World News

8 weeks, 1 question: Australia's same sex marriage survey

Like many Australians, Melissa Chomel wants to marry the person she loves.

Posted Updated

Ben Westcott (CNN)
(CNN) — Like many Australians, Melissa Chomel wants to marry the person she loves.

She's been looking at wedding dresses online for months, picked a wedding car, but can't decide between a church service or beach ceremony.

But there's no point in making firm plans yet, because she doesn't know if the government will allow her to marry.

You see, Melissa is in love with her girlfriend Ebony.

Since September, Australians have been voting in a divisive postal survey to decide whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to wed.

It's a question which has already been answered "yes" in the majority of Western countries, without the need for a national survey on the issue.

Melissa and Ebony Drohan live in Bairnsdale, a small country town in Victoria, Australia, where they work in a bakery together. Between them, they have two children from previous relationships and want their family to be formally recognized.

"When the vote was first announced I was angry. Why does Australia have to decide whether or not I should have the right to get married?" Melissa told CNN.

Since voting started in September, Melissa and Ebony have shared their story with CNN. Here's how Australia's vote on marriage equality looked through their eyes.

When the idea of a postal survey on same sex marriage was first announced, political observers and LGBT advocates initially dismissed it as a joke.

Why would you hold a national, non-compulsory survey, which would not bind politicians to follow the result, on an issue which numerous polls had showed a majority of Australians were in support of?

Melissa: I just thought what a waste of money. I just wish the politicians could get it together and put the bill through without having to put it to a non-compulsory vote that is costing tax payers millions of dollars (it's around $122 million or US$93 million) and subjecting Ebony, myself and all LGBT people to unnecessary exposure to bigotry.

Ebony: I was kind of happy in a way, that at least something's being done, and hoping that this would move us closer to being able to get married.

Despite a court challenge to stop it, the postal survey went ahead as planned. Blank ballot papers were mailed across Australia on September 12 with the instruction to return them by November 7.

Ballots started arriving in letter boxes across Australia, and social media was awash with photos of people completing their votes and mailing them in.

So many photos were posted, the Australian Bureau of Statistics had to issue official instructions to Australians not to photograph certain parts of their ballot which could be misused.

Ebony: We posted our votes immediately. As upsetting as it was, and as emotional as we both were, we tried to remain positive that this would bring us the outcome we wanted. I also called up my family to make sure they had received their ballot papers and were voting as soon as possible.

Despite living in rural Victoria, Ebony and Melissa said Bairnsdale had always been accepting of their relationship. Still, they were worried about how the town's older residents would vote.

Melissa: We only really speak to friends and family about it, but we have overheard conversations about it, and it has not been positive. We generally find it's the older population who vote "no."

New polls appeared to bring mixed news for supporters of same-sex marriage. The "yes" vote was still far ahead, but losing ground to the "no" camp.

A majority still supported marriage equality, but the number of Australians voting "yes" dropped to 57% from 63%, a noticeable fall after months of little change.

Ebony: I'm trying to stay positive, but it's getting harder ... I always hear friends talk about their weddings. I'm happy for them, but we feel a bit different and left out. It's become a bit confronting at work at times.

Some people I thought were my friends and supported me are voting "no" because of religious reasons. We remain friends but it's hard. We sit in the tearoom at work and I have to watch the "no" vote adverts on TV with them. It's pretty raw at times.

Here's one of the "no" ads that ran on Australian TV.

Some blamed the apparent fall in support for same sex marriage on a mass text message, sent out to mobile phones across the country, calling for people to get out and vote "yes." Conservative newspapers complained it was an invasion of voters' privacy.

Days earlier, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a prominent "no" advocate, was headbutted by a man wearing a "yes" badge. It turned out to have nothing to do with same-sex marriage, but not before it had been widely reported as a "yes"-related attack.

The campaign was becoming increasingly nasty. In the Queensland capital of Brisbane, reports emerged of homes with rainbow flags being defaced with swastikas.

The "yes" campaigners fought back with graffiti of their own.

No one would have suspected one of the largest controversies around the same-sex marriage debate would revolve around American rapper Macklemore.

Days before the singer was due to perform at the National Rugby League (NRL) Grand Final, conservative columnists and newspapers started a fierce campaign against the performance, which was due to include a rendition of the star's LGBT rights anthem, "Same Love," among other hits.

Politicians including Abbott railed against Macklemore, while a former rugby league player started a petition to "Take LGBTIQ politics out of the NRL."

It failed. The performance went ahead as planned, to cheers and rainbow-colored fireworks.

Melissa: It was definitely disheartening to hear politicians trying to ban Macklemore from singing his hit song and one of my absolute favorites! I am proud that the NRL stood their ground.

It was so embarrassing to hear that Macklemore has been receiving angry tweets from angry old white men from Australia. What happened to freedom of speech?

Ebony: I felt bad for any members of the NRL that may be gay or have family members, or friends, that are as well. Also it's a beautiful song and to me it isn't really that big of a deal.

Watch the performance here:

Australia's Bureau of Statistics, which is conducting the survey, announced unexpectedly it would be unveiling a weekly tally every Tuesday of how many Australians had voted in the national postal survey.

As of Friday 29 September, more than half of registered voters had already returned their surveys -- an estimated 9.2 million people (or 57.5%).

The "yes" campaign was likely breathing a sigh of relief at the relatively high initial turnout, which will keep results closer to previous polling that showed strong support for marriage equality.

Melissa: I think this shows that marriage equality is an issue that people are very passionate about and they want to have their say, whether it be yes or no.

Ebony and Melissa work together at a large bakery in Bairnsdale.

Their shifts don't make life easy for them -- Melissa works the day shift, while Ebony works in the afternoon. But it wasn't until the same-sex marriage postal survey that they started to have issues at work.

Ebony says her colleagues started asking if she was worried about her 3-year-old daughter being picked on because she has two moms. She even heard some people agreeing with the "You can say no" advertisements.

Ebony: I thought people would have been more supportive, as I've worked with them for quite a number of years ... I do try to look beyond other people's beliefs and opinions, however this has been difficult so far. If the results are against same-sex marriage then I think I may have trouble working with them even more so, but I'll have no choice unfortunately.

If it turns out that we win, then I'll still feel uncomfortable around those people. I haven't really looked at them the same since all this all this has come about.

It's definitely affected a few of my relationships with people. I find a lot of the older people I work don't quite understand how important marriage equality is.

Melissa: My son Philip, who is 8, would really love for Ebony and I to get married. I haven't had anything negative said to me at work but I have felt like I don't want to ask people if they are voting yes because I'm scared of my reaction (if they say no) and how I might view my co-workers.

This is one of the ads posted by the 'yes' campaign:

'Yes' voters in Australia's second largest city got a rude shock on Tuesday when an enormous "no" was written in the sky above the central business district during many workers' lunch breaks.

Local media reported it was rewritten a number of times, with advocates of same-sex marriage taking to Twitter to express their fury at the message.

It wasn't the first time "no" voters had used skywriting to their message across. 'Vote No' appeared in the sky over Sydney earlier in September.

Ebony: Ivy probably wouldn't understand (the skywriting) being three (years old), Philip would most likely question it. And we would be honest in telling him what it means. Philip has a very good understanding of what a same-sex relationship is, and what being gay means, and is very accepting, so I do think he'd be surprised to know that people are not so accepting.

"Governments should, in general, keep out of the friendship business and out of the bedroom," Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher told parishioners at St Mary's Cathedral.

On the surface, it could appear an argument either for or against same-sex marriage, but over the course of the rest of his Sunday homily Archbishop Fisher cleared up any questions.

"If overseas experience is anything to go by, it will be very hard to speak up for real marriage anymore in schools, at work, socially (if 'yes' passes)," he told his parishioners to a mixed response, according to local media.

Melissa: It's always the same argument -- what about the children, etc. Our children are fine. Ivy is unaffected by not having a "father." She has three parents in her life who love care for her unconditionally. It's also very hurtful to be once again told our relationship is not serious, like the only reason we are together is for sex when that couldn't be further from the truth. Ebony and I love each other so much.

Since the start of the campaign, high-profile Christians, including the Catholic Archbishops of both Sydney and Melbourne, have been outspoken in their opposition to same-sex marriage.

Melissa: I'm not surprised at all. I grew up in a Christian house hold and went to church every Sunday till I was 17. I remember being taught it's Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Ebony and I both think that the Catholic Church needs to take a better look in their own backyard.

Negotiation on how to legalize same-sex marriage if Australians vote "yes" has already begun.

Australia's opposition Labor Party announced it will support a bill written by government politician Dean Smith to legalize same-sex marriage.

But without a bill currently, sections of the governing Liberal National Coalition are planning to fight hard to ensure there are protections in any bill against religious discrimination.

Ebony: I do worry that (the Australian) parliament will try anything they can to drag this out for as long as they possibly can. It's a concern I've had from the start, however, I strongly believe it's only a matter of time and we are getting closer to legalizing same-sex marriage.

As of Friday, 20 October, 11.9 million Australians were estimated to have voted in the same-sex marriage postal survey, about 75% of the population.

Meanwhile in Bairnsdale, Melissa and Ebony say for the first time they're getting questioning looks from people when they're publicly affectionate in the street.

They say they're starting to see more 'no' ads and are worried the 'yes' camp is becoming complacent.

Ebony: I opened up the Herald Sun (newspaper) on my tea break at work and noticed an ad for the "no" campaign -- "It's OK to vote no" -- but didn't see anything for the "yes" campaign, which was a bit disappointing. I am happy and little surprised to see that 75% of the population has voted, just hope majority has voted in favor. I'm feeling pretty confident at this stage.

Melissa: They're really pushing the fact that this vote will change sex education in schools and it's just so upsetting and disappointing. I was chatting to my boss at work the other day as we want to use her car in our wedding and I was saying you know we don't know the dates or anything yet. She said, 'Yeah that's fine but you guys should be able to (set a date) soon.' And yes, while that is exciting statistics, I just want to find out the actual result; I'm tired of waiting.

This is one of the television ads they're talking about, which expresses concerns about children growing up without a "gender reference point."

The number of Australians voting in the postal survey on same-sex marriage continued to grow, almost four-fifths of registered voters, while polls showed a steady approval for the "yes" vote.

But while the news looks positive for "yes" supporters, the next fight on marriage equality is already looming before the vote has even finished. Local reports say conservatives are planning dozens of amendments and protections to any bill supporting same-sex marriage, potentially stalling the process in its tracks.

This far into the campaign you'd think nothing could surprise you. Until Ebony found out how her grandparents had voted.

Her granddad was a former AFL player, while her grandmother worked in a law firm for years. Both are now retired and have met Melissa, who Ebony hopes will soon be part of the family.

Ebony: We never normally discuss anything to do with me and my brother being gay or marriage equality, but she just said, 'well, me and your grandfather will be voting yes.' It's nice to know I have their support.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, a few hours after Rekindling won the 2017 Melbourne Cup, voting ended in the same-sex marriage survey.

Both Melissa and Ebony lost their bets on the race but are likely to be far luckier when it comes to the results of the survey.

An Essential survey of those who have already voted said 64% had backed marriage equality, a similar number to the Newspoll survey a week earlier.

Melissa says it's been an emotional and stressful eight weeks, where she was often made to feel like a second-class citizen in her own country.

Melissa: Ebony and I have cried together over the campaign, we just want to get married like everyone else and not be judged. I feel like we are stronger together than ever ... When both my sisters sent through pics of themselves supporting me, and saying they voted "yes," it was really uplifting.

Allowing same-sex marriage won't create some world-ending disaster, Ebony says, and she doesn't want to go through the last eight weeks ever again.

Ebony: It was just so "in my face" so to speak ... (But) it made me see that my family support me a lot more than what I had originally thought, it opened my eyes a lot to how others feel and what they have gone and are going through ... It's given me some hope.

Across Australia, there were tense scenes as hundreds of LGBT people and "yes" supporters waited to find out the results of the survey at 10 a.m. local time.

In one house in Bairnsdale, Victoria, the scene was emotional.

Melissa and Ebony, surrounded by Ebony's family, watched as the result was announced live on television: It was a "yes."

Ebony burst into tears and had to be comforted by her fiancee, now soon-to-be wife. Melissa shed her tears last night after finding out her parents voted "no" but today it's a different story.

Melissa: I'm ecstatic. This means so much, not just to Ebony and myself but my brother, Lance, he will be able to marry his partner. My boss asked us when we need her car for our wedding.

Ebony: I'm glad it's over. I love the fact that we have actually had people ask, "So when is the wedding?" With that question actually being something I can respond to now knowing it's definitely going to happen a lot sooner rather than later. Now we are able to make arrangements and speak more seriously about it. It's a very, very happy day in our house today.

They can't get married yet -- there's still a lot of politics and negotiating to be done in Canberra first. Conservatives have vowed to ensure there are plenty of religious protections in any bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

But Australia is the closest it has ever been to allowing Melissa and Ebony to tie the knot.

As Opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten told jubilant "yes" supporters on Wednesday morning, "What this marriage equality survey shows is that unconditional love always has the last word."

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.