Mental health has been on the political agenda this week with both major parties announcing new commitments to suicide prevention and other mental health initiatives as part of their pre-election policy platforms.
However, another key election issue – marriage equality – has the potential to undermine this positive progress on mental health, in particular if the Coalition win and go ahead with their plans for a plebiscite.
As Chris Pycroft explains below, a plebiscite on marriage equality is not just ‘harmful, divisive, costly and unnecessary’ but poses a real risk to the mental health of LGBTI people, a group which already experiences significantly higher than average rates of discrimination and abuse.
Legislating to amend marriage law to remove gender designations (as did the USA over a year ago) would avoid the damaging effects of ‘no’ campaign and make clear that the rights of LGBTI people should not be held hostage by the public opinion of the day.
Chris Pycroft writes:
There are many issues that have come up for debate in what has been one of the longest election campaigns in recent memory. But one that has proved to be exceptionally divisive is marriage equality.
The views from the two major parties are well known; Labor will introduce marriage equality legislation into parliament within 100 days of the election, and the Coalition has committed to a plebiscite on marriage equality.
No matter the result on July 2, heated (and at times controversial) debate is all but guaranteed to continue. But the risks of allowing marriage equality to come under the scrutiny of a public anti-equality campaign will have a cost far greater than almost all of us will ever realise.
The effects of a ‘no’ campaign
As an openly gay man in his late 20s, I’m incredibly concerned about what a ‘no to equality’ campaign will do. I’ve said it many times, a plebiscite on marriage equality will be harmful, it will be divisive, it will be costly, and it’s completely unnecessary.
I could argue about the hundreds of millions of dollars a plebiscite will cost, and how that money could be better spent on areas such as health or education. A plebiscite also isn’t required by law – the passing of the Marriage Amendment Act 2004, which introduced gender references to the definition of marriage under Australian law, wasn’t decided by a plebiscite. So why have one?
High levels of abuse
Politics aside, the number of people who experience abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is at unacceptably high levels. The Australian Human Rights Commission in 2014 released Face the facts: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People.
The figures were damning:
- 26% of gay men and 23% of gay women experienced verbal abuse in 2012
- 47% of trans men and 37% of trans women were subjected to verbal abuse in the same year
- 6 in 10 LGBT people have experienced verbal homophobic or transphobic abuse in their lifetime
- 2 in 10 have experienced physical abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity
For any person who experiences verbal or physical abuse, regardless of the circumstance, the impact on their health and wellbeing can be significant. They could experience anxiety or a form of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and even substance abuse issues.
No person should ever be abused simply because of who they are, whether that be race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Impacts on daily life
The release of Growing Up Queer: Issues Facing Young Australians who are Gender Variant and Sexuality Diverse in 2014 by the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Twenty10 and Western Sydney University highlighted the impacts that daily life has on LGBTIQ young people:
- Less than 60% of LGBTIQ young people are comfortable coming to terms with their sexuality
- More than 70% have experienced abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity
- 3 out of every 10 young people have self-harmed as a result of homophobia or transphobia
Dependent on the research you look at, people who identify as being gay or lesbian are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience anxiety and/or depression; this figure rises for bisexual, trans and intersex people. Rates are even higher again for LGBTI Indigenous people – and it’s only just now that the need for this evidence is starting to be realised.
Unfortunately, we’ve already seen the impacts when support towards LGBTI young people comes under scrutiny. The incredibly politicised debate around Safe Schools earlier this year (in addition to discussion on the marriage equality plebiscite) resulted in Drummond Street Services reported a doubling of demand of services from young people experiencing distress or anxiety as a direct result of political scrutiny on a program that is designed to actually support those young people experiencing that anxiety or distress.
We’ve also seen reports which suggest that asks have been made to relax anti-discrimination laws in the scenario where a plebiscite eventuates. If the debate is supposed to be fair and civilised, why would such a request even need to be made?
Rights should not be up for public debate
Fundamentally, above all else, a plebiscite on marriage equality would mean that my rights and the rights of my friends and colleagues, are being put up for public debate whether I (or any of us) like it or not.
From the moment that a plebiscite that is confirmed, through to the day of voting, an active campaign would exist that would strongly argue that people like me are not the same and should not be treated equally before the law. Why is that ok? It’s not.
One of my greatest concerns is for any person that’s a part of the LGBTI community, or for any person who is coming to terms with their own sexuality or identity. The impact of a continued campaign that will openly argue that they do not deserve equality is profound. You could argue that this has already started.
Concerns for young people
The moment that a plebiscite becomes a reality, it’s only going to get worse. What about the isolated teenager who lives in regional Australia, who already is uncomfortable with their sexuality because they fear they might be abused if they openly identify as gay? What do they do when they see a campaign which says that they shouldn’t be equal? The impacts of that can potentially be quite damaging, and it horrifies me.
With the federal election just days away, and marriage equality being such a hotly contested issue, there are two things that every person can do:
- Look at the policies and positions of the parties running in your electorate. Know where they stand on these important issues, and use them to inform your vote.
- If you know anyone who might be experiencing a tough time because of the current debate, reach out to them. Let them know that it’s ok to be who they are, that you support them. Talk to them about how they feel on issues such as this one, you may just be surprised by their response. How you choose to vote may impact not just your future, but theirs as well.
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Beyondblue – 1300 224 636
Chris Pycroft has previously held a number of roles in the mental health sector, including as a Youth Brains Trust Alumni and Technology and Innovations Collective Advisor for the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, and as a Youth Ambassador for ReachOut.com.
Chris also co-found social media based initiative Rural Mental Health, and has provided support for a number of organisations on support and advocacy for LGBTI mental health and wellbeing. Chris was also appointed the Co-Convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in November 2015.