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Marriage equality: Magda Szubanski's crucial role in yes victory

The beloved Australian entertainer proved "devastatingly effective" in the fight for equal rights.

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​On the morning of Valentine's Day, 2012, Alex Greenwich had a meeting in the prime minister's office. As co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality, he'd come to speak with Julia Gillard's senior advisers. (Gillard remained opposed to same-sex marriage until 2015 – two years after she was ousted from the top job.)

As talks progressed, Greenwich made an announcement: that evening, Magda Szubanski would come out, live on The Project. By doing so, she hoped to "supercharge the case for marriage equality".

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Gillard's advisers exchanged furtive glances. In that moment, they realised their jobs had become even harder. "By the looks on their faces, they knew this was going to have a massive impact," Greenwich says.

In 2003, Szubanski topped the list of Australian Q-scores: a measure of celebrities' familiarity and appeal. The next year, she broke her own record. According to one agent, little has changed: "Everyone knows Magda, everyone loves Magda – and that's been the case for 25 years now."

When describing her efforts, other equality advocates use terms such as "invaluable" and "devastatingly effective". But popularity alone does not change hearts or minds. What made a difference, they believe, is the way Szubanski campaigned.

Her work takes her around the country – so she used that to her advantage. In Toowoomba, during a fundraising dinner, she spoke at length about equality. Support for same-sex marriage in that electorate is below the national average, yet Szubanski was well-received. "I ended up getting a standing ovation," she says. 


Nor did she limit herself to more progressive programs such as Q&A or The Project. In September, she appeared on A Current Affair. It wasn't a tactical move; she just wanted to reach a large audience. Days earlier, she had buried her 92-year-old mother, Margaret. As she told viewers, this elderly Catholic woman intended to vote Yes.

"She knew what it was like to be treated unfairly [because of her Irish heritage]," she says. "But also, she met many of my friends and found them to be lovely people. In the end, it was a no-brainer for her."

During that segment, Szubanski vox-popped a man intending to vote No. She could have torn him apart, allowing Twitter users to gloat about a "bigot" being "schooled". Instead, she explained why she wants the choice to marry a woman she loves. Within minutes, his position seemed to change. 

Greenwich understands the temptation towards fury; how galling it feels to "respectfully ask" for legal equality. But screaming at the most vocal opponents – a small group unlikely to change their views – isn't helpful.

"It takes discipline and determination not to do that," he says. "Magda knew our audience wasn't them. Our audience was the majority of Australians."

One such Australian was an old family friend. Days after they discussed the issue, he rang her to say he was now voting Yes. "He was no homophobe," Szubanski says. "A lot of people are time-poor and if an issue isn't impinging on them directly, they don't research it. It's just easier to go with the status quo."

It was essential, therefore, to counter the "slippery slope" claims of the No side. "Marriage has changed," she says. "It's not about the merging of family dynasties now, or other obligations. It's about the merging of two souls.

"For gay people, the outside world was hostile to us for a long time and the only safe place was our intimate partner. We're not seeking to undermine marriage, but to underpin it. I think it will lead to change, but it will be a good change."

Greenwich believes some of Szubanski's best arguments were those couched in humour. Last month, for instance, she said that different rules for straight and gay marriages were akin to a gay Brownlow winner receiving a "civil acknowledgement for your very excellent effort".

Some of her most important work occurred behind-the-scenes. This victory was a team effort; driven by thousands of volunteers knocking on doors and speaking to people in the street.

"She showed real leadership at a time the LGBTQI community was under attack and this process was being imposed upon us," Greenwich says. "From Nowra to Alice Springs, she energised and encouraged those communities. She helped people double down and get on with the fight."

Twitter: @Michael_Lallo 

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