Why No Voters Aren’t Like No Campaigners

Demonstration_in_favour_of_same_sex_marriage_about_Obergefell_v._Hodges_in_front_of_SCOTUS_06

When marriage equality first appeared in public debate I supported it because:

equality is important

it would make a few people happy

I could not for the life of me make sense of any of the claims about the supposed harms

However, it wasn’t exactly top of my agenda of important issues.

As its prominence grew, some people argued the recognition that love is love might send a message to non-heterosexual people struggling with stigma and self-loathing, potentially even making an impact on the horrendously high rates of suicide among queer-identified young people.

I wasn’t sure if this was true, and indeed doubted any effect would be large enough to measure scientifically, but figured that the simple possibility was a good reason to up my engagement with the issue. I can’t claim to have been a major campaigner on the topic, but I’ve been to perhaps a dozen rallies, signed petitions etc. Still, I could understand why people treated the idea with skepticism.

Then a study came out, admirably covered by my colleague Josh Davis here. It shows a striking correlation between the implementation of equal marriage laws in America by state and a fall in youth suicide attempts – 7% among young people as a whole, 14% among queer-identified youth. No such fall was seen in states that did not legalize prior to the supreme court decision, and attempts only dropped in each state when the law changed.

This study tells you everything you need to know about those actively pushing the campaign against equal marriage, and the use of a postal survey to assess it.

I have no doubt that there are millions of Australians who are planning to vote no who are basically decent people. They don’t hate people who are gay, although alternative sexualities may make them feel a little uncomfortable. They see the idea of people of the same sex (sex/gender distinctions often not being on their radar) marrying as part of a process of the world changing too fast for them. They don’t feel any great ill-will to those who want to marry someone they are currently not able to, but would just prefer the issue to not occur.

If confronted with this evidence, some of these people – many of them skeptical about science in general – would be unconvinced, but it would concern them, and possibly even change their vote.

This is utterly different from the people who are running the no campaign, and the Liberal and National MPs responsible for the survey being run.

Many of these people are aware of the research. It was hardly obscure, or likely to slip under the radar with those obsessed with the issue. Josh’s article got 145,000 shares on Facebook, which is huge even for the social media phenomenon I am privileged to write for. We were hardly the only people to cover it.

Yet none of these people, not a sodding one of them, said; “Woo hang on here, we might have a problem. We could actually be causing the deaths of innocent people. How about we slow down, at least get a statistician to check this…”

There’s a reason for this. For all their protestations, none of the people involved in the no campaign care if the cost of their success is measured in higher suicide attempts, some of which will inevitably succeed. For some, that’s just road kill on the way to undermining Turnbull or some other wider goal. For others, it’s a feature, not a bug. If you doubt me, look at what George Christiansen or Michael McCormack said on the topic before they realized it could harm their careers. Or consider what they have done to other programs designed to reduce youth suicide.

In the course of this campaign we need to be careful of demonizing people leaning towards voting no. But we shouldn’t have the slightest doubt about the people promoting the case.

Update: If we assume that suicide attempts induced by homophobia result in death at the same rate as other attempts, it looks like we are talking about the passage of equal marriage legislation preventing 25-30 deaths a year in Australia.

However, I would add two extra points. The first is that the deaths are only the tip of the iceberg of suffering induced by what Hannah Gadsby calls “soaking in shame”, which would affect tens of thousands of young people to varying degrees. Even unsuccessful suicide attempts can leave a lot of damage.

Secondly, the inevitable viciousness of this campaign itself, even if we win, will probably leave a mark that may well be large enough to be measured.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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