On the ground at the marriage equality rally

11 September 2017

On the ground at the marriage equality rally

There were a few initial hints that the turnout would be as massive as it turned out to be — the snatches of overheard conversation on the train into Town Hall, the mass of people a full thirty-five minutes early crowding the narrow construction bollards and milling around in the square near St. Andrew’s, selling badges and the Red Flag in equal measure, signing petitions for Safe Schools, handing out posters for the march. Already the protest signs were in the air, a prickly outline to the bustling crowd. The blur of attendees was punctuated with colour — green, red, purple, the ever-present rainbow — be it clothing or hair or face paint streaked across grinning cheeks.

The crowd would remain milling about for a while. The event took a while to start off. The first announcements over the PA system were a plea from some of the organisers to cram more into the free space in the square before the speaking platform, as the attendees were spilling over into the street. By 1:08pm, the show still hadn’t hit the road. “Christ, this is taking longer than equality!” shouted a sunglassed-man to the laughter of those nearby.

When the proceedings did kick off, it was to the beaming shouts of James Brechney from the Sydney Mardi Gras (clad in a dapper blue suit with envelopes stuck all over it) and Cat Rose from Community Action Against Homophobia, hailing the rally as a moment of “incredible historic significance“. They would continue to punctuate the rest of the proceedings, starting a few calls and responses (“Can we win this?” “Yes!“), thanking the Auslan interpreters at the event, and providing updates on the ever-growing crowd.

After an acknowledgment of country, and a plea for a positive rally that took the high road, applause beckoned the first speech.

The first speaker, Tim Blackman, brought more than a few laughs to the crowd. “This is a bit bigger than my classroom in Mount Druitt,” he gestured at the throng.  He asked for a show of hands for people here at their first protest. At the smattering of raised hands, he grinned. “Welcome to the right side of history!” His speech was matter-of- fact, castigating parliamentarians for not holding a vote in Parliament “like a representative democracy kind of demands“, and affirming that the only consequence of marriage equality would be “all citizens being able to marry who they love.” On behalf of the NSW Teacher’s Federation, he reached out to all students in the LGBTI community who might continue to feel isolated and hurt in the coming months. “Out of our vulnerability, we have created resistance. Out of our struggle, we have created hope, and out of our community bond, we have found love.”

Sally Rugg, campaign director for Getup and “a prolific homosexual“, was next up at the mic. She minced no words about the “awful” postal survey, telling the crowd that she hadn’t been able to get to sleep for worry about the next few months. She characterised the ‘No’ forces as a “conservative elite” wanting to keep Australia divided, and took heart in the ‘Yes’ voters — young and old, of all jobs and creeds — banding around fairness, kindness and treating people with dignity. Part of her speech was a call to action — she directed the crowd to yes.org.au, and compelled them to join the thousands of people participating in phone banks (with apparently 70,000 calls made thus far), and joining together to make the postal survey “the biggest flash point in Australian history“.

Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Sally McManus drew comparisons to the Melbourne rally she’d previously attended, remarking that she could not see where the rally began or ended. She characterised the struggle for marriage equality as one for dignity, drawing on Rose Schneiderman’s 1912 ‘Bread and Roses’ speech. “An injury to one of us is an injury to all of us,” she declared. “The Trade Union Movement of Australia is with you — shoulder to shoulder. And shoulder to shoulder we will win this.

Then, a musician. Alex the Astronaut took the stage, ready to sing her song “Not Worth Hiding”. It turned out her guitar was not plugged in correctly and her first bold test strums plinked noiselessly. A nervous laugh was welcomed with cheers. As James stalled with praise for Alex, and Alex went through the lyrics to pad out some time, the crowd started throwing their own bits and pieces of advice. “Put the microphone near the guitar!”  bellowed a gentleman to the left. A familiar crop of red hair and exaggerated eyeliner made itself visible amidst the scramble onstage fiddling with amps — Simon Hunt, AKA Pauline Pantsdown in full costume. “Pauline saves the day!” the cry went up. Eventually, a microphone was lowered and the guitar started sounding off faintly over the speakers. Alex’s voice rang out in the packed square, and a rumble of voices followed her into each line of the chorus. From somewhere, a large inflatable beach ball with rainbow inside was thrown on top of the crowd, and started getting punted about by the singing, clapping throng. The song was bittersweet — a hopeful message in the context of a public debate that has already shown its harsh edges:

It’s not worth hiding if you’ve got something to say,
And it’s not worth smiling if your feeling in pain
And it’s not worth hiding if you think you might be gay,
Or different in another way,
You’re perfect just the same!

The first of the politicians was introduced as “our member for Sydney“, and the crowd made sure they sounded like it was true. Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, greeted the sustained roar of applause with an upward hand, and a broad smile. She would start her remarks by noting the love she could see in the crowd. This would be a theme of her speech — whilst the opponents of marriage equality, she said, would seek to make the debate about anything else, marriage equality was about love between two people. “There will not be a single extra same-sex couple created by same-sex marriage!” she quipped. She drew on the experiences of her constituents — some who had their homes graffitied for their support of marriage equality, to a same-sex couple who had been together for 60 years — “they deserve to get married!” These were the people the crowd was there for  —  parents, colleagues and siblings — and for those, said Tanya, that were not brave enough to be in the crowd today. She ended her speech with a call to arms: “Make sure there is nothing left that you could have done that you didn’t do, because love has to win.”

The floating beach ball had still been bouncing around the crowd during Tanya’s speech, awkwardly, now unwelcome in the absence of music. The camera crews hustled in the centre of the crowd, mindful of their expensive equipment, were getting more annoyed and annoyed with a glimpse of the orb heading towards them. Finally, someone plucked it from the air, and grounded it.

Bill Shorten, Leader of the Opposition, had been flanking his deputy. He now took center stage. It was clear he was less popular than the previous speaker. The few seconds of applause that greeted him died out to a small impromptu chant of “Save the refugees”, which quickly cut out before his first words. If he was reading from notes, it did not sound like it — his improvisation was stilted, and the three things he had to say to the crowd blurred into one-and-a-bit things. But his words, loud, hitting the limits of the microphone, were met with general approval. “There are many who will say they were here today — and there are millions who will wish they were here today!” was his prediction. He began with an apology — that the Parliament had not already resolved the issue (which several in the crowd, well aware of Labor’s legislative history, smirked at), and for the campaign to come. “We have one mountain to climb together, but we will climb it together.” He promised the crowd he, and Labor, would take the strawmen arguments of the No campaign to task, making reference to Eric Abetz’s infamous Harbour Bridge comment. The brunt of his speech focused on the judgment meted out to LGBTI families: when one family was judged, all were; and where one of us is treated unequally, we are all diminished. “When we include all Australians,” he closed, “we are better Australians!

Ivan and Chris Hinton-Teoh took the stage, with the former reading from a few notes. A couple married in Canada ten years ago, they rose to prominence as one of the many LGBTI newly-weds who had their marriages annulled after the High Court struck down the ACT Government’s passage of marriage equality in 2013. It was a crowd like the one before them, they said — people who came out of the woodwork, the community they found — that got them through the devastation of their experience. A fan of audience participation, Ivan started a call and response with the audience, with several calls to stand up for LGBTI Australians to be responded to with “Stand with me!” This took a few false starts and a few chuckles to get started. “Canberra would have picked this up so much faster,” Ivan joked, to good-natured boos from the crowd. He closed by mentioning his website, www.standwithme.org.au. The obligation in this “dodgy, unprecedented, unbinding and hurtful postal vote“, he said, was to inspire and help all LGBTI Australians.

Another politician, Jenny Leong (Greens MP for Newtown) started with a fresh acknowledgment to country. Naming several ‘No’ campaigners — Tony Abbott,  John Howard, Eric Abetz — she prompted the crowd to blow them a kiss into the air, which was done with a few peals of laughter, in an attempt to “let them feel the love today.”  She encouraged the crowd to imagine the day after the survey — with headlines screaming “ENORMOUS OVERWHELMING SUPPORT FOR THE YES VOTE”, ones the Government couldn’t ignore. Also including an apology, Jenny’s speech was more partisan, slamming Labor’s support for the Howard amendment to the Marriage Act in 2004. But she welcomed Bill Shorten’s attendance, congratulating community organizations like Community Action Against Homophobia for bringing political parties like Labor around to supporting marriage equality.

At this point, the crowd had been standing for nearly an hour. The last few speakers were greeted with hastier applause than usual. Peta Frend described her first experiences at the Mardi Gras, and her transformation from an uncertain nineteen-year-old to “a proud transgender woman“, but her tailing remarks were punctuated by a chant taken up by the mass of people around the corner who could not hear the speeches and were filling the time. She nevertheless recounted the experience of transgender partners who have to divorce to change their name and gender, and spoke out against the postal survey as “not in the Australian spirit of fairness“. Chris Di Pascuale from the National Union of Students read through his speech without too much care for rhetorical pauses. Wrapping things up relatively quickly, he began with a re-dredging of Howard-era talking points (workers rights, university fees, detention centres and Iraq — most likely in light of the former Prime Minister’s recent weigh in on the postal survey) and made the point that indifference was not enough in a homophobic society. By the time the organisers got back on stage to wrap things up, the crowd was ready to set off, and chanted their desires: “March, march, march!

The speakers eventually conceded and left the crowd to prepare for the march, offering a few chants to get them going. The crowd at the front of the speaker’s platform in front of St. Andrew’s found themselves now at the rear end of the march, as the rest of the now thirty-thousand strong crowd began their procession to Customs House in Circular Quay. It would be another thirty minutes before this tail-end got going — in the meantime, there was time enough to take stock of surroundings as a general shuffle to the road commenced. The crowd was as diverse as it was energetic — young as it was, there were a few pockets of grey-haired elders waving their own posters, or parents leading their children by the hand. Vendors snaked their way through the crowd, offering $10 shirts, $3 badges, or free posters for the march ahead.

Amidst the hubbub of support, a few dissenters were surprisingly found waving their own signs before being swamped in the sea of bodies — one denouncing the ‘Evil Gay Agenda’, another demarcating their fear of a slippery slope with hand-drawn stick figures of a polyamorous trio and bestiality. The throng of people must have made quite a sight. From Bathurst Street, a Big Bus tour bus of tourists peered cautiously over their guard rails, regarding the scene with a bemused intrigue. There was general chit-chat in the air, the occasional laugh as a sign’s punchline was read out, an air of amiable solidarity.

Eventually, the crowd began to move properly and found their way from George Street walking down Park Street. Occasionally, a chant would start from somewhere in the crowd, responded to with zest by whoever was nearby. The signs held aloft by proud walkers bobbed slowly, each blaring its own message of defiant pride — the pace was a casual stroll, under the gaze of mounted police. For the number of people that had been reported, the first hundred meters of road were sparsely populated — it was only further along the trail that the march proper came into view, to a cheer from the stragglers at the back. The occasional sideshow of an attraction drew clumps of people away from the main body of the march. Danny Lim, recently famous for an upheld ruling on slurring Tony Abbott, was in full kit, brandishing a painted head of the former PM, being showered with requests for selfies and greeted with shrieks of amused delight. A pink-painted Dalek proclaimed equal-opportunity extermination, placarded with signs announcing “Daleks for Equality”. Passersby and bystanders stood in either amazement or camaraderie plastered on what was visible of their faces from behind their smartphones, snapping whatever pictures they could of the largest LGBTI demonstration in Australia’s history.

The path was a snaking one: from Park, down Elizabeth, left onto Bridge, and finally onto Loftus, ending up just alongside Customs House. Pauline Pantsdown had performed already, and the next speakers were running through their applause lines. The sun, blocked mercifully by the Town Hall during the initial gathering and the skyscrapers along the walk down, started bearing down on the congregation, forcing many for the shade of the Quay. The hour was nearly four, and a bee-line for transportation began. Approaching the train station, supporters had congregated on Platform 1, and had draped large squares of coloured cloth in the order of the Rainbow Flag over the side of the train station’s walls. The red left most corner got snagged in a twisted mess, but the sight still brought another cheer to the by-now worn out throats of the crowd. It was a nice enough sight to look at whilst joining the huge crowd waiting to get through the ticket barriers.

The general air in the train carriages trundling away from the scene was tired good-nature. Crowded as the trains were, seats were offered casually and accepted with beaming smiles. Jokes and mentions of favourite signs were passed amongst the friends that had come. Strangers greeted their respective heavy lidded gazes with a smirking smile and a nod. Perhaps it was satisfaction. Or a mutual, silent understanding that on this day, over thirty thousand souls had taken to the streets to shout, with defiance, in solidarity: “Love is love.