When we found out in early August the Coalition party room would again be considering their position on marriage equality, I realised I’d be in Canberra to see events unfold up close. Many queers had held out hope, but I greeted with some resignation the news that not only would the Coalition not be changing its position, a bizarre “postal plebiscite” would also likely be forced upon the nation.
Not having explored much of the city during my stay in Canberra with a friend, the day after the party-room meeting I decided to walk the several kilometres from my friend’s house to Parliament in time to see the political fallout play out during question time. I spent much of the walk glued to my phone, watching reactions roll in: the usual mix of hurt and anger that tends to greet every new development in the farce of Australia’s marriage-equality debate.
I usually try to avoid social media on marriage days. I think at some point in the past marriage equality was something I cared about, but the sheer volume of affect produced around the issue over the past decade has worn me down.
On a good day I am dismissive, conceding that while I may not care about marriage myself, I respect that it is incredibly important for a lot of queers. At my worst I am cynical, dark, even aggressive, resenting the extraordinary focus and attention paid to an issue that, to me, represents the worst of conservatism and respectability politics in queer communities.
But that day, given I’d be going to see the issue debated in the House, I thought I should keep an eye on what was happening. Familiar names streamed down my Twitter feed, adding their voices to the mass of queers raging against this fresh indignity.
My response was an extreme but familiar sense of alienation. Watching the anger scroll down my screen I am more than anything disturbed by the fact that I feel nothing.
Perhaps it’s a cynicism born from fatigue. While I am in general an emotional person, I rarely react emotionally to the news cycle. Each bad news story more often than not feels like an inevitability; why should we be surprised to be reminded each day that the world is an unjust place?
Because my numbness is usually proportionate to the affect of others, when my social-media feeds are awash with such intensity my response is to shut down, or worse, become angry at what in the moment I see as the naiveté of my friends’ feelings of surprise.
Continuing towards Parliament House through the suburbs of Canberra, I realised I’d be walking right past the Australian War Memorial; I stopped in briefly, hoping the stillness of a mausoleum would be a sufficiently calming break from Twitter’s relentless affect.
The stark symmetry of the courtyard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier brought back memories of a primary-school trip to Canberra. I recalled misunderstanding, at twelve years old, the nature of the tomb, imagining some special property that made the nameless corpse within worthy of specific veneration. Walking into the tomb nineteen years later, I still wondered at the strangeness of one man, a real person, bearing the weight of the nation as a symbolic stand-in for the core of Australian masculinity, even Australian identity itself.
The tomb itself is not so much evocative of a cathedral as it is a direct representation of one. Stained-glass windows depict various wartime figures as saints, and mosaics at four cardinal points surrounding the central tomb show three servicemen and one servicewoman as the religious figures of a Renaissance mural.
I visited the US for the first time a couple of years ago, and in Washington DC I remember being disturbed by the religious grandeur of the Presidents’ monuments around the city. There in the tomb I realised this was no different. Looking back towards the entrance of the memorial I could see Parliament House, a line of sight built deliberately into the design of the city.
Fleeing this fresh vector of alienation, I left the memorial to continue down Anzac Parade towards Parliament House, suspecting Canberra itself was an elaborate citizenship test I was failing. At the edge of Lake Burley Griffin I could see Parliament House across the water, and in the distance I tried and failed to make out the view I’d seen posted on Twitter: hundreds of pink paper hearts planted in the lawn reading “All Love Is Equal”.
Flicking again through my Twitter feed I realised what I resented perhaps more than anything was being forced into such an abject relationship with, of all things, an institution as banal as marriage.
I am happy that my straight friends are happy when they get married, but beyond that I really don’t care, and I reserve the right to continue not to care when my queer friends begin to do the same. Indeed, some of them have already begun, wedded either in overseas jurisdictions or in ceremonies with pending legal status—these acts of institutionalisation are painted as radical defiance.
I turned off my phone and abandoned my trip to Parliament House, walking instead to the National Gallery of Australia.
The gallery is currently hosting Defying Empire, the major exhibition of the National Indigenous Art Triennial. It’s an astonishing show, diverse and confronting, framed explicitly from an Indigenous perspective. The thirty featured Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across the country have created work responding to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, when the country voted to count Indigenous Australians in the census for the first time.
The exhibition engages directly with contemporary racism and with genocide. An installation by artist Julie Gough includes excerpts from historical documents that flatly describe the murders of Aboriginal people as everyday occurrences. Companion installations by artist Judy Watson list locations where massacres of Indigenous Australians took place and names of people known to have committed such murders.
Much of the work is also celebratory, framing Indigenous Australians today as survivors, while remembering the ancient thread of tradition that grounds this country in tens of thousands of years of history and culture.
After a day spent lost in questions about my relationship to narratives of what it is to be Australian and what it is to be queer in this country, I felt grounded by Defying Empire even in its horrors. My anxiety was contextualised by this reminder of my complicity as a white Australian in a history of genocide.
On days like these, the marriage days, when I feel so unable to engage with the affective tide of my community’s anger and hurt, when I feel so desperately alienated, I have to remind myself that I do care. I have given so much of my life to my queer communities in Australia, and even when I am unsure of whether I belong I don’t feel I have any choice but to continue to do so.
At least for the moment, I wish well to my queer comrades who wait for marriage. I can only hope they will do the same for me.
[This post originally appeared on Benjamin Riley’s blog. The original can be found here.]