A lot of Australians feel personally attacked by the campaign against marriage equality, but for Jo Hirst, the No campaign literally came after her and her family.
Hirst is a mum to two young boys, one cis and one trans, and the author of The Gender Fairy. As the No campaign set its sights on young trans people, they used her book in their pamphlets and television ads.
The No campaign has seemingly focused on everything but same-sex marriage, and Hirst believes that trans kids have had to bear being attacked by a campaign that shouldn’t be about them.
“This [debate] is about civil and secular marriage and nothing else,” she says.
Hirst wrote The Gender Fairy so that trans children could feel normal and not alone, and also to help other children, parents, and teachers to understand and support them.
“What they are trying to do is somehow equate that with children being taught gender ideology and ‘catching trans’,” she says.
“There’s absolutely no evidence to say you can influence anyone’s gender identity, even a child. None.
“What’s happening now, with this misinformation that’s being spread about trans children, is if you repeat it often enough people think it’s the truth.”
Hirst points out that trans people will continue to exist regardless of marriage equality, and says the bullying of trans kids has increased since the No campaign began targeting them.
“It’s frightening, it’s horrible, it’s dangerous, and unethical,” she says.
Hirst’s family have been personally hurt by the attacks on trans young people, despite their accepting community. The television ads by the No campaign have been hard to protect the boys from.
“I’ve had to explain that there is a marriage equality survey going on, and they were completely shocked,” says Hirst.
“That was their first taste of homophobia. They didn’t know that gay and lesbian people couldn’t get married.
“I’m trying to protect my nine-year-old [trans] son from transphobia, because he has no idea of the level of transphobia that exists in the world. That’s why I need to make sure that he doesn’t see that ad.”
Micah Scott, chief executive of LGBTI youth network Minus18, has also seen the impact of the No campaign’s targeting of trans and gender-diverse young people.
“Their first television ad didn’t even mention the word marriage, it mentioned ‘boys in dresses’,” he says.
The No campaign has referenced some of Minus18’s resources, including a poster showing young trans people.
“It’s been really distressing for them,” says Scott.
“When you’re a young trans person and you put your face to something empowering and positive, to have those images used in such a malicious way is pretty awful and highlights the lengths that the No campaign are willing to go.”
Scott says young people are overwhelmingly resilient, but he’s seen some of the organisation’s volunteers lose the energy they had before for activism.
“They’re instead spending their energy on self-care and looking after their own mental health,” he says.
“The mood has definitely shifted from fun and excitement to support and care. I’ve felt it, all my friends have felt it, and it’s really been a hard time for everyone in the queer community.”
Scott says that young queer people often experience discrimination and bullying that typically gets better after the high school years, but the current climate is exposing people to it anew as people are emboldened to express homophobia and transphobia.
“For many of us as adults, we forget what queerphobia is like to experience,” he says.
“But during this plebiscite, you can’t escape that. No matter where you are, even with close support networks of queer people, the queerphobia is still shared online, and we as a community aren’t used to that. It’s bringing up all those issues that we thought we had moved past.”
Scott says trans people, who have been most demonised by the No campaign, need to be supported by the rest of the LGBTI community.
“It’s the trans and gender-diverse community that have suffered the biggest blow,” he says.
“We must support the trans community through this, because if we as gay and bisexual people feel pretty shitty with what’s going on, imagine what the people who are the target of this attack and vile hatred are feeling.”
Tiernan Brady from the Equality Campaign says it’s no coincidence that the No campaign has barely discussed marriage.
“They understand that the Australian people are for marriage equality. They know that they simply cannot win a vote on marriage equality,” he says.
“So they have to try and pretend it’s about something else.
“We’ve seen that ramping up every day, with red herrings about political correctness, freedom of speech, transgender bathrooms, Safe Schools. And of course it’s about none of those things, but the No side know they have lost the argument against marriage equality.”
Brady says the No side clutching at straws should be a source of hope for marriage equality, but we must not be drawn into their off-topic arguments.
“Their strategy involves hoping that we’ll chase them on the issues,” he says.
“One of the things all of us have to do collectively is to be aware of their strategies. Once we’re aware, we know how to ignore it.
“We know they’re trying to confuse, so we call out their strategy but don’t get stuck in the rabbit hole.”
Brady is optimistic about the outcome of the marriage survey, and urges the LGBTI community to resist being provoked by No campaigners.
“They want us to have a big ugly fight with them, because if you want to make a change look scary, you need to make the people proposing the change look scary,” he says.
“So as they try to provoke and bait every single day, we have to show a real steely determination and dignity. Never take the bait.
“We have to keep focused on the fact that this is about marriage equality. People are for it. It’s about having our conversations and getting them out to vote.”
If you are feeling distressed during the marriage equality debate, you can access support services including Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.