To be safe. Why a marriage equality plebiscite could do untold harm.

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To be safe.

That’s one of the basic expectations that Australians have of their governments – to keep us safe.

Safety has been a defining feature of every government in living memory. Whether it’s keeping us safe from terrorism, the impacts of a financial crisis or the spread of a horrible disease, we expect governments to do all they can in their power to keep us safe.

Safety is something often taken for granted by the majority. Yes, Australia has its problem spots, but for the most part we are relatively safe to walk the streets and live our lives freely.

That is, provided you are part of the majority. For minority groups, reality is often quite different.

This week Melbourne was shocked by the appearance of homophobic hate posters encouraging violence against the gay community and just weeks ago a young man was bashed in an apparent hate crime in a St Kilda park.

Just when we feel we’ve made progress, incidents like these remind us in the gay community that the broader community is still not a safe place for us.

It’s in this environment that Australia’s federal government is proposing a plebiscite, a national vote, on the rights of gay Australians to marry the person they love. It’s long been suspected that a plebiscite is merely a stalling tactic devised by social conservatives to halt progress for as long as possible, but a plebiscite represents something much scarier for those of us in the cross hairs of the debate.

It represents a risk to our personal safety.

If, in 2016, gay Australians are still being bashed on the streets and hate propaganda is still spreading, how much worse will it get when there’s a $160m public vote to debate the merits of our love?

There should be no doubt that the proposed plebiscite will light a fire under every bigoted homophobe this country has to offer. Marriage equality opponents may deny homophobia on their part, but they cannot deny that they rely on it for the momentum of their movement. Much of the energy and motivation behind their movement will be driven by a deep core of hatred towards gay Australians.

A plebiscite represents a very real opportunity for hatred of gay Australians to thrive and the very real risk that abuse and violence will rise as a result. A plebiscite and the resulting campaigns could well have impacts long after the final result is known.

This isn’t new. This kind of opportunism isn’t exclusive to the gay community either. Every time terror group ISIS commits a terrible act, racist opportunists use it as their chance to target peaceful Australian Muslims going about their day to day lives. In the days following a major incident from ISIS, Australian Muslims are made less safe at the hands of their fellow citizens and opportunist politicians who seek to turn them into the enemy.

So why can those in the majority expect protection and safety as a basic standard of our governments, but those of us in a minority get put up on a pedestal for abuse?

Unfortunately, in their quest to keep the majority “safe”, social conservatives often target minorities. Why? Confected “enemies” are easier to fight than real ones. The illusion of “safe” is enough to appease their constituents, even if they have to create enemies to foster that illusion. It’s easier to kick us while we’re down, than to find tangible, real enemies.

Social conservatives like Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi make groups such as the gay community the “enemy” so they can lay claim to keeping their constituents safe from us. To them, a plebiscite is an opportunity to make us the enemy. Their attitudes towards the public’s wishes tells us that much.

The wasteful financial cost of a plebiscite has been well covered, but what about the social cost? What will be the cost of giving ammunition to our country’s most bigoted voices? What will the months of negative campaigning do to young kids figuring out their sexuality? Will we be able to walk the streets free of abuse?

Marriage equality should make it easier for me to hold my partner’s hand as we walk down the street. It should spark more tolerance and acceptance in our community. Instead, a plebiscite legitimises an all out brawl that looks set to threaten our basic safety. How long into the plebiscite campaign will it be before one of us gets bashed in the streets?

The government, through supporting a plebiscite, will be spending public money on something that could do the gay community untold harm. Some scenarios even see public funding allocated specifically to assist a negative campaign against the gay community.

We are not the enemy. Like any other citizen, all we want is to be safe in our community – we are not something you need to be protected from. Malcolm Turnbull – we have one expectation of our government:

Keep us safe – but it seems playing politics with our rights is more important than that.

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