'If I've got death threats, I've probably said something worthwhile'

'If I've got death threats, I've probably said something worthwhile'

Change.org executive director, Sally Rugg.

Change.org executive director, Sally Rugg.

Sally Rugg remembers when she first realised "ordinary people" could create change.

"When I was six or seven, the state government of WA was trying to build this huge road that would have gone through my primary school," she recalls. "So the community sort of banded together to save the school."

Two decades later, the LGBTI activist, best known as an instrumental figure in the Yes campaign during last year's postal survey for marriage equality, says the experience taught her people "can and should participate in the decisions made about their lives".

It is an ethos that led Rugg – via a half-finished masters in journalism – to a role at left-wing lobby group GetUp!, where she was given the task of managing the group's marriage equality campaign.


"At the time I was working on refugee campaigning and I sort of rolled my eyes a little bit and was like, 'Oh, you're just giving it to me because I'm gay,'" she says.

"But when I took carriage of the campaign, I met people from all over the country who had been waiting to get married for decades and I realised it's so much larger than actual marriage. It's about the way we treat LGBTI Australians, and the values that we choose to underpin our society."

The 29-year-old went on to become one of the most prominent faces in the movement, debating the Australian Christian Lobby's Lyle Shelton on national television, penning op-eds, writing and directing campaign videos and, of course, facing conservative trolls online.

"Any woman who says anything online faces that type of treatment," she says. "And I do specify women because I do think it is very gendered."

Still, Rugg views the blowback as a measure of impact.

"If I've got people sending me death threats in my inbox, I've probably said something that's worthwhile."


For every awful message, Rugg estimates she receives 20 "incredible" ones, including wedding invitations from strangers; a nod to her role in making their ceremony possible.

(She has every intention of attending the celebrations. "Being invited to share someone's joy like that is so humbling," she says.)

Rugg was a finalist at this year's Australian LGBTI Awards, and has featured in "most influential" lists compiled by both Amnesty International and Cosmopolitan. Youth website Pedestrian.tv named her their 2018 "Strayan of the Year".

But is such success intimidating at an early stage of a young activist's career? Rugg believes the postal survey was a "once in a generation type thing", and that campaigns for social justice are stronger when led by those they affect.

"There are other huge social change things that need to happen, for instance a treaty with Aboriginal people, [but] that's not a campaign I should lead," she says.

Sally Rugg was one of the most prominent faces of the Yes campaign.

Sally Rugg was one of the most prominent faces of the Yes campaign.

However, Rugg is careful not to diminish the role of allies in political organising.

"Everybody's brother and friend and colleague: they ran the Yes campaign ... In human rights, it's largely minorities who are discriminated against and marginal communities don't have the numbers for collective action."

Rugg recently left GetUp!, and is now the executive director at petition website Change.org. She says the postal survey result indicates petition-based activism is enjoying a "rennaissance" and, while criticisms of "clicktivism" still hang over online social campaigns, simple displays of public opinion are a good "first step".

"Nearly eight million people cast a vote for marriage equality and then they saw the law change, so what I would like to think is that people in Australia who maybe hadn't participated in democracy outside of an election before have now had a taste of what collective action looks like," she says.

"When you consider the mess that's happening in our parliament, it's so opaque... in my experience the people who start petitions [on Change.org] are disenchanted with the system."

Sally Rugg will give a workshop on how to be an activist at the Sydney Opera House's talks and ideas festival, ANTIDOTE, on September 1-2.

Mary Ward is a Lifestyle reporter for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WAtoday.