Concerns about “hate speech” and a “divisive” debate about changing the definition of marriage were quickly put to rest at the University of New South Wales on Wednesday evening.
The exchange between former gay rights activist James Parker and the CEO of Australian Marriage Equality, Tiernan Brady, was friendly and often humorous as they spoke to an audience of university students as part of “Life Week,” an annual event hosted by the university’s Catholic Society of St Paul. A handful of protestors, assembled outside the event, accepted an invitation to listen to the debate, and joined around 100 students gathered inside one of the university’s lecture theatres to hear the speakers.
The concerns of the protestors were addressed at the beginning, with Mr Parker and Mr Brady using their opening remarks to speak about the importance of open discussion on the issue of marriage.
Mr Parker said that the conversation about marriage was important because it dealt with “the core of our hearts” and opened up critical questions of what it meant to be human, to be loved, and to be free.
He said that his decision to walk away from his committed same-sex relationship and eventually marry a woman was not met with the same “rejoicing” which seemed to greet the decision of a person who identifies as homosexual.
Mr Parker told the audience that he had only ever been threatened after speaking about his choice to be married, and that people should not be afraid to speak about their personal experience.
“Across the board, people should be able to explore what their journey looks like without having to feel threatened, without having to feel shut down, [and] without having to feel judged … Deep down, we have a common humanity,” he said.
Mr Brady told the audience that “a lot of people have a lot of questions” about LGBT issues in general, but were sometimes scared to ask because they were afraid of being judged.
“They don’t want people thinking: ‘You can’t say that, that’s a terrible question, you’re an appalling homophobe’ and of course that’s not true,” he said. “There are no bad questions, only bad answers,” he continued, saying that “we have to allow people to make the journey and use their own language to have these conversations.”
The audience welcomed the opportunity to engage in an open conversation about marriage. They had many questions for the speakers, who graciously spent 2.5 hours responding to the crowd before continuing to discuss the matter over a supper provided by the Catholic Society.
The Catholic Society’s Vice-President, Marianne Daher, was delighted that Australian Marriage Equality so willingly agreed to participate, commenting that its representatives “understood and appreciated the need for this discussion”.
She said that the respect Mr Parker and Mr Brady showed each other and the audience during the lengthy discussion “reflected the open and free discussion that should surround this topic” and hoped that it would be a model for future discussions around changing the definition of marriage as the plebiscite approaches.