As a gay man living in Britain in the early ‘90s, life was tough. Just a few years before, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher had enacted Clause 28, banning “the promotion” of homosexuality.
The law applied to local government authorities but it underpinned what seemed like a society-wide ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ mentality. It wasn’t quite illegal for me to hold my lover’s hand as we walked down the street, but the open hate and aggression it caused by was just as bad.
I needed to leave and I moved to Sydney because it seemed more liberal and free. Australia held out the promise that I would be accepted for who I really am.
Since then I have led an open and out life, most recently as the head of one of Australia’s most influential LGBTQI organisations, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. I joined the Mardi Gras with one main purpose in mind; to celebrate diversity and to promote acceptance – exactly what the British laws I escaped tried to prevent.
This year we celebrate the 35th Mardi Gras with the opening of our new museum on Oxford St. The museum shows the similarities of the struggles for LGBTQI rights in both Australia and Britain – the campaigns for decriminalisation, anti-discrimination laws, parenting rights and civil partnerships.
But there is one striking difference: 35 years on from the first Mardi Gras, full equality is still being denied to same-sex couples in Australia but is about to be achieved in Britain.
The overwhelming vote in favour of marriage equality in the House of Commons shows that Britain is clearly a very different place from when I left. In David Cameron, the UK has a conservative prime minister who is leading the push for full equality, not holding it back. In Ed Miliband, Labour also has a leader who is passionate about full equality.
What a sorry contrast Australia makes, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard still refusing to support marriage equality and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott not even allowing Coalition MPs to vote for it.
Why is the country that was once proud of being more egalitarian than tradition-bound “Mother England” now less equal?
Why is the country that held out the promise to me of dignity and freedom, now breaking that promise?
The answer can’t be found in popular opinion. In Australia, community support for marriage equality is as high, if not higher, than in the UK. The answer must lie in our political system. It seems incapable of producing leaders who can rise above vested religious and ideological interests and do what’s right.
I never thought I’d say this, but my hope for the future now lies in the UK, as well as in the US, Canada, Spain, Argentina, New Zealand and all those countries that have moved or are moving towards marriage equality.
David Cameron and US President Barack Obama are now the kind of shining examples that give large parts of the Australian public hope for a better future.
As we approach the 35th Mardi Gras parade let’s focus on how Australia’s leaders have betrayed the Australian people on the “civil rights issue of our times”.
And let’s work as hard as we can to make sure the Australia of tomorrow fulfills the great promise it once made to me and to so many others.
Peter Urmson is the co-chair of Sydney Mardi Gras.