The Same Sex Marriage Postal Survey, Archival Politics and Emotion

The importance of archives in the production of history itself should not be lost on queers: surely, we know the power of seeing ourselves in historical records, through the experience of our own exclusions and writing out of history. This is perhaps why, in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, we saw a flurry of reflective publications and events about the postal survey period. As argued by others elsewhere, we are presently writing histories inside the moment of what has been called the “archival turn”.

Whether through anthologies, books or academic conference papers, there has been a sense of urgency around the need to capture our voices and stories from this very recent moment in Australian queer history. But now, in the afterlife of the successful passage of same-sex marriage legislation, following on from the formal, homonormative ‘Yes’ campaign and years of campaigning by Australia’s same-sex marriage lobbying organisation, Australian Marriage Equality (AME), we are left with some troubling, dominant narratives about the meaning of the postal survey; as memory and historical moment. We hear of the postal survey, regularly, as a period of individualised suffering, an event which individual LGBTI people, and couples, needed protection from, with a focus on personal accounts or “stories”. Accounts of the survey which understand it as a victory for the Left, or queer movements in Australia, seem rare, and those that look to other forms of collective activity and activism during the time, which interrupt these narratives, are rarer still.

Just after the first anniversary of the postal survey there were already several conferences held or in the works, while a number of books and thematic literary journal issues had been dedicated to the survey. To date, the most consolidated attempt to archive a range of written and visual materials on the postal survey is perhaps Brow Books’ Going Postal: More than Yes or No’, edited by Quinn Eades and Son Vivienne, based on Eades’ ‘I can’t stop crying’ series, published in The Lifted Brow. Going Postal collates a combination of prose, tweets, poems, images and essays reflecting on the postal survey period. What first struck me about Going Postal was how much it appears influenced, at least in form, by the US-based Against Equality (AE) collective’s series of anthologies, published in a final book in 2014 as ‘Against Equality: Queer Revolution not Mere Inclusion’. Against Equality formed in 2009 to provide an online archive of pieces that were critical of the gay marriage movement and mainstream gay politics in the United States. Both books archive in published form online, non-fiction pieces, mostly short, non-scholarly essays. The key difference between the two texts is that ‘Going Postal’ appears to publish “disparate” voices, whereas Against Equality’s unequivocal focus is on radical critiques of the mainstream gay and lesbian movement for marriage equality.

It must first be acknowledged that, after the decision to hold a non-compulsory postal survey, LGBTI community organisations and prominent advocates voiced public opposition to the postal survey on the basis that it was a delaying, unnecessary and harmful tactic taken by the Australian Parliament. It is in light of this that the discourse from the queer community — and in particular, community organisations, advocates and public figures — was able to be couched in terms of mental health or general health concerns. While this stance is not completely unfounded, such arguments also heavily relied on the status of mental health as an established and dominant discourse, related, in part, to the rise of government public health measures and the increasing interest policymakers have in the the health of populations. Today, much of the way the postal survey continues to be remembered is through an affective register, through the prism of individual trauma, harm, pain and emotional damage.

Image: ACON

Image: ACON

Prominent marriage equality advocates and LGBTI community figures cited the negative impact the survey would have on the mental health of LGBTI people, with the terms ‘trauma’ and ‘traumatised’ appearing frequently, often invoking young people and queer and trans youth suicide rates. Mental health organisations came out supporting this view, stating they were experiencing a spike in calls and demand for services. ACON, NSWS’s LGBTI health organisation, provided ‘tips’ for protecting one’s mental health during the survey period. Their resource ‘Stronger Together’ urged LGBTI people to be around loved ones during the announcement, to step away from social media if needed, and promoted the value of practicing self-care during the public debate.

Research involving a survey of 1,305 “same-sex-attracted people” from across Australia during the survey period has recently been published in the Australian Psychological Society's journal. The results were reported in Australian media as supporting the view of LGBTI community leaders and organisations: the survey showed that the more “same-sex attracted people” were exposed to messages of prejudice and discrimination, the more elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress were reported. Academic Simon Copland has previously argued that the research around the impacts of the postal survey has limitations, not least that most research to date, in Australia and elsewhere, has largely only focused on the negative impacts of such forms of polling, amidst a discourse that centres a politics of vulnerability.

There was, and remains, a strategic preference for discourses of pain and trauma during, and after, the postal survey. As affect theory and Sara Ahmed’s work in The Cultural Politics of Emotion has argued, pain is not apolitical, or above politics, but is rather inherently fuelled with political implications. Pain and trauma narratives, which played a large role during the period, also denote a particular rhetorical, discursive and political strategy. The demand for particular affective registers and narratives during the postal survey has the effect of emphasising the fragility of queer communities and identities and painting LGBTI people as inherently vulnerable and in need of protection.

I sketch this out not to dismiss the homophobic campaign that we witnessed during the survey. There were, indeed anti-queer posters and leaflets distributed by neo-Nazi groups in major cities. But: the substance of the conservative sentiment expressed during the postal survey, including the Coalition for Marriage’s ‘No’ campaign, focused specifically on anti-gender ideology, moral panics about transgender youth and gender fluidity and attacks on LGBTI-inclusive school curriculum. The reactionary and conservative backlash that occurred was fundamentally transphobic in character, and followed in the footsteps of the already largely successful campaign against Safe Schools, which saw the program federally defunded and co-founder of the Safe Schools Coalition, Roz Ward, relentlessly attacked and eventually suspended from La Trobe University.  

That this rhetoric was not countered by the ‘Yes’ campaign has been argued by Hannah McCann, Amy Thomas and Geraldine Fela, who powerfully point out that the ‘Yes’ campaign explicitly disavowed the transformative, liberationist potentials of same-sex marriage. Instead the ‘Yes’ campaign emphasised the lack of threat same-sex marriage would pose to a white, Australian heterosexual social order and school curriculum. This is exemplified in GetUp!’s video which featured a white, middle class, heterosexual and gender normative family, and a woman, who addresses the viewer, and says: “There’s some misinformation out there, trying to link marriage equality to what these two [children] will learn in the classroom. It’s just not true.”

The narrative that the postal survey provided the conditions for a period of radically heightened discrimination against LGBTI people is now well established. For example, Dee Jefferson wrote in The Guardian that the ‘homophobic bile’ facilitated by the postal survey allowed her to feel closer than ever before ‘to imagining how it feels to be an Indigenous person, or someone from an ethnic minority’. But transphobic campaigns and moral panics in the same register as the ‘No’ campaign have largely continued, as many surely knew they would, in a post-same sex marriage landscape. We have seen this continue in the form of Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom review, tweets by Prime Minister Scott Morrison about “gender whisperers” in schools, and public debates about gay conversion therapy. In a telling move, one of the anti-same sex marriage lobbying groups that formed part of the official ‘No’ campaign, Marriage Alliance, have since rebranded themselves as ‘Binary Australia’, an anti-trans focused group.

The historical archive of the postal survey that is being built looks like one invested in the pain of individuals, or individual couples, but I worry these cultural performances of injury prevent us from the critical tasks now before us. Taking stock, what should we now make of the racist interpretations that linked racial minorities in Western Sydney to the no vote, the commitment to normative gay ideals of whiteness and class that informed the ‘Yes’ campaign, and the way it failed to engage with the transphobic substance of the ‘No’ campaign? There is also the important but overlooked experience of those who marked the postal survey, the before and the after, in ways which differ from this narrative, through collective action, attitudes of resistance and a liberationist politics - such as the queers who came out under the banner of No Pride in Detention (NPID) at the ‘Yes’ victory parties, or wholly rejected the survey’s constrained political options.

No Pride in Detention in the 2016 Mardi Gras Parade  Image:  Medium

No Pride in Detention in the 2016 Mardi Gras Parade

Image: Medium

Over several years, No Pride in Detention actions have drawn attention at Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and at protests, to the way that same-sex marriage lobbying efforts, and eventually the postal survey itself, were operationalised to distract from issues like the Australian Government’s mandatory offshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers. They have highlighted Australia’s role in returning LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers to places where they are criminalised, including on Manus Island, and where gay sex is illegal under Papua New Guinea’s criminal code and the Refugee Review Tribunal’s racist and dehumanising tests for proving one’s sexual identity.

These actions disrupt what is on the table, politically, but they also disrupt the dominant narrative of the postal survey as a period of fragility and vulnerability. Mere months before the postal survey was announced Australia's violent border regime killed yet another asylum seeker, Hamed Shamshiripour, on Manus Island. Beyond this history of collective action and activism being documented by a few individual activists and in some community newspapers, will the historical narrative of the postal survey remember this? In our archival efforts, and in our struggle for meaning making, who are we remembering the postal survey for?

I write this to voice my uneasiness about taking an uncritical approach to the space of the ‘archive’.” When we think about the archives of the postal survey, as we are currently constructing them, it is vital to maintain our critical gaze: what are their exclusions and what narratives are they establishing? What is not documented, not documentable? History is always constructed through the careful processes of selection and controlling of representation; not everything is captured in the archive’s web, and that’s often partly the point. Now that we have legislated for same-sex marriage and the dust has settled, we can see a particular historical narrative and way of remembering the postal survey emerging. The task of understanding the altered political landscape for queer politics in so-called Australia, of deciding what having same sex marriage legislation now means, and what our queer futures could be about, is now at hand.

Thanks to Cera Davies for invaluable advice, input and discussion that helped inform this article.

Amber Karanikolas is a writer and editor at Demos Journal. Their work has appeared in Overland and Archer Magazine, among other places. They tweet at @grim__tweet