The Australian LGBTI community will soon face the most difficult choice we have ever been called on to make.
If Australia votes Yes for marriage equality, LGBTI people will be told to accept new forms of legal discrimination in return for our right to marry, or continue to be excluded from marriage altogether.
The marriage amendment bill unveiled by Senator Dean Smith gives religious organisations and “religious” civil celebrants an out from dealing with marrying same-sex couples.
It’s true that these new exemptions apply to all couples but the fact they are being granted in response to the prospect of same-sex marriages reinforces the negative message that there is something uniquely threatening about these marriages.
Beyond the Smith bill there will be a range of even more concerning exemptions flagged by opponents of marriage equality.
These will include commercial companies owned by people of faith being legally able to deny us wedding services, through to faith-based hospitals and schools being able to legally sack us or turn us away if we are married.
They might even include government bans on school diversity programs and a federal override of state hate-speech laws.
With far right MPs promising up to 100 amendments to any marriage equality bill, we can only guess how far they will go in rolling back existing anti-discrimination laws.
But there are two things we can be sure of.
First, the push to undermine our discrimination protections will come under the cover of the radical right’s mantra of “religious freedom”, “free speech”, and “parental rights”.
These terms are the opposite of the truth. They are about conservative Christians being “free” to impose their values on everyone else.
Voters understand this and don’t seem to have given the “freedom” scare-campaign much credence during the postal survey.
But politicians across the political spectrum continue to pay lip service to this false freedom narrative because they are too afraid or ignorant to call it out as yet another nasty, imported American culture war.
Second, we can be sure the push will gain traction beyond the radical right.
Despite the religious carve outs I’ve already mentioned, Dean Smith’s bill is not enough even for some supporters of marriage equality in the Coalition, let alone those who oppose it.
Coalition strategists will also demand more carve outs to stop Coalition voters from defecting to far right parties like Cory Bernardi’s Conservatives, and to wedge Labor.
The upshot is that LGBTI people will be presented with what looks like a Sophie’s Choice: continue to be treated badly in the law or lose the reform we have fought so hard to achieve.
In January, the largest survey ever conducted in the Australian LGBTI community found that a majority of LGBTI Australians are willing to wait for full equality.
But now we have all been through trial by post, the pressure to accept compromise will be greater.
That’s why I have written a book about the issues at stake – what “religious freedom” actually means, the impact of proposed discrimination carve outs, when compromise makes sense and when it doesn’t, and who has the right to make the decision.
My conclusion is that we should not compromise.
If we introduce new laws allowing discrimination against LGBTI people, if we allow the new, virulent “freedom’ narrative to gain a foothold in Australian law, we will rue it for a generation to come.
But my vision is not a bleak one.
I believe the Sophie’s Choice we will be presented with is a false choice.
If LGBTI history shows anything, it is that we can take our destiny into our own hands.
As outsiders we can exercise the kind of political imagination that changes the political landscape.
As strong, proud people don’t have to play the cards we are dealt. We can demand a new hand.
To do this, we must show that the freedom narrative is actually a bid by conservative religious leaders for greater power and privilege.
We must remind Australia that anti-discrimination laws are not feel-good concessions to minorities, but the very cornerstone of a fairer and more just society for everyone.
Most of all we must demonstrate that if and when Australia votes Yes, we collectively voted for all Australians to be treated equally without caveat or compromise.
Rodney Croome’s new book is “Devil in the Detail: The choice between true marriage equality and new forms of discrimination against LGBTI Australians”. It is available in the Bookshop Darlinghurst in Sydney and Hares and Hyenas bookshop in Melbourne.
Rodney Croome, David Marr, and Brenda Appleton will address a forum on religious exemptions in marriage equality legislation, titled “What Happens After Yes”, at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne from 7pm to 8.30pm on November 13th. For more information and to book a seat click here.