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Why Western Sydney Voted 'No' To Marriage Equality

The consensus seems to be that migrants and their 'cultural differences' are to blame.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

I'm sitting in the Queer Room on campus, the morning after the announcement that Australia voted 'Yes'. You're probably imagining a scene of celebration, smiles and triumph. Instead, a couple of students are sitting quietly, sombrely talking about what the result means for them.

I'm at Western Sydney University at the Bankstown campus, in the electorate of Blaxland that recorded the highest 'No' vote at 73.9 percent. The students are visibly shaken. They're quietly content with the whole country's response, but the local result leaves a despondent aftertaste.

Much analysis has been made of the Western Sydney result. Everyone from Antony Green to Mark Latham have weighed in.

The consensus seems to be that migrants and their 'cultural differences' are to blame. With the obvious conclusion that migrants have homophobic values, spurred on by their homophobic religions. Raised eyebrows suggest: "See, they're just not like us".

This is simply the latest demonstration of the Sydney elites' favorite pastime: Western Sydney bashing.

This immediate scapegoating of ethnic communities is both predictable and unhelpful.

To begin, Western Sydney is giant, diverse, with complex demographics. Most of Sydney is west. One in 11 Australians live there and it's not a homogeneous mass or an ethnic ghetto. White Australians live in Western Sydney, so do affluent families and aspirationals.

Other suburbs in Western Sydney have lower incomes, lower levels of education or higher unemployment rates. These factors may make them susceptible to misinformation and scare tactics.

The 'No' campaign went hard in Western Sydney. They saw it as their core demographic, assuming residents were religious, traditional, conservative and scared of change.

Meanwhile, the 'Yes' coalition held onto a voter turnout campaign. While door knocking, we were advised to walk away from conversations with hardline 'no' voters. This was not a campaign to change minds. The strategy was understandable, given the time pressure of the campaign, and it worked. Nationally, we have a clear 'Yes' majority, but the strategy left Western Sydney behind.

All of this is not to say that there isn't deep-seated social conservatism in some multicultural communities. We know this from experience, both coming from multicultural communities: Denise being an Arab-Australian and Rachael being an Indian-Australian. We both had difficult conversations with family and community members during this campaign.

Some communities have cultural views that are closely tied to religion and country of origin. Many people in my community see that queer rights are a 'western' or 'white' issue. "Us Lebanese don't have gay marriages," they say.

The issue compounds when wider Australia marginalises minorities and refuses to engage with our culture beyond going to restaurants. With this lack of dialogue it's no wonder that some groups don't want to engage on the matter.

We are well aware of the social conservatism in our communities. Western Sydney activists worked hard within their families and groups to try and get votes. Democracy in Colour attempted a beautiful engagement showing LGBTQ people of colour speaking openly and honestly about their experiences. We're not blind to the problem, but we don't need privileged people to point it out to us.

Speaking openly about homophobia in our communities is hard because we fear judgement from Anglo- Australians. We fear it'll confirm everything that's already said about us -- that we're backward, uneducated and can never be moved. So we fight in silence, and publicly paint our communities as tolerant, full of contributing Australians. The bar for us seems higher.

People are justified in their disappointment with the low vote in big parts of Sydney, but the migrant scapegoating is the latest attack from the affluent East. These same people who pat themselves on the back for having a high 'yes' vote are the same people who vote for inequality over and over. They're the same people who work to dismantle unions. The same people that voted for a PM who leaves 600 men on Manus Island to rot.

This is simply the latest demonstration of the Sydney elites' favorite pastime: Western Sydney bashing.

To return to the faces of concern in Western Sydney today, we need to know how vulnerable they feel right now.

After the vote, we need to remember those we left behind. Western Sydney Queer Activist, Shannon Bowes, reminds us:

"We don't need you sitting in your safe spaces theorising about why this happened. We need solidarity, because right now we're scared to go outside."

For the school students in Bankstown grappling with coming out, for the couples in Liverpool afraid to hold hands, for the person in Eastern Creek wanting to bring their partner to a family gathering, we must do what the 'Yes' campaign could not -- stand in solidarity and let education from within communities lead the way.

As Shannon says, "Stop trying to divide us, and stand with us".

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