A year on from marriage equality, did the reform fulfil its promise?

Obviously, it did for those couples who yearned to marry.

I have attended several beautiful weddings this year, each different, each so very happy.

The promise that the sky would not fall in has also come true.

No-one has been gaoled for being a Christian, no-one has married a bridge.

But for me, the promise of marriage equality went deeper.

I became an advocate for the reform because so many of the ancient prejudices against same-sex relationships – that they are short, unstable, and entirely sexual – found refuge in a discriminatory marriage law.

So did many of the broader stereotypes of LGBTI people as threats to family and children.

It seemed to me the full participation of LGBTI people in family and community life was impossible so long as we were excluded from an institution that creates kinship, remains an important rite of passage, and is a universally understood public affirmation of love and commitment.

So, did marriage equality make a difference to the relationship between LGBTI people and society?

I am convinced it did.

My daily interactions with other people are different to a decade ago.

Whether it’s friends and family members, taxi drivers and shop keepers, or even other LGBTI people, my relationship and same-sex unions generally, are seen as less ephemeral, taken more seriously, and treated with greater respect.

Sometimes it’s subtle, like when older relatives who once rarely referred to my partner now routinely ask me how he is.

Sometimes it’s more direct, like when a plumber who recently quoted us for some work said “take a few days to discuss it with the hubby”.

I can see the same shift more broadly. When Michael Kirby’s relationship began to be discussed in the Australian media a few years before marriage equality became an issue, even sympathetic commentators and politicians handled it clumsily, stressing that it was “irrelevant” and “private” even as they obsessed over it.

Compare that to how Kerryn and Jackie Stricker-Phelps’ relationship was handled on a recent edition of Australian Story; thoughtfully, sensitively and no differently to anyone else’s.

The narrative of those who oppose LGBTI equality has also responded to this shift in public opinion.

At the start of the marriage equality debate in 2004 they attacked same-sex relationships in the stereotypical terms I have already described.

Quoting a study of twenty-something gay men in Amsterdam, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) frequently declared same-sex relationships were antithetical to marriage because they only lasted, on average, 18 months.

Around 2010 the ACL changed tack, dropping all attacks on same-sex relationships and instead stressing the “unintended consequences” for religion, schools and bridges.

That date is important. It shows the shift in attitudes we have seen in Australia was due less to changing the law twelve months ago than it was to effective, long-term campaigning in the decade prior, campaigning that sparked millions of dining table and lounge room discussions about marriage equality.

It also shows the postal survey was less an exercise in shifting attitudes than confirming the shift that had already occurred.

This matters because when we let the final months of the marriage equality debate obscure the preceding years of hard work that actually made reform possible, we fail to learn invaluable lessons about how to make change.

For me, those lessons include the importance of a) strong, persistent advocacy in the face of prejudice, b) constantly finding new and innovative ways to challenge old inequalities, and c) the role of personal stories in changing attitudes and, thereby, laws.

Not everything about the achievement of marriage equality a year ago is worth celebrating.

Several compromises were made in the final legislation to allow faith-based organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people in the name of “religious freedom”.

These compromises were not necessary to win the final vote, but the appearance that they were necessary has given compromise on LGBTI equality a new and dangerous level of legitimacy.

The compromises themselves are objectionable for several reasons.

In my home state of Tasmania, they allow discrimination that was previously against the law.

They have given state and federal governments the green light to further erode discrimination protections in order to “protect religious freedom”.

But what stung me most was the message about same-sex relationships sent by all the unnecessary “protections” for faith communities.

They effectively say that same-sex couples, including me and mine, pose a threat to marriage and religion so unique and dire that a protective legislative wall must be built against us.

They give new life to the old myths and stereotypes about LGBTI people the marriage equality debate had begun to banish.

I’m confident the positive shift in attitudes that the marriage equality debate prompted can prevail.

But this will only happen if we continue to push back against prejudice with the strong advocacy, innovative campaigns and heart-felt personal stories that achieved marriage equality.

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