Sex, Religion and Politics

Dear Bob,

Is it just me, or did we end on unhappy terms last Saturday? I can’t stop thinking about the conversation we had. And when I come back to it, it brings up some uneasy feelings. Sadness. Disappointment. Anger. Perhaps we have had our first proper fight? If so, I am a bit ashamed with how I took part in it.

Our friendship brings me so much joy. From the outside looking in, it may appear an unlikely friendship of sorts. You’re an 80-year old (gentle)man - 45 years my senior. You’ve seen a whole lot more of this world than I have. This staunch feminist, wouldn’t call you a feminist at all. However, I am pleased that you are able to acknowledge giving your wife a sink incinerator for Christmas in 1986 was a mistake. And I wouldn’t call you sexist either. I will never not be able to laugh when you open the car door for me (I’m pretty certain I should be doing that for you old man). You strongly identify as a Catholic and I admire the solace and peace that your faith has brought you across your 80 years. And I thank you for your openness in sharing your thoughts on your faith with this “young”, religiously naive, pestering and questioning new friend, who despite such questioning has absolutely no desire to become a religious person of any sort. You spend your week attending outings organised by the retirement village, selflessly volunteering for charities around the town and doing all you can to patiently care for your wife who is in the early stages of dementia. I spend my week looking after myself, tending to my career, seeing my friends, watching television and enjoying the fruits of living with my parents. When you were my age, you had bought a house, were married and had four children. You find this juxtaposition hilarious. So do I, but I think for different reasons. You’ve recently had to stop playing golf, after six decades, because of the rheumatoid arthritis in your hands. I felt this loss for you too.

Two and a bit years of Saturday mornings together and we’ve become pretty close I reckon. In between the “work” prescribed, we’ve learnt so much about each other, the lives we lead and have led, and our views on the world as we each experience it. And we’ve become friends.

Surely ‘friend’ is one of the greatest compliments that one can ever give another. You probably already know this, but apparently the word comes from a Germanic root, which it shares with the word ‘free’ and the meaning of the root word is ‘to love’. If love is wanting the best for someone else, then my heart has been experiencing that for you for a long time my friend.

Which probably has something to do with why things became confusing and difficult last Saturday. We’ve discussed all manner of complex issues in the past. Religion. Repeatedly. Politics. Regularly. Sex. Occasionally. But I suppose we’d never tried to combine them all into the one conversation. And I suppose I didn’t realise just how strongly I felt on the subject.

The Same-Sex Marriage Postal Vote.

Firstly, I think I could hardly speak on the topic because I had assumed that every single person in the country thought that participating in a very expensive non-binding survey about how they feel about a very specific part of our community having the same equality and rights as the rest of us was a bit stupid. But that assumption was wrong. And as you so delicately reminded me, you thought that a lot of older people thought it was worthwhile to vote on this issue. And that this cohort is quite good at filling out postal votes. Gobsmacked.

And secondly, when you said you were “unsure” about your vote, or how older Australians in general would vote, I just automatically began to shut down. I got scared. I was fearful that if I spoke my truth it might offend. Or you might react defensively. Or it might harm our lovely friendship.

So as you discussed your truth - issues around the sacredness of marriage and something about something else - I just got angry. I don’t get angry all that often and my initial response to anger is to shut it down. But here’s the thing. Anger is important. It informs us that something is worth fighting for. That we need to take some form of action. Despite what we’ve been told about this emotion (particularly as women), it really is okay to be angry.

I wish I had used that anger in the moment to discuss the issue more assertively with you Bob. Instead I offered some very vague explanations of equality and made reference to my friends who are lesbian or gay or bisexual and my love for them and then waffled on a bit about equality and rights and then I nearly burst into tears. And just before it all got too much I changed the subject. Something less emotive – I think the North Korean missile thing.

But by not speaking my truth, I was doing our relationship a disservice. I always value your openness and honesty and I’m sure you do mine. Real friendships have arguments and anger. And it’s okay. It’s the stuff that makes them real.

If I had my time again, here’s what I wish I had said. Here’s my truth. Which is what you probably wanted, the first time round.

As a psychologist, I am well aware that the mental health of LGBTI people is among the poorest in Australia1. This makes me so incredibly sad. For example:

  • At least 24.4% of gay, lesbian and bisexual Australians met the criteria for a major depressive episode in 2005, compared with 6.8% of the general population2.
  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high-very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v 9.2%), making them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems3.
  • More than twice as many homesexual/bisexual Australians experience anxiety disorder as heterosexual people (31% vs 14%)4.

In addition, people who identify as LGBTI have the HIGHEST rates of suicidality of any population in Australia5. WTF? (I know you know what this acronym means – I taught it to you).

  • 7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal ideation (thoughts)6.
  • Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14 times higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers7.
  • The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’8.
  • Many LGBTI people who attempt suicide have not disclosed their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status to others, or to only very few people9.

But here’s the clincher my friend, research shows us that discrimination and exclusion are the key CAUSAL factors of LGBTI mental ill-health and suicidality10. That is, the elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to their sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves. It’s due to discrimination and exclusion as a key determinant to health11. Exposure to and fear of discrimination and isolation can directly impact on people’s mental health, causing stress, psychological distress and suicidality.

To be clear, not being able to marry discriminates against people in same-sex relationships because it does not give them the same rights as heterosexual factors. This discrimination is one of the key determinants causing LGBTI poor mental health and suicide. I can’t really live with this. It makes me livid.

Particularly when we consider this research as well:

  • An American study of more than 1500 lesbian, gay, and bisexual participants, living in a State where same-sex marriage is outlawed was directly related to chronic social stress and psychological problems and NOT due to pre-existing mental health issues or other factors12.
  • Being denied the right to marry reinforces the stigma associated with a minority sexual identity, and can particularly undermine the healthy development of a well-adjusted emotional and social attachment style among adolescents and young adults13.

(I don’t really feel the need to harp on about children raised by same-sex couples, because there’s nothing really to argue really and it has nada to do with marriage equality. We see this all the time in our Saturday morning “work” – the most important thing in children’s development is that they have a family that loves and cares for them (regardless of gender or sexual orientation). To back that up, there is no respectable research that shows gay parents or kids raised in same-sex households are any worse off than kids raised in straight households but there is research that shows kids of gay families are A-OK14)

The thing is Bob, I’ve worked with clients and I’ve witnessed friends coming to terms with their sexuality and I’ve seen it as a time beset with psychological pain, familial resistance and social prejudice. The psychological distress that I’ve witnessed, the people in this minority group that are struggling with mental illnesses and are taking their own lives because of the way they are treated by the rest of the community -  the prejudice and discrimination and inequality - is fucking heartbreaking. Sorry for swearing.

And that’s why marriage equality is a human rights issue. Individuals, couples, families and communities and nations benefit from having laws that are based on and promote respect and equality, and fair treatment for all, regardless of gender, sexuality, culture, and religion.

I don’t care at all if Father Michael’s marriages remain the same down at the local parish. They probably will. Think about it – he’d probably say ‘No’ to marrying me and I’m a heterosexual (albeit a heathen one). I have nothing to do with your religious beliefs.

All I want is for every person in this country, regardless of their gender and the gender of the person to whom they love, to be able to sign that statutory declaration and receive a marriage certificate in return. Should they choose to.

Because you know what else Bob? Marriage is a pretty special thing. It brings substantial psychosocial and health benefits to individuals, due to the moral, economic and social support it provides to married couples15. But you should probably already know that, after 56 years of it.

We have discussed religion a lot during out time together – I think it was the starting point for this conversation perhaps. Once when I questioned you on your faith, you said that it was easy to stick with because at its core Christianity was about “loving one another”. If Christianity is indeed based on this and love is about wishing the best for another, how could we possibly deny anyone in our community – our friends, family members, neighbours, the people that come see us on Saturday – the same rights as what we have? Particularly when we know the distress that not having these rights is causing them.

See you Saturday.

Love Sam

PS I don’t actually expect that you will ever read this. Whilst I do commend you on your use of ‘the google’ and ‘the email’, some of your technological skills could be enhanced. I still strongly recommend that if you were to truly use your Nokia 3310 for ‘emergencies’ it would be better placed on your person than in the glove box of your car. Just saying.

 If you would like some information about discussing marriage equality – that is, doing differently to what I did – the Australian Psychological Society has an excellent factsheet which is available here.

  1. Leonard, W. et al. (2012). Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Australians. Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. LaTrobe University: Melbourne.
  2. Pitts, M. et al. (2009). Private Lives: A report on the wellbeing of GLBTI Australians. Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. LaTrobe University: Melbourne.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Unpublished data from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing provided to Queensland Association of Healthy Communities in 2010.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results. 4326.0. Australian Government: Canberra.
  5. Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney
  6. Pitts, M. et al. (2009). Private Lives: A report on the wellbeing of GLBTI Australians. Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. LaTrobe University: Melbourne.
  7. Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care (2000) LIFE – A framework for prevention of suicide and self-harm in Australia: Learnings about suicide. CDHAC: Canberra.
  8. Nicholas, J. and J. Howard (1998) Better Dead Than Gay? Depression, Suicide Ideation and Attempt Among a Sample of Gay and Straight-Identified Males Aged 18-24. Youth Studies Australia, 17(4): 28-33.
  9. Dyson, S et al. (2003) Don’t ask, don’t tell. Report of the same-sex attracted youth suicide data collection project. Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, LaTrobe University. Melbourne.
  10. Rosenstreich, G. et al. (2011) Primary Health Care and Equity: the case of LGBTI Australians Australian Journal of Primary Health, 17(4): 302-308
  11. Rosenstreich, G. (2011) Discrimination, LGBTI Mental Health and Suicide. Australian Journal on Psychosocial Rehabilitation, newparadigm, Spring 2011: 16-19.
  12. Rostosky, S. S., et al. (2009). Marriage Amendments and Psychological Distress in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Adults. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56, 56-66.
  13. Herdt, G. & Kertzner, R. (2006). I do, but I can’t: The impact of marriage denial on the mental health and sexual citizenship of lesbians and gay men in the United States. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 3(1), 33-49.
  14. Tasker, F. (2015). Lesbian mothers, gay fathers and their children. A review. Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics 26, 224-240.
  15. Herdt, G. & Kertzner, R. (2006). I do, but I can’t: The impact of marriage denial on the mental health and sexual citizenship of lesbians and gay men in the United States. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 3(1), 33-49.

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