Marriage equality plebiscite offers dire lessons for indigenous voice in parliament referendum

From the age of five Keenan Smith knew they felt different, lacking the sense of ease that other children in the country of Australia took for granted, and chafed at being pushed into rough sports and toy trucks and guns.

“I didn’t like the same things that boys used in that age group, things like sports and those traditionally gendered things,” says person Wirangu, Mirning and Kokatha.

Smith grew up on the west coast of South Australia between the mining town of Ceduna and Port Lincoln. They grew up feeling “different”, experiencing multiple prejudices as gay and non-binary First Nations people.

“Going to school at [Port] Lincoln I was often the only Aboriginal child in my class.

“In Ceduna I was surrounded by my family and there was a large Aboriginal community there so I didn’t know I was different in that sense, but for me gender and identity was something I’ve always known.

“I’ve always hated being called a man or a boy. I never identified with that, even as a kid.

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Smith says that after moving to the city for college they began exploring their identities and sexualities. In 2020, as the country grappled with pandemic-induced isolation, they felt safe enough to “come out.”

It is that hard-won security that Smith feels is now at risk, as Australians prepare to vote for an Indigenous voice in parliament. Divisions are already showing within parliament and there are growing concerns that the referendum could stir up racist vitriol, triggering trauma for vulnerable indigenous peoples, similar to the homophobic ugliness during the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

“I think for Aboriginal people it will be 10 times worse given the history of colonization or continued colonization in this country,” Smith says.

“We should anticipate this and start now by identifying the risks associated with the incoming campaign to our mental health and well-being.”

There was this absolutely toxic, nasty rhetoric that we could easily see happening in exactly the same way

Sandy O’Sullivan

Indigenous studies professor at Macquarie University Sandy O’Sullivan says the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite offers some ugly lessons for the nation’s future referendum.

“It has torn families apart, it has affected people in the workplace. There was this absolutely toxic and nasty rhetoric that we could easily see happening in exactly the same way,” Wiradjuri person says.

They say that for queer First Nations people, who have already been part of a national debate with hurtful homophobic and hate speech, disagreements and hurtful comments come at a great price.

O’Sullivan, who has a strong online presence, was overwhelmed by the vitriol directed against them for their standing during the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

“We were dealing with a lot of negative misinformation. All this misinformation from mostly non-indigenous people and all this negative criticism. It was absolutely toxic. He was relentless and pushed against the no vote,” they say.

“Anyone who has already passed will be traumatized again, but I think for all mafiosi it will be traumatizing. We know there will be dissent because we are seeing it before we even know what the question is.”

It’s something Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney recognized this week at the launch of Yarn13, a hotline providing culturally appropriate mental health support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“Ahead of the referendum, we’re probably going to have to hear some pretty awful things about our crowd — from people who are threatened or opposed to change, or maybe just plain racist,” Burney said.

Aboriginal psychologist Dr Tracy Westerman says racism, trauma and negative representations already affect the daily lives of Indigenous peoples and when issues such as the need for a voice go public, they ‘create a perfect storm for fear and hatred’ .

“Racism manifests itself in the same way as trauma,” says the Nyamal woman.

“By comparison, we know for example that homophobia was at its peak during the gay marriage debate, and we also know that this has had a significant impact on the mental health of the gay community,” Westerman says.

Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is key, and communities will need to rely on each other at the outset of the campaign, Westerman says.

Sometimes “tuning the noise” is a form of self-care, she says.

“The simple answer is to not engage with every racist on social media and go to your own personal media.

“Often you just have to disengage as self-protection and model that for the kids. Pick your battles and teach your kids to do the same.

Related: Citizens’ stance on indigenous voice is a “slap in the face for blacks,” says the Aboriginal leader

Westerman says being aware of how psychological distress manifests itself in the body is also important.

“Racism as trauma means there will be a sense of bodily stress, anxiety and this can be felt not only by yourself but also impact those around you.”

Black Rainbow founder Dameyon Bonson, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man, says the three months leading up to the marriage equality vote were a ‘living hell’, but fears that this time racism and nasty comments they could be worse, especially for First Nations Children.

“Racism will only get worse and if the marriage equality vote is anything to go by, it will. Those actual three months during the live plebiscite were pure hell until the very end,” she said.

Support needs to be in place within the next year, especially for children and young people who will be experiencing some of these issues for the first time, Bonson says.

“So I think it’s going to be about educating schools and putting protective strategies in place.”

But he believes the rumor will be successful.

“I think most Australians already know, they want it.”

• In Australia, support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 and MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline at US, Mental Health America is available at 800-273-8255

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