The long march to Yes: Walking from Sydney to Brisbane for Marriage Equality

Today’s result was the real destination when my boyfriend and I left Sydney to walk to Brisbane for same-sex marriage equality.

After the surprise of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, the polls finally predicted something correctly with Australians endorsing equality for the LGBTQI community.

Up until the 10am announcement I remained scared of a No vote. It was the same fear of not belonging that I felt as a boy when I started to recognise that I was gay. It was the same fear of rejection I had as a young man when I came out to family and friends.

It was the same fear I had on the seven-week walk, when people hurled abuse from passing cars, or yelled ‘Save our children’ or ‘I’m voting No’ with the smug satisfaction of those who get to decide your social worth.

The walk was my boyfriend Adam Russoniello’s idea and in a moment of weakness I said yes. It’s a moment that I am grateful for because it has given me great strength.

There were many signs of hope as we walked with our rainbow backpacks along Australia’s pristine beaches and ramshackle highways. Countless honks of support kept us walking to the next rest stop in blazing heat as our Powerade started to bubble.

In Toukley a young mother anonymously shouted us coffees, later sending a message on social media to let us know that her God was in favour of Same Sex Marriage and not all Christians were voting No.

At a streetside café in Kempsey, Hayley Hoskins shared the story of her son who struggled with his sexuality and took his life. In response Hayley started the trust Baylin’s Gift in his memory and organised a celebratory gathering It’s Ok On The Macleay, sending a clear message that a Yes vote is the only vote for people who care about the welfare of children.

“We try and teach children they are accepted no matter what, but how can they truly feel accepted if they aren’t treated the same?” Hayley said.

Alongside the compassion and understanding of many Australians there was a shared frustration at having to go through the plebiscite.

A taxi driver taking us to our motel in Maclean after our tenth RSL chicken schnitzel dinner shouted us the ride. In a drawl used by cabbies near the Queensland border, he echoed the thoughts of many that the government should have just done its job and taken care of this in Parliament.

The fact that children, some with the same struggles of Hayley’s son Baylin, had to sit through denigrating television commercials for the purpose of political obfuscation broke my heart but fuelled every step.

Adam and I marched into Brisbane’s Wickham Hotel as the survey came to a close, with our loving families and friends, walking alongside us.

Among the friends was a gay couple who have been together for 27 years. They thanked us for doing something they couldn’t (dodgy hips from dancing to ‘80s music).

The walk may be over but until same-sex marriage passes in parliament the journey towards equality isn’t. Arguments about religious freedom and bakers with birthday cakes will continue, as yesterday’s men such as former Prime Minister’s John Howard and Tony Abbott try to sell discrimination in the name of equality but today is about celebrating.

Australia said yes but will Adam? I haven’t asked him yet but the polls are looking positive.


The End is Nigh

We are 60km away from Brisbane, it’s 5.30am and I am wide awake in a motel that looks like a crime scene. For six weeks we have taken small steps, literally, to show how important marriage equality is to us but has it been worthwhile?

Both of us took time away from our jobs, family, friends and sheets that don’t burn to walk outside the Sydney bubble and try to make a difference. I had hoped to fall back in love with Australia. With its incredible beaches, rugged fauna and ancient watering holes, it’s done its best.

Right now, however, as a symphony of truck brakes serenade me, I’m not feeling the love.  I should be smiling. Decent coffee is nearby, my Nike sneakers can soon be retired and I can rest my feet on Monday. We even managed a few sneaky laughs yesterday at Dreamworld.

The Yes result seems inevitable and organisations are posting invitations for celebrations but that feeling of love eludes me. Last night’s Uber driver, who transported us to the nearest Thai restaurant without a pun in its name summed up my current mood. “It all seems a waste". There’s the waste of money, time and energy which can be placed firmly at the feet of our government. Our government is meant to represent Australia (well really it’s still the Queen, who has already approved same-sex marriage in Britain) and they’ve done a lousy job.

The politicians in Canberra have unleashed Pandora’s Box, or in this case, an Esky stuffed with rum and cokes, to give airtime to a vicious minority who have dominated our television screens and newspapers with hateful messages and countless lies. We get who we vote for, even if they are ineligible for the job because of their citizenship status or penchant for comical hats. We voted for a parliament that preferred to stage The Hunger Games rather than deal with human rights.

Thanks to The Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017 a minority was empowered to spread a message of hate targeting the LGBQTI community and sensationally focusing on gender diversity. This act was meant to protect respectful debate but just gave us the Lyle Shelton show on repeat.

It’s hard to love this part of Australia, which wields religion like a weapon, takes smug satisfaction in judging the validity of others and clings to a notion of manhood and womanhood where 1 in 3 women are victims of domestic violence.

Love may sneak up on me at the final hurdle but I won’t be turning around to look for it. I don’t want to look back just yet at everything that has happened. Today I want to leave the crime scene.


The Male Survey

My boyfriend aside, I recently feel like giving up on men. As #metoo shows the devastating extent of misogyny and abuse, my faith in the unfairer sex is waning.

On this neverending footpath to Brisbane, men have been less forward with their thoughts on marriage equality than women, unless yelling abuse from a hurtling ute.

Yesterday we received our third offer of a lift, this time from a woman in her sixties on the outskirts of Lawrence. The other two were also from women, one in her twenties on the road from Ulmarra in the pouring rain, the other in her thirties walking towards Taree.

We refused each generous gesture, despite the protestations of our toes.

I’m not encouraging the widespread offer of car rides to men with rainbow flags but acts of kindness, giving and sharing on this journey have predominantly been from women.

Of course, there was the woman who screeched “save the family” as she drove from Crescent Head, executing a perilous U-turn to repeat the misguided cry.

There was also the woman in Terrigal who delivered a withering “sucked in” when I admired her breakfast order. That hurt.

As a gay man, I am not exempt from poor behaviour towards women, having indulged in man-splaining, man-spreading and eye-rolling at teenagers tottering in short skirts and high heels.

Like my racism, homophobia and transphobia I try to deal with my misogyny by acknowledging it and attempting to improve my behaviour.

Just when I was giving up on men, Adam and I jumped in a taxi from dinner at the Maclean RSL to our motel. We had already walked this path a number of times so a taxi was allowed.

After the usual taxi-chat we told the driver about our walk for equality. He went silent.

At this point I was preparing to walk the rest of the journey or roll out the passenger side but the driver just stopped the metre.

“This whole thing is stupid,” he said. “This country just has to wake up and catch up. The rest of the trip is on me.”

And suddenly I’m back to liking men - the men who know when things are wrong, are willing to make things better and keep my protesting toes happy.


No More Mr Nice Gay

One of the annoying things about finding yourself living under the label of ‘gay’ is the expectation for you to be constantly happy and upbeat.

While I have found myself matching the cliche of having a sixth sense for style, carbohydrate-related guilt and knowing all of the words in the rap for Kylie Minogue‘s single Shocked, I find the perpetual smile part tiring. Having the value of my relationships put to the public vote in Australia isn’t helping.

In Hyland Park on Saturday, when a woman wound down her window to smile sweetly and shout ‘Vote No’ I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, with gay abandon.

When people have yelled out ‘Faggots’ from their cars as my boyfriend and I walk to Brisbane from Sydney raising awareness for marriage equality, I have just worn a fixed grin.

Even before setting out on this journey, two women closer in years to Helen Mirren than Hilary Duff, cornered me at a Potts Point cafe to explain why they are voting No, even though they love gay people. At the end of our conversation I thanked them for their time, assuaging their guilt instead of calling them on their homophobia.

Now, halfway through our journey north, I feel like yelling back and adding a few choice gestures. I want to eviscerate these bigots with a tongue sharpened at the heels of Melbourne drag queens, in the newsroom of daily newspapers and in the front rows of Paris Fashion Week.

Just as I am about to stop the dizzying spiral of turning cheek after cheek, the words of Michelle Obama come to mind: “When they go low, we go high.”

One slip and after a lifetime of slurs, Tony Abbott and Andrew Bolt will label me a bully.

The high road is becoming increasingly frustrating on the long road to Brisbane. The journey to equality seems like a fight for the right to meet the opposition on their own grubby terms.

For the time being and until November 7, I’m still smiling but please know that when you scream ‘No’ at me I am not happy, I am not upbeat, I am just gay.


Country Twitter

Yelling from a car window is Kempsey’s answer to Twitter, with one vocal No campaigner screeching “Save the family” from her speeding vehicle on the road from Crescent Head yesterday.

We undertook the walk from Sydney to Brisbane to escape the digital bubble but anonymous trolling can take place on a road with no internet reception. Part of me wished that the driver would have stopped to talk because her slogan confuses me. It confused me when Tony Abbott described families as the basis of community and hearing it shouted at 80 Kph didn’t add clarity.

Which families need saving? I’m not sure how allowing same sex couples to marry threatens this woman’s family more than leaning out a car window while speeding. Kempsey has the third highest reports of domestic violence in regional centres in NSW. This is an issue that threatens families, not allowing loving couples to have their relationship recognised by the law.

What about the families of same sex couples that already exist? Are these part of the car bound campaigner’s call for salvation? In the end it seems like another meaningless slogan meant to strike fear into people under the guise of love.

Let’s recognise the importance of all families and the power that a loving unit has to raise children, cope with economic hardships and crippling energy bills.

By not standing in the way of love we can focus on dealing with real problems, such as domestic violence (and dangerous driving).


Road Kill

Walking from Forster to Taree to Wauchope to Port Macquarie, a lot of things cross your mind.

Q: How do you pronounce Wauchope?
A: Forget the C.
Q: Was that rustle in the bushes a snake?
A: Yes.
Q: How do P-platers drive BMWs?
A: Mum and Dad.
Q: Why are we doing this?

After a particularly long walk in the hot sun by the side of a highway I was wondering why we didn’t just walk through outer Sydney, Blacktown perhaps, and connect with people that way.

I’ve discovered that the universe responds faster than Adam to a text message. Five minutes later a woman started walking towards me on the highway at Halliday’s Point, gripping her keys between her fingers in traditional self-defense mode.

As I prepared to face a Camry key to the forehead she asked me if I needed a lift.
This was a first. We had enjoyed beeps of support but someone stopping to offer two burly-adjacent men a lift was a first.

The woman was from Blacktown and against the judgement of two children in the backseat she wanted to show her support. Just days earlier her pre-teen daughter had said that she wanted to be able to vote Yes, so this brave Mum wanted us to meet her.

We turned down the lift, to the relief of the kids sprawled in the backseat but accepted the good wishes.

This is why we are doing this - to connect with people in unusual ways that surprise us and them. To support love, equality, learn how to pronounce unusual town names and dodge snakes and car keys.


CWA - Chicks With Attitude

For a lad more suburban than Keith Urban it might surprise you to know that I’m a very little bit country and a very little bit rock and roll (bananarama rock and roll, right) which is why the CWA was an essential stop through a country town today.

While buying marmalade a fellow relish fan and I chatted about the plebiscite and after a while revealed that she was Yes voter and a lesbian.

Both statuses were delivered in hushed whispers as she told me about a local gay couple who had their house egged.

For this retired and reluctantly retiring woman a low-key life was the best way of navigating community prejudice. I mentioned how an overwhelming Yes vote could help shift attitudes but to this woman that seemed as much of a pipe dream as decent internet speed.

With my marmalade in hand I left, taking some hope from the CWA’s progressive attitudes. While the NSW branch of the CWA has dropped the issue like a hot scone after vigorous debate, the Victorian branch and SW WA branch are big supporters of marriage equality.

Hopefully the people in the towns with an equality-minded CWA will put their eggs to better use than as missiles for gay households. I suggest Yo-Yo biscuits but that might be my suburban side talking.


Gaslight

Today’s poll from The Australian shows slipping support for same sex marriage with commentators calling out bullying tactics from ‘Yes’ supporters.

That Tasmanian headbutt from an Anarchist is still referred to, despite the protagonist’s eloquent explanation that, like the Australian public during Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministerial reign, he just couldn’t tolerate the politician.

All of a sudden the committed No campaigner who delivered a pie to the face of Qantas head Alan Joyce is forgotten.

Are we hearing about the Yes campaigners who have had their house’s covered with swastikas?

Like many members of the LGBTI community I have faced verbal and physical bullying throughout my life because of my sexuality. Even walking from Sydney to Brisbane with Vote Yes messages on my T-shirt, every day I have experienced people yelling out insults from cars.

To have No campaigners say that they are being bullied feels like a convenient adoption of the Victim T-shirt until they can go back to wilfully discriminating against the LGBTI community. It’s like the older brother hitting their younger sibling and then pretending that Charlie bit their finger.

Rather than be scared of people wearing Equality badges the Australian public should be concerned about the rise of far right religious groups. Women should be concerned about the potential loss of access to services, as is happening in the US. Minorities should look to the German elections where far right groups are gaining prominence, again.

The real potential victims of this vote about equal rights is most of Australia, not the wolves in sheeps’ clothing.


God Speed to Newcastle

Sometimes the most important thing that happens during hours trudging asphalt occurs in a matter of seconds.
Today our toughening feet are resting in Newcastle and I looked back on a message we received through social media.

“Hi guys! I shouted you a coffee yesterday at Toukley 👌I had to rush back to my kids in the car but wanted you to know that I shouted you coffee because I think you're bloody amazing and obviously passionate about what you're doing (I love people that act on what they think and don't just think) but also because I'm a Christian and wanted you to meet one who wouldn't be negative and tell you God hates you because that's not true at all! So walk on brothers and know you have many cheering you on!”

Call it fatigue, or the sight of my untamed eyebrows but this message made me weepier than the blister on my left toe.

To me the Christian spirit is all about love, not who you want to bake a cake for or masking hate with cherry-picked Bible quotations.

This message reminded me that we all have different beliefs but that as long as we believe in each other, things might be ok. Love and a free coffee - life is good.


Marriage equality is a matter of life and death

Today I woke up on the outskirts of Newcastle to the news that an amazing friend Paul Legvold died in the US.

Paul has been married to his husband Patrick Day since 2009 but their love stretches on years before that important ceremony. Because they were married Patrick does not need to prove his relationship status or have Paul’s wishes challenged by family members. Just as important, the community can rally around Patrick and acknowledge their relationship, because we easily understand the bond of married couples.

I met Paul in my early twenties when I was flying to New York from LA. We chatted on the plane and when I was stranded at JFK he gave me a lift in his chauffeured car. For nearly 20 years he shared with me the milestones of his relationship with Patrick and became a role model, enjoying the kind of life I would like to lead (I do love a chauffeured car as well as two people in love).

I’m going to miss my out of the blue updates from Paul and will keep walking, hoping that I can eventually enjoy the bond he and Patrick shared and will continue to share in life and death.