With the same-sex marriage postal survey now in full swing, children and young people across Australia are about to bear witness to an ugly and prolonged debate, and will also find themselves targeted by it. And I think of the children and young people who have so much to lose, who are already vulnerable and most likely to be caught in the crossfire, and I realise that speaking out on their behalf is absolutely part of my role as Victoria's Commissioner for Children and Young People.
All children and young people are affected by hateful and discriminatory rhetoric. However, two groups will experience the events of the coming weeks and months more acutely.
Young people who identify as LGBTI, as well as those who are still coming to understand their own sexuality or gender identity, already suffer harm and disadvantage as a result of homophobic social norms, which paint their very existence as wrong or shameful. These young people are at a much greater risk of depression and self-harm. They are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide and six times more likely to take their own lives as their heterosexual peers.
This self-harm stems directly from discrimination, exclusion, harassment, bullying, abuse and the express or implicit messages that suggest that these young people are somehow abnormal. These messages, and the behaviours that flow from them, are generated by the very same prejudice that surrounds much of the "no" campaign. They stand to be amplified and legitimised over coming weeks, at great cost to the health, wellbeing and self-esteem of some of our most vulnerable children and young people.
The other group of young people that I am particularly concerned for is children who are raised by same-sex parents or in other types of rainbow families. While many in the "no" campaign justify their views on the basis of concern for children, we have seen shameless departures from facts and evidence. Whether it be a poster featuring fabricated statistics suggesting that 92 per cent of children raised by "gays" are abused, or descriptions of children raised by same-sex parents described as "a stolen generation", this type of offensive misinformation hurts the very children it purports to protect.
Research shows overwhelmingly that children raised by same-sex parents fare at least as well as children raised by opposite-sex parents. Given what we see at the Commission for Children and Young People every day – stories and accounts of children abused, neglected and harmed in their opposite-sex families and too often let down by the systems meant to protect them – I can only wish the "no" campaigners cared as much for changing things for these children.
In addition to all these concerns, I fear for my own children. They are primary school age, and they have two mums. We are a rainbow family. We are also a mundanely ordinary, busy, healthy and happy family. Thankfully, the ugliness of the debate in the past few weeks has not permeated my children's ordinary, suburban world. They have had a few glimpses of discrimination and ignorance. Last year, my son was bullied for having two mums. Around the same time, my other son was repeatedly corrected by his language teacher for describing his family as having two mothers. But generally they, and we, experience the support and acceptance that I hope one day will become unremarkable. The debate around the postal survey threatens that and, like any fiercely protective mum, that makes me both worried and angry.
Although touted as an exercise in true democracy, the survey is already providing a platform for toxic and hurtful speech. We all have a responsibility to support and protect those who stand to lose the most from an ugly debate. As we head into a process that may well serve to elevate and amplify harmful messages to LGBTI children and young people, and to children of rainbow families, let's remember that an intolerant world can already make it hard to be an LGBTI child, or a child in a rainbow family. Let's not make it harder for those children. This vote can also provide an opportunity to challenge misinformation and homophobia, promote acceptance and inclusion and show solidarity and care for these young people. Let's not let them down.
This piece was originally published in The Age as 'We must support and protect young people during the vote on same-sex marriage'.