don’t be co-opted by overly-cautious politicians. Make a strong case for a Voice. Challenge racism directly. Work hardest in communities where support is least. Also, talk about what else needs doing to achieve justice for Indigenous people.
“In short, don’t act out of fear of prejudice. But out of hope for real justice and faith in your fellow Australians.
“That way a majority referendum vote will not just be a win for the Voice to Parliament but for Indigenous rights for generations to come.”
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