Same-sex marriage: what our leaders could learn from grandma

10 Aug 2017

same-sex marriage equality

As a child, I was gripped with an irrational terror that my family would expect me to marry someone from church. Later, when I realised that although I did like boys, I also liked girls, there seemed no place for people like me in either the religious or the popular media stories about white weddings and eternal love.

Now I can see that marriage can offer deep meaning for couples of all kinds, perhaps especially for those who have felt locked out of those rituals growing up. So, I know how important it is that our leaders take up strong positions on amending our laws and inspiring respectful but robust conversations about making marriage culture more inclusive.

Yet too many of our political and faith leaders remain silent. For some, religious beliefs discourage an opening of hearts to recognise non-heterosexual relationships as valid and real. For others, political strategy suggests that since this change is inevitable, remaining quiet and cautious is wise, so as not to offend any powerful stakeholders as the status quo is slowly transformed.

But, I know that those leaders who do not speak up now to promote acceptance of sexual and gender diversity are failing both themselves and the communities they serve. I also know, from personal experience, that neither religion nor a preference for a quiet approach are legitimate excuses for not demonstrating this kind of leadership.

Twenty years ago, I moved from the beachside town of my childhood to the big, dirty and unapologetically-queer city of my dreams. And in the safety of numbers, I came to fully accept that there was nothing wrong with me. I also came to understand how much is gained from celebrating our differences, and how much is lost from denying them.

With my newfound confidence in tow, I returned home to continue the conversations which had begun with my family about my unconventional romantic choices.

I was lucky. My family and I found ways to stay connected through the slow and painful process of adjusting our beliefs and our ways of relating to each other. And, in the midst of that process, my grandmother offered me an extraordinary gift, which I now believe represents exactly the kind of leadership missing in our country today.

On being told that her eldest granddaughter had a girlfriend, she simply responded: 'Oh. Then I know what you are. You are bisexual.'

My grandmother lived a controlled moral life. She was also a woman who was an ill fit with the gendered parameters of her time, with a mind too big and too quick to be happy with the opportunities society had made available to her. Yet in her own particular way, she achieved moments of incredible vision and leadership.

On being told that her eldest granddaughter had a girlfriend, she simply responded: 'Oh. Then I know what you are. You are bisexual.' There was no hand-wringing, at least not in front of me. There was no outrage or fear or disgust. There was simply a statement of truth.

Despite being shaped by her generational and faith-based perspectives, she could see that since I did not fit within the known categories of her world, she needed to expand them. And behind those words, which still ring in my ears, I knew that what she was offering me was acceptance: 'This is what you are. It is more than we know and understand. But that is okay.'

This is the kind of leadership we need our political and faith leaders to demonstrate now. They need to simply state the facts and set the tone, without fear of the response. As I, and all those who research sexuality and relationships can attest, sexuality is diverse in every community, including those which promote conservative politics and religious beliefs.

Strong leaders make it safe to be a different kind of kid, or a different kind of adult. They make it possible for us to talk about the pleasures we seek, and the fears we hold, without feeling that any of these truths are off limits.

And now we need those leaders to create a policy and cultural environment in which all of us can create the consensual and respectful bonds and connections we value in adult life, and have them formally recognised and celebrated among those we hold dear, no matter our gender or sexual identities.

We all have a need to feel we belong. But if our leaders do not speak up now to make this clear, their silence will continue to speak volumes.

Christy Newman is Associate Professor in the Centre for Social Research in Health.

This article was originally published by Huffpost Australia.