The gay man behind the “no” campaign in Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum says the only people who should fear free speech are the people who’ve got bad arguments.
Keith Mills was one of a slew of high-powered speakers who electrified a 1000+ audience at the official launch of the “no” campaign at the International Convention Centre in Sydney on Saturday.
Pointing to overseas examples as well as recent developments in Australia, the speakers warned of the consequences of creating gender-less marriage, laying out its likely affect on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rights of parents and children.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was searing in her portrayal of the ‘yes’ campaign as a dogmatic attempt to suppress the legitimate values of generations of migrants – values which put marriage and the family at the centre of life.
Senator Cory Bernardi, the leader of Australian Conservatives, warned that state anti-discrimination laws would be “weaponised” in the wake of a “yes” victory, pointing – as did Australian Christian Lobby leader Lyle Shelton – to the case of Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, who had been hauled before Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commission after distributing a pro-marriage booklet.
(The complaint had been publicly encouraged by the then-head of Australian Marriage Equality, Rodney Croome, and was only ended after the complainant, trans-woman Martine Delaney, chose to withdraw it.)
Senator Matt Canavan galvanised the crowd by comparing the plebiscite battle to the final stretch of the Melbourne Cup: “We may not be in front at the moment, but we are coming down the straight on the outside.”
But it was Mr Mills who gave perhaps the most unexpected remarks of the night, cautioning the LGBTI community against a fearful view of the world that rendered any disagreement “hateful”.
“What I think is really hateful here is telling gay people that they are facing homophobia and that they are facing hatred when it is not there,” Mr Mills said, referring to the Coalition for Marriage campaign.
“Because that breeds an attitude that you can disrespect, that you don’t have to listen to your opponents. You can attack them; you can tell lies, all because you can dismiss them – they’re all homophobes and bigots.
“Well, I ask people to look up the word ‘bigot’ and see which side of this debate it fits more easily.”
Outspent in his own campaign by 20 to one with only one of the Ireland’s 166 MPs on-side, Mr Mills said the “no” campaign in Australia was fortunate to have such forthright Ministers and politicians within its ranks. (The “no” campaign in Ireland lost, gaining 38-62 per cent of the vote.)
Mr Mills said he had long been an unapologetic advocate for gay rights and a vocal supporter of civil partnerships.
“I grew up in Ireland in the days of the 1970s and 1980s when it was difficult to be a gay man. And I was bullied, and I know what it’s like to be name called. And you know what they say about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Well, I’m here and stronger,” he told the crowd.
“I know referendums can be divisive, but there’s no excuse for personal attacks. We have a phrase in Ireland, ‘You play the ball but not the man.’ You can play against people’s ideas, you can challenge their policies, but you don’t play personal attacks, you don’t try to get them sacked from their jobs, and you don’t call them liars when they are standing up for the rights of their children.”
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly after the launch, Mr Mills said the way to defeat actual homophobia was to assert one’s co-equal dignity, not by shutting down debate.
“I lost a lot of friends because they took the other side and then they didn’t want to be associated with me, because they tend to live their social lives on the gay scene, and I was toxic to be with on the gay scene.
“But, I mean, we have one life to live. Do you live it in fear where you don’t speak up and you don’t stand up, or do you use your talent – the little bit that you have – to stand up for your beliefs and try to improve everybody’s lot?,” he said, having joined Ireland’s “no” campaign in the conviction that children deserved – wherever possible – the love of their mother and father.
“I opt for the second option.”
He had some salient advice for “no” campaigners as Australians go to vote in the next two weeks.
“The way to win this is to persuade people, one by one. Go out around the place tomorrow. Talk to your workmates; talk to people you think are on the other side or are wavering, and say, ‘I am voting no, and this is why.'”