Australia is in the middle of a public debate on whether same-sex couples should have the right to marry. The results of the voluntary, non-binding, postal survey won’t be known for over a month. It will be even longer before the full impacts of the glorified opinion poll become apparent, regardless of the outcome.
However the short term effects are already becoming realised as state-sanctioned conversations on the worth of LGBTQI Australians and their families dominate social and traditional media, enter homes through mail, phone calls and texts, and are reduced to snappy slogans on billboards and signs around the nation.
There are so far 23 countries which allow same-sex couples to marry. And in all but one, negative consequences have been non-existent. However a recent study of Ireland; the only country to put marriage equality to a popular vote, showed that a majority of LGBTI people were negatively affected by the NO campaigning, experiencing heightened feelings of anger and distress as a result of the referendum.
Given the nature of the NO campaign in Australia’s unnecessary faux-vote (in which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has already defended homophobic hate-speech as part of the “democratic debate”), it is likely similar results will be found in our own communities.
Counselling services have already seen increases in their need; over 20% increase at LGBT phone-counselling service QLife since the plebiscite was introduced, and a 40% increase at BeyondBlue since the announcement of the postal survey.
Now, with the personal lives of LGBTQI people and their families thrust into the spotlight, personal stories of hope, understanding and support are more important than ever.
For Ben van Tienen, the current situation offers an opportunity to share his journey, from Catholic schoolboy, raised in rural Tasmania, to a musical theatre conductor based in London, and touring the world.
Ben is gay. Yet, as he so honestly explains, growing up in a deeply religious family in a small community, he “didn’t know gay people existed”. While he was oblivious to the media storm building up to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1997, his naivety did not protect him from the deeply embedded homophobic attitudes prevalent in society.
At the time, Ben did not know or understand what may have motivated the bullying he experienced every day from when he was 8 until 16. “That’s not an exaggeration. It was, legitimately, every day,” he says. He was called “poofter”, “faggot”,and “fairy”, and while he did not know what it meant, he took it to heart that “being different in any way was not okay.”
The Church provided Ben with an introduction to music, which ultimately gave him with a sanctuary of sorts. As he became more involved in the music and theatre communities, he learned to “relish his differences”, but it did not make it any easier getting through the “slog, every single day,” of school.
His passion for music and the friends he made in the broader community helped to cushion the abuse he experienced. Over time he took it less to heart, and his reaction to it has now changed. Yet Ben says that the behaviour of others has not changed over time; the “bullies are still using the same words, still trying to push me out, still threatened by their own fragile gender-constructs, still frightened by other-ness.”
However much has personally changed since Ben’s childhood in Cygnet. He was nearly 17 by the time he realised he was gay. “It was like a light being turned on after years of being in the dark. It was that quintessential ‘last piece of the jigsaw’ moment; it was literally like a hundred bells inside me going ‘ding ding ding’ at once.”
Ben recalls with amusement the reaction of his friends who “definitely already knew” he was gay, joking, “why didn’t y’all tell me?!” It was around a week after his own realisation, that he told his parents. He was prepared for the conversation to be more difficult with his family and acknowledges that one of the problems when he first came out, was being able to “articulate about anything yet, let alone respectfully/compassionately field any questions or accusations.”
As Ben has grown older, he finds it easier to talk about what it means to be gay, and his search for love, belonging and connection. He believes it was a challenge for his family to reconcile his identity with their faith, but is proud of how open they have been in their journey of understanding.
He recounts an early conversation with his parents, which demonstrates how love and respect for family took precedence:
“I’m just worried that when the time comes, and I want to bring a partner home for Christmas, that you won’t be ready to deal with it.” And they looked at each other and took a breath and said, “We’ll make sure we’re ready to deal with it.”
Ben’s own belief in the Christian faith ended abruptly on coming out. He had been brought up so firmly in the belief that “God made me in his own image,” and to suddenly be “seemingly told that that was no longer true was a massive shaking” of Ben’s world. He very quickly became “violently, defensively atheistic.” However in the last two years Ben has returned to spirituality as a concept and a way of life.
The national survey on marriage equality has added an urgency to navigating the complexities of identity and societal acceptance. The campaigning has thrust into the public sphere deeply personal conversations which would otherwise have time to grow naturally among family and friends.
For Ben, these conversations have been happening for sixteen years. However his passion for music, the unconditional love of his family and the support he has received from his friends in the broader community, has made the journey less difficult than it otherwise may have been.
Ben is reflective, articulate and honest. He describes himself as a yogi, “spirit junkie”, and activist. He is vegan, pro-caffeine and anti-gluten. He believes in love; “always crossing the street to get to the sunny side”. Ben’s brightness, compassion and enthusiasm for positivity shine strongly in the way he approaches life, and deals with homophobia.
He is now braver and more fierce in the face of it. He will hold hands with his date as he walks down the street. He will be brave in the face of people who stare or call him names. He will try to open-heartedly and whole-heartedly enter conversations where homophobia is an issue and do so in a “loving and inquisitive way”. This, Ben says, does not get easier, but he understands that if someone is directly homophobic towards him, it has absolutely nothing to do with him.
Ben’s attitude towards dealing with hate is enlightening and inspiring. He hopes it is easier now for LGBTQI children growing up, and that they can see that cisgender/straight behaviour is “just a small part of the greater kaleidoscope”. He cannot imagine what his childhood would have been like if the wider picture had been visible to him.
For young LGBTQI Australians now, experiencing a very public debate on their worth in society, while perhaps also struggling to understand themselves, coming out, and approaching difficult conversations, Ben has some kind words: “you are important, and you are not alone.”
He supports this with his paraphrased advice from gay, NYC, life-coach, Jordan Bach:
“When you are in these conversations, I want you to imagine every queer person that has gone before you in this conversation – every single beautiful gay person asking for tolerance, love, acceptance. Imagine them standing behind you, around you, their hands on your shoulders, almost like your guardian angels. You are not alone in this.”
Ben now lives in the United Kingdom, where same-sex marriage is legal. He has noticed a “very subtle difference” in the way that he moves through the world. He now feels he has a place. He explains it is very easy to cultivate a subtle self-loathing in a society where the message is consistently reinforced that you do not belong. Ben also now knows more older male couples, who are now married, and he can see their “hopes, dreams, struggles and fears” and their “lawful, legitimised love deepen and grow”. This gives Ben hope, and makes him proud and excited about what his own future may hold.
Ben’s life is almost unrecognisable to the one he lived in Tasmania. He has conducted “West Side Story” at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris (with his proud parents in the audience). He has released an album with his best friend and completed a composition for the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, filmed Funny Girl for Sky TV and cinema broadcast and graduated from Brene Brown’s Living Brave Semester. He has also released “enough fear and shame to disrobe at a nudist beach!”
Ben is no longer so career-driven. He would still love to work on Broadway, but it is more important for him to “achieve with what I have, right now, in this moment”. He wants to be a better person than he was yesterday, and hopes he can answer yes to the following questions:
- Did I touch someone’s heart today?
- Did I help someone break through their threshold today?
- Did my authenticity inspire someone today?
- Was I as generous as I could be today?
- Did I do my best to be wholehearted in every moment?
The questions Ben asks himself encapsulate his caring, compassionate spirit, and positive outlook on the world.
He has some final words for his friends in the broader community in Australia who are suffering during this public debate on their lives:
“All we can do is shine as fiercely and brightly as we can, and know that every time we can get one new person to share our vision, we must celebrate. And even if marriage equality isn’t achieved this time round, it WILL happen, and all we can do is keep trying.”