Dual Citizenship during the Plebiscite

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

To continue exploring the idea of dual citizenship, I thought I’d share some stories of my experience during the same-sex marriage postal vote in 2017. Warning: this is not a feel-good post as it contains some heavy-hearted stories taken from my journal as I struggled to cope during this time. As I mentioned in my last post, it was one of the most intense times to be both gay and Christian, occupying both secular and religious spaces.

In a way, it felt like a collision of worlds.

I was living in Melbourne at the time, doing postgraduate music studies in a very progressive arts institution and also heavily involved in a local Anglican church. For the first time in my adult life, my professional community and my faith community were completely distinct with no overlap at all, which only added to the sense of inhabiting two different countries as a dual citizen.

One of the first things I was struck by in the plebiscite process was how fearful everyone was… but how different those fears were. Whether legitimately or not, religious conservatives and queer folk alike both felt like some of their core values were under attack. But from my curious vantage point, I could see that neither ‘side’ (if I were to simplistically reduce it to two ‘sides,’ which is overly reductive) had much empathy for how others across the debate might be feeling. As with so many debates where a deeply personal issue is reduced to a political campaign, it became all too easy to dehumanise the faces on the ‘other side’ of the discussion. Depending on which community I was with at the time, I would see people caricatured as either spiteful, homophobic hypocrites or radical crusaders of a depraved new social structure. Let me tell you, that was exhausting. At times I felt the pressure to speak as a ‘translator’ to help people understand the genuine motivations and feelings of queer people or religious folk respectively… but most of the time I felt so mischaracterised myself that all I had the energy to do was sit quietly and hope to remain invisible.

“It became all too easy to dehumanise the faces on the ‘other side’ of the discussion.”

I remember vividly the exact moment when I heard the official announcement to hold a postal vote on legalising same-sex marriage. I had finished a very productive day at the music academy, so I came home early, exhausted from the physical exertion of playing bassoon. After trudging up the three flights of stairs to my tiny apartment, I collapsed onto my bed and started to unwind with some down time on my phone. As I picked up my phone, I opened a message I’d been ignoring all day. Upon opening the message, I learned that a queer person I am very close to had been hospitalised after trying to end their life.

I felt numb. Not sad, not shaken up, just numb. I was angry with myself for not feeling more, but it felt like my tank of emotional reserves had exploded and now it was just empty. Nothing left to feel except emotionally depleted. Sadly, the message was no surprise to me; this wasn’t the first time this person had been hospitalised after attempted suicide. I knew it wouldn’t be the last. After years of fearing for someone’s safety and grieving the darkness they feel, you eventually lose the energy to feel emotions with a normal intensity. I could only describe it as feeling emotionally depleted – like I had nothing left to give.

That was how I felt even before I heard the announcement.

After being confronted by the message about my friend, I took a few minutes to bury my face in my pillow, breathing deeply and trying to regain enough energy to keep going. Eventually I pulled out my phone again and started mindlessly scrolling through Facebook hoping to unwind with some light-hearted entertainment. Hopefully there would be some good memes to distract me.

Instead, my whole newsfeed was inundated with announcements of the Australian government’s decision to hold a postal survey on whether same-sex couples would be allowed to marry. Even though I’d known this was a possibility for months, the news hit me with a visceral blow like someone had punched the pit of my stomach. Along with the announcements came an onslaught of warnings. Warning about the implications for religious freedoms and fear from my friends in pastoral ministry that their personal convictions could see them lose their jobs. Warnings that made me angry from fundamentalists who predicted that this would somehow ‘destroy the fabric of society’ and violate children’s rights. Then far more urgent warnings about how the mental health and well-being of LGBTQI+ people would be at a higher risk than ever during this period. Warnings about how there would be a spike in homophobic hate speech and discrimination as people felt free to shout their opinions whatever the consequence and suddenly had public platforms from which to shout those opinions. Warnings about how the already-inflated suicide risks to queer people would escalate dramatically over the coming months. I scrolled through Facebook, getting hammered by the intensity of these clamouring protests.

I had already felt emotionally depleted and worried after hearing about my friend’s attempted suicide. Now this. These announcements don’t happen in a vacuum of neutrality, but they hit us in the middle of the messy, broken lives we’re already dealing with. Like so many others, I was already worried about the well-being of LGBTQI+ people even before any of this happened. I was already afraid of the people who wouldn’t make it through.

And now this was happening.

I should have felt anxious. Anxious for the people affected, and anxious about how I was going to navigate such complex conversations as a Christian. But I couldn’t. I had no emotional energy left to even feel anxious. I just felt empty, utterly drained of emotions.

And that was only day one.

That was the beginning of some very long months when “emotionally drained” would become the most frequent description of how I was going.

For me, it wasn’t even fears about the vote itself. Whether it’s legal to marry a same-sex partner doesn’t affect me personally as someone whose beliefs would prevent me from doing that anyway. But all the inflamed rhetoric, all the moments of being spoken about as if I’m not even in the room took its toll.

Any LGBTQI+ person who lived in Australia during the plebiscite has war stories to share. It’s not easy to have the whole country talk about you as a political idea, or worse, as the public enemy. As a queer person, you get used to having people talk about you more than they talk to you, but this was a whole new level. TV ads, books, posters, churches, even writing in the sky all clamouring to express their opinion of you. Whether your existence, or at least your freedom, posed a threat to society. And Christians, on the other hand, being accused of posing a threat to society’s freedoms in even stronger terms.

Well, some of us had the added delight of feeling those accusations from both directions at once. Same-sex attracted Christians got to be the person in the room who gets spoken about as if we’re not even there, no matter which room we were in.

I remember sitting at lunch with colleagues and hearing them laugh and ridicule Christians who had such outdated views about sex. They mocked a mutual friend behind her back about not wanting to sleep around before marriage, and cracked jokes about ‘those Christians’ who are so hopelessly single they are basically dating Jesus. I sat there silently. A celibate, gay Christian. They all knew I was a Christian and very committed to my faith, but in that moment it was like I was invisible. They certainly didn’t know I expected to remain single and celibate for the rest of my life as a gay person who loves and obeys Jesus. They ridiculed ‘those Christians’ and ‘filthy celibates’ as some distant adversary ‘out there’ while I sat among them and felt every word land on me. All I’d wanted was a relaxed lunchbreak where I could sit and eat in peace.

Later I would catch a tram to a different part of the city for Bible study with my church family. Crossing the tracks to get to the tram stop always felt like I was stepping over a border. Those tram tracks divided my two worlds: my Christian world where I would gather with my church family on Sundays and Wednesdays, and my secular world where my friends worshiped music and over 10% of my colleagues were LGBTQI+ folk. I hated the idea of these two spheres being so divided, but that was how it was.

As I crossed the tram tracks to get to Bible study, I unconsciously switched gears back to speaking in Christian jargon and making sure not to bring up any taboo subjects that make Christians uncomfortable. Instead of the usual Bible study that night, I was surprised when our leader told us that we would be thinking about how to respond to conversations about the plebiscite and watching a lecture by a celibate SSA Christian speaker. Although I had some apprehension, this was a huge step forward. We were actually hearing from a real person who knew what it was like to be same-sex attracted and Christian! This was how our leader was helping us to have conversations about faith and sexuality during the plebiscite. Happily surprised, I settled back to watch the video, and started thinking about how this was as good a chance as any to come out to my church family. I’d wanted to come out to them for a while and had had a few individual conversations with some people already, so I felt like it was time to shift the conversation to an ‘us’ instead of a ‘them.’ Unfortunately by the time the video finished, a few people shared some conceptual ideas they found interesting about the talk and someone else shared how he felt ‘persecuted’ at work for being a Christian because of some of the comments he’d made about gay people, and before I knew it, the leader was calling the conversation to a close. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to jump in, but all the discussion questions had been related to theological ideas with no space for me to share personal experience without hijacking the conversation for a jarring non sequitur. Never mind, I thought, maybe when we share prayer points afterwards, I can share with everyone then. Well, no. There was no time to share prayer points that night because we’d spent too long discussing opinions on the postal vote. Somehow we’d spent an entire evening talking about gay people, and I still hadn’t had the opportunity to even put up my hand and say, “I’m one of them.” What I found over and over again during the plebiscite was that in Christian contexts there were constant opportunities to talk political and theological ideas about gay people, but almost no opportunities to acknowledge the lived experience of those of us in the room who might actually be gay.

I felt invisible. I felt like being seen as Christian in a Christian context meant I couldn’t be seen as gay—even if I wanted to. And it was nearly as easy to feel invisible in a secular context too, but for totally different reasons. I have a lot of love and respect for both these communities, and they are people I trust… so I don’t share this story to cast accusations. But I do want to show that even loving and well-meaning people can cause hurt when our fixation on political and theological concepts leaves real people invisible in the shadows.

“Even loving and well-meaning people can cause hurt when our fixation on political and theological concepts leaves real people invisible in the shadows.”

You’re probably reading this and thinking how unhealthy it was for me to be compartmentalising, dividing my life into different parts and only presenting certain parts to certain people. And you’re right, that would be very unhealthy.

But the thing is I didn’t want it this way either. I hated it. I felt foreign everywhere I went. But it felt like whichever context I was in would only acknowledge certain parts of my experience and would act like the rest of it was invisible. I faced the paradox: the more I shared with people, the less they would understand me. Telling people I was gay/celibate/Christian would only make me feel more foreign to them, when all I wanted was to feel understood. I longed to be seen, but if you spend long enough trapped in a box, you eventually stop trying to punch your way out, lie back exhausted, and make yourself at home in the box. We only have so much energy left to fight to be seen.

I think that’s how a lot of SSA Christians feel. I think it’s why the vast majority of SSA Christians I know have decided not to come out. It’s exhausting constantly trying to address people’s misconceptions of you, and at a certain point many people decide to lean into the invisibility. If people won’t acknowledge that part of your experience, maybe it’s easier if we all pretend it’s not there at all.

“Most of the time I felt so mischaracterised that all I had the energy to do was sit quietly and hope to remain invisible.”

Still, there were some positive conversations that came out of the plebiscite. I was heartened to see a lot of younger Christian students eagerly listening with open hearts. Some people even went out of their way to tee up a coffee with me because they wanted to understand a nuanced perspective from a real-life gay person. Of the people who actually asked me how I was coping as gay person during the plebiscite, almost all of them were Christian leaders. One of them was the pastor from my old church which I’d moved away from some years earlier; he has over 600 people under his pastoral care and we hadn’t spoken for a couple of years, but he was thoughtful enough to call me out of the blue to ask how I was holding up. Another ministry leader who I’d met at a conference and had literally had one conversation with sent me a message to let me know he was praying for me and understood it must be a hard time for us. It was heartening to see these leaders paving the way for much-needed culture change in the church.

I also had the privilege of using my dual citizenship status to help the music academy draft a public statement on the plebiscite. After seeing a somewhat tone-deaf first draft, I responded to the call for feedback and began a series of very productive conversations with the General Manager. Together we were able to transform a simplistic political position into a much more nuanced statement that did more justice to the lived experiences of real-life queer people as well as creating space for the diversity of worldviews represented at the academy. Instead of lazy point-scoring (‘we all support the yes vote here’), we emphasised that valuing queer people is so much more than merely ticking a box on a ballot paper. We highlighted the dignity, freedom and respect that gay people deserve, and we framed these values in a way that meant people of faith could wholeheartedly express their support for our gay colleagues regardless of personal political convictions. The final product was a beautiful expression of solidarity that Christians and queer people alike could get behind.

But it came at a cost. Even with individuals prepared to listen well on both ‘sides,’ at the end of the day I still occupied two communities that had little solidarity with each other. When I shared the academy’s public statement to my Facebook page, I received considerable backlash from Christians who assumed that expressing solidarity with LGBTQ+ people meant I was compromising my moral convictions. I did my best to handle these conversations with grace, but eventually I got too emotionally depleted to keep replying to the messages and justifying myself to people. As I shared in my last post, there comes a time when it’s easier to stop trying to be understood. I was one of the lucky ones who had a few close friends who really understood me and were good listeners, so at least I wasn’t totally isolated even if I still felt invisible in my communities.

After a few months of this, the emotional fatigue wore me down. I ended up needing to see a psychologist. I found a therapist provided by the music academy and booked in a session. While it was helpful to talk through my feelings, it still felt like I had to spend most of the time helping him to understand my circumstances. I might start a sentence by saying I was gay and finding the plebiscite quite distressing and he’d nod as if he’d just worked out which box to put me in. Then I’d continue to explain that I was a Christian who had chosen celibacy instead of aspiring to marry a man, and suddenly I was explaining myself all over again to someone who didn’t have the right category for me anymore. He was kind and empathetic, but at the end of the session the main advice he had to offer was more along the lines of reconsidering my worldview so I could pursue a relationship with a guy and be happily ever after. This is always my fear when seeing a new therapist—that instead of really hearing what I’m actually saying, they’ll latch onto the words “gay” and “Christian” and assume I’m a self-hating homophobe that needs to give up my faith to resolve some massive internal conflict they’ve projected onto me.

I understand why he responded the way he did, and I do believe he was doing the best he could with the experience he had. But the reality is when you’re a gay Christian, you have to get used to most people not fully understanding you, even if they’re professionals who are literally paid to understand people.

The irony was that on the way home I called my best friend to debrief and ended up having a far more therapeutic conversation with him than the psychologist. Despite being a straight Christian without an intuitive understanding of these things, he has spent enough hours patiently listening to me and other friends like me to eventually understand me far better than a professional therapist. I cannot emphasise enough how important individual friendships like that were to me during the plebiscite. Whatever else I was feeling, at least I didn’t have to be alone. I don’t want all my lamenting to ignore the life-giving ways people were kind and loving to me.

But at the end of the day, even with individual friends to listen and love me, my place in wider communities remained confusing. Going to church made me feel anxious. My workplace didn’t feel like a safe space. I was surrounded by people I loved and respected but whose narrow perspective would make me feel invisible as they would talk about caricatured Christians and/or gay people as if we weren’t in the room. As if, surely, we didn’t exist in that space.

At first I tried to make this post end on a less depressing note. But I’m learning that sometimes it’s okay to just lament. To grieve. At church last week we studied Psalm 88 and learned that lamenting doesn’t come from a lack of faith. Lamenting can be a genuine expression of our faith in God when we direct our feelings to him sincerely.

Let me tell you, I did a lot of directing my feelings to God during plebiscite season. Knowing that no matter how invisible I felt in community, there was a God who saw me. Even when the heavy feelings of deep emotional depletion hit and God felt far away, I could still cry out to him. These lyrics below (from a musical theatre song that is a desperate cry to God) became a bit of a mantra for me during this time as I would sing along and pray them from my heart:

Are you there? Are you there?
Can you make some time for me?
They tell me that you're out there and they tell me that you see
I try to find the meaning
God, you know how hard I've tried
But I don't know where I'm
And I don't have any guide

3 thoughts on “Dual Citizenship during the Plebiscite

  1. Oh Matt! I’m sorry. To you and any others I may have inadvertently hurt without meaning to.

    This type of dual citizenship is not a burden that I personally have to carry, but if I have added to yours or anyone else’s in any way, I am truly and genuinely sorry.

    Thank you for your raw honesty and lament. It is hard to read and I’m sure it was harder to write, but it is a precious thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Megan, thanks for your thoughtfulness here (and always). You have always been kind and empathetic and easy to share openly with! I have appreciated this, and similar support from many other individual friendships.

      It’s sad–and hard–when the experience of those individual friendships doesn’t line up with experience in our communities. I’ve had a few recent conversations with people frustrated that they as individuals feel powerless to effect cultural change at their churches… so I hope that lamenting these experiences openly will allow us to empathise more deeply with each other and over time change the sort of conversations that happen in our communities.


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