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The ‘Yes’ campaign is refusing to get sidetracked by bitter personal fights with those opposed to same-sex marriage, focusing instead on inclusion. By Mike Seccombe.

Inside the ‘Yes’ case

Even if you don’t recognise the names Melissa and Aaron Klein you probably will have heard their story. It is told over and over again by opponents of same-sex marriage.

They were the couple whose Sweet Cakes bakery in Gresham, Oregon, was forced to close due to a “smear campaign and boycott” and a $US135,000 “fine” imposed by the state because they refused to make a wedding cake for two lesbians.

That’s the short version, the one the anti-same-sex marriage people put out as an example of the intolerance of the queer community.

The full story of the wedding cake, however, presents quite a different picture. It gives an insight into the tactics and behaviour of not only the “No” side of the marriage debate, but also the “Yes” campaign.

It goes like this. Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman had been raised in deeply conservative Christian families in Texas and had struggled with their sexuality. They moved to Portland in the hope of finding a more liberal and accepting community. In early 2013, after 10 years together, the couple decided to marry. They wanted to adopt the two disabled children they had been fostering since the death of the children’s mother, Laurel’s best friend. They figured marriage would give the children “a sense of permanency and commitment”.

Rachel’s mother, a devout southern Baptist who had previously been hostile to homosexuality, had come to a more accepting view, and had consented to help in the planning of the couple’s wedding.

So on January 17, 2013, Rachel and her mother went to Sweet Cakes. Everything went well until the owner, Aaron Klein, asked the names of the bride and groom.

Rachel told him there would be two brides and their names were Rachel and Laurel, at which point Klein told them the shop would not make them a cake, because of his and his wife’s religious convictions.

Rachel began to cry. She felt she had humiliated her mother, who had only recently overcome her own prejudice. Her mother initially reassured her sobbing daughter that they would get the cake elsewhere, and led her back to their car. And there it might have ended had not the mother gone back to the shop to try to reason, Christian to Christian, with Klein.

Klein did not soften. Instead he quoted Leviticus 18:22, and told Rachel’s mother her child was “an abomination unto God”.

When they got home, the mother told Laurel what the cake shop owner had said. Laurel tried to comfort Rachel, who pushed her away. It was then she got angry and decided to make a complaint. And there, again, it might have ended, if the Kleins had relented.

Instead, on January 29, Aaron Klein posted an image of their complaint on his Facebook page, with the comment: “This is what happens when you tell gay people you won’t do their wedding cake.”

The image included the complainants’ personal details, and the next day they got the first phone call from a right-wing radio talk-show host. The case became national news. Hate-filled comments poured in on social media.

Fundamentalist family members turned on them. Laurel’s aunt contacted her to say that if she ever set foot on the family’s property she would be shot in the face. Rachel’s sister wrote a Facebook post in support of the Kleins. Adding to the pressure, the couple feared they would lose the chance to adopt their children. The two women became increasingly scared for their safety, and physically ill, and their relationship suffered.

There was a boycott of Sweet Cakes, although Rachel and Laurel had no part in organising it. A commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, in July 2015, ordered the Kleins to pay $US135,000 – not a fine, but rather compensation for the “emotional and mental suffering” endured over two years by the couple.

The compensation has not yet been paid to the two women. An appeal by the Kleins is proceeding – crowd-funded, according to recent reports, to the tune of more than $US500,000.

There is more than one point to the story. The obvious one is that the version of the Sweet Cakes saga that keeps getting dished up by the opponents of same-sex marriage omits a huge amount of salient detail.

The second is that in this country, bakers – and florists, and various other commercial operators often cited by anti-marriage equality advocates as being threatened by same-sex marriage – are already subject to anti-discrimination laws. Changing the Marriage Act will not change that in any way. It is no more illegal to discriminate against married people on the basis of their sexuality than it is illegal to discriminate against unmarried ones.

So why does it keep cropping up in right-wing talking points and media articles and submissions to parliamentary inquiries?

The answer to that goes to the deeper point: the opponents of same-sex marriage are desperate to foster perceptions of victimhood.

The problem they face is that most Australians see no harm in conferring on the queer community the same marriage right that heterosexual couples enjoy. The anti-marriage lobby, therefore, must make the case that conferring a right on one group will do wrong to another. Hence their focus on extraneous issues such as cake shops or Safe Schools programs, or gender fluidity or, as in Tony Abbott’s contribution to the debate, general dissatisfaction with the direction of society and “political correctness”.

Those running the “No” campaign, says Sally Rugg, marriage equality campaign director at GetUp!, “are doing everything they can to make this about anything but marriage equality”.

“That’s point number one. Number two is they want to provoke us into reacting in a way that makes us look angry or shrill, or like bullies.”

Central, therefore, to the pro-equality campaign is the determination not to be distracted by the red herrings and, above all, to avoid feeding what Rodney Croome, long-time marriage equality advocate and spokesman for queer advocacy group just.equal, calls “the victimhood narrative being peddled by groups like the Australian Christian Lobby”.

Croome says the “No” case’s “victimhood narrative is designed to sow suspicion and fear among its supporters and to stymie the kind of empathetic, open dialogue that leads opponents of marriage equality to become supporters”.

Notwithstanding the pro-equality camp’s commitment to freedom of speech, this sometimes means acting fast to silence the more extreme voices on their own side.

We saw an example this week.

On Monday, The Australian newspaper carried a story reporting that Pansy Lai, the doctor who appeared in a “No” campaign television ad, was being threatened and victimised.

The paper reported an online petition “organised by GetUp!” calling on the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency to deregister Lai for a breach of medical ethics and the Geneva Conventions through “her participation in the recent ‘No’ campaign”. The creator of the petition, a self-described anarcho-socialist, Lev Lafayette, was quoted denying his intent was to bully.

The real import of the story, though, is what happened next.

As Sally Rugg explains, GetUp! simply hosts the site on which the petition appeared. It’s a pretty laissez faire sort of operation, through which anyone can start a petition for any purpose – even petitions against GetUp! have run there, subject to a few broad restrictions.

But this time the organisation moved very fast to pull down Lafayette’s petition.

“We strongly condemn personal attacks,” Rugg says. “One of the reasons we have opposed a plebiscite for two years is that it creates an environment for high-pressure, high-intensity public debate leading people to potentially do stupid things. That petition was just that guy doing it himself – certainly not part of our strategy.”

Perhaps the best articulation of that strategy was offered on Wednesday at the National Press Club by Tiernan Brady, director of Australians for Equality.

“All too often,” he said, “we start from the premise of ‘You’ve got some really bad ideas that have to change’, and we think that’s persuasive. It isn’t.

“There is simply nobody in the world who, upon being called a bigot or a homophobe, has clutched their pearls and said, ‘Well, thank you for telling me how awful I am. I will now support you for the rest of my life.’ ”

Instead of challenging the values of those on the other side, Brady said, the persuasive approach was to demonstrate how marriage equality could fit with those values, how it was “an enunciation of those values of fairness, of equality for all”.

The strategy was to emphasise the universality of those values among disparate groups.

Appearing beside Brady at the press club was Janine Middleton, co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality, who began by identifying herself as a conservative-voting, heterosexual former investment banker.

She said 1563 groups now were affiliated with the campaign, including, 616 “large corporates”.

But ultimately, as Brady, Middleton, Croome, Rugg and other leaders of the campaign stress, it’s a grassroots effort.

Even as the “Yes” side opposed the idea of a plebiscite or postal vote, it was prepared with a campaign to encourage voting.

All campaign material is printed in 10 of the most spoken languages other than English. Affiliated groups run the gamut from Muslims for Marriage – who, says Rugg “are having a launch and a big phone-bank event on September 18” – to Blackfellas for Marriage, to all manner of other ethnic and regional groups.

“As of Friday last week, 151 decentralised events were registered,” Rugg says. “These are ordinary people who have decided they will host an equality party in their living rooms, or organising their own phone-bank events. And as of Tuesday night, Equality has made over 40,000 phone calls.”

After the High Court ruled on Thursday that the postal vote could proceed as planned, the “Yes” campaign will likely ramp up dramatically.

“The progress of the marriage equality campaign to date is built on people sharing their personal stories, helping people to understand they’re just like us.

“The strategy of friendly conversation is the bread and butter of this campaign.”

It has to be thus, Brady says. When the other side is intent on “dehumanising” you, the best response is human engagement.

“Winning,” as Brady says, “is not the same as beating someone.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 9, 2017 as "‘Yes’ ministered". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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