Sally is an LGBTQI+ rights campaigner, activist and public speaker. Sally works for the progressive activist group GetUp where, among other things, she leads the national campaign for marriage equality. In her spare time, she volunteers for Twenty10, an organisation that supports young people with diverse sexualities and genders. We caught up over a few sunset bevvies at Leighton Beach, Fremantle and found out how Sally discovered her passion for campaigning.
a/s/l: 28/female/Newtown, Sydney.
Saturn return: March 2017 - December 2017
You’ve been instrumental in abolishing the plebiscite and leading an influential campaign in support of marriage equality and LGBTQIA+ rights around the nation. How did you get involved in the campaign?
I fell into LGBTI campaigning when I was working at GetUp in 2013 and my boss allocated the marriage equality campaign to me. I thought that queers shouldn’t be shackled to this heteronormative expectation of monogamy (marriage) and that he had only given it to me because I was the only gay campaigner at GetUp at the time, so I initially resisted. I reluctantly took it on thinking that marriage equality didn’t really matter – I had only really thought about it as two gay people getting married, but now I understand it’s not that at all. It’s about civil discrimination in a secular country that is influenced by religion. It’s about creating a society that treats people fairly, and who values the love and relationships and families of LGBTQIA+ people equally. It’s about the next generation of people – queer and straight – who’ll grow up understanding that it’s okay to be gay or bi or trans. It’s about people having the choice to marry the person they love without being discriminated against because of who they are.
When did you start working for GetUp?
I had just moved to Sydney and was working with an organisation on the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse as well as doing my Masters in Journalism. I wanted a little more money and a job popped up working at GetUp for one day a week. The job was calling people whose credit card details had expired to get the new expiry date. I did that role for about a month and then the 2013 election was called and I quickly moved into a creative role, working on our video content over the election. I had been doing broadcast journalism at Uni and because I had a background in writing and drama, so when that gap appeared at GetUp it was a perfect fit.
Why did you decide to not finish your Masters in Journalism?
I studied Journalism to the point of a graduate diploma but I didn’t do the final project that I needed to get my Masters. The more I learned and practised journalism, the more I realised that the reasons I thought I wanted to be a journalist weren’t really that big of a part of the job, unless you were very lucky. I wanted to tell stories that matter, and I wanted to shape public narratives and make a difference on the issues that I cared about - I realised that those things aren’t really journalism, that’s campaigning.
Have you had an interest in human rights or activism at an early age or did it develop later in life?
Since I was very little, I didn’t like people telling me what to do. I remember when I was four or five, one of my earliest memories was screaming at my mum because she was telling me to do something and I was like, “You’re not the boss of me!” and she just looked down at me, and was like, “Um, yeah, I am”. But she wasn’t, I was my own boss.
As I grew older, I developed a sense of empathy and responsibility of the greater social good. I think the reason I fell into activism is because I can combine that responsibility with really hating being told what to do.
How do you cope with people who oppose your beliefs?
My entire job as a campaigner is defined by the fact that there are people who don’t agree with my beliefs and my job is to recognise that and try to convince them. There are either people who are persuadable and I can convince them or there are people who are really hostile and oppose it.
Do you ever take the opposition personally?
Yes and no. On Twitter and Facebook I’ll sometimes get a messages that can be mean or threatening, but that’s not really me, that’s a public character of me. I don’t take those kinds of things personally at all.
A big part of my work around LGBTQIA+ issues is being completely up to date with everything that our opponents are doing – so that involves reading every blog post from the Australian Christian Lobby, watching every parliamentary speech where someone like George Christensen likens my community to paedophiles, staying across every offensive advertising campaign from other anti-equality groups etc . Consuming that really violent homophobia daily… I didn’t realise until I had a little break from work recently how much it was stressing me out, and how the water-off-a-ducks-back thing was actually getting a bit less waterproof leading up to the potential plebiscite.
I’m really interested in public narrative. When there’s these homophobic billboards or homophobic ads, or the fact that our national broadsheet, The Australian, publishes an anti-gay cartoon every week that depicts us as nazis or peodaphiles, that’s the stuff that upsets me. It’s not personal personal, but every LGBTQIA+ person knows the feeling of being othered or ostracised, and it brings up those feelings.
Do you have any coping mechanisms that you employ to take care of yourself?
No I don’t, and that’s my problem! I think I will in the future. I think a big downfall of mine is not stopping and not checking in on myself. I think when we were younger, we were much more immortal. But now I’m old and I get tired…
What do you think the future has in store for marriage equality?
It’s a really exciting time for marriage equality at the moment. The plebiscite is well and truly off the table – thank god – and a senate committee reported in mid February on an inquiry they held into the government’s marriage equality legislation they drafted as part of their failed plebiscite. What the inquiry into this legislation showed was the extraordinary consensus between marriage equality campaigners, religious bodies and institutions, and all sides of politics on what a bill for marriage equality should look like and any religious exemptions that should be part of it. So, the next part of the campaign is to try to get this government bill passed. Ideally, this would happen by convincing the Liberal party to allow a free vote on the bill – which would it would easily pass both houses of parliament as there’s enough support for marriage equality in each house. That’s the easiest and most obvious way. But if Malcolm Turnbull won’t allow the free vote, which he’s insisted he won’t, we’ll try to convince members of his party to break ranks and cross the floor to vote for the reform.
The reason marriage equality won’t happen is because when Malcolm Turnbull tried to knock Tony Abbott out of the prime ministership, to secure the numbers of the right faction of the Coalition, the Nationals and some super conservative fuckers, he had to sign a document that said he wouldn’t act on marriage equality and he wouldn’t act on climate change. He literally sold us out so he could be Prime Minister.
In 2008 to 2012, we were trying to convince the masses that marriage equality is okay. We got the public support. Then 2013 to 2015 was using that public support to influence parliament and the votes of MPs. Now we have majority support in the community, majority support in the parliament and the leaders of the three major political parties support marriage equality. The Prime Minister supports marriage equality. So there’s no convincing to do. It’s just this bureaucratic deadlock.
Let’s talk about your involvement with Twenty 10 as a volunteer.
It’s really fun. Twenty10 is a drop in centre for young people that also provides counselling and homelessness support. I volunteer on Saturdays with a group for kids aged 13-18. We just hang out, play games, go on excursions. One time we went whale watching and one of the kids was like, “Hey does anybody know the rap to Super Bass by Nicki Manaj ?” I was like, “Yes, I’ve been waiting all of my life for someone to ask me this.” Then this group of volunteers and queer kids were just rapping Super Bass on the coast and it was magical.
What is your proudest achievement, personally or professionally?
Professionally, it’s being part of the campaign that defeated the plebiscite. That meant so much to me, and meant so much to so many people all over the country. The plebiscite was announced as the government’s response to an enormous campaign for a free vote on marriage equality. When they first announced it, it seemed inevitable that we were going to have this massive national vote on the worthiness and value of LGBTI people and their relationships and their families.
I spent the next 14 months working with incredible activists all over the country, fighting the plebiscite. It was no one person’s thing, it was so many people. The LGBTI community came together, it was amazing.
There’s also been a lot of literature written about the plebiscite being defeated. Lane Sainty from Buzzfeed wrote this really beautiful piece, how the rejection of the plebiscite is really historic for LGBTI activism, how queer people have always had to just accept the scraps that we’ve been given and the commentary suggests that for the first time that the community has said, “no, we are not having something that is less. We’re not going to to settle for this completely arbitrary parliamentary process. No, we want our rights done properly.“
Personally, it’s not an achievement but I’m really proud of the people I know. I’m proud when I get to introduce my friends to each other and I’m proud of what my friends do, and I’m grateful and proud that they want to be my friend. I really love my friends.
What has been a challenging moment in your life?
Recently, I had a really challenging professional moment. I’m on annual leave at the moment, I’ve just had a month off. I burnt myself out. My work ran a really intense election campaign and then this really intense plebiscite campaign. I wasn’t making time to check-in with myself, or rest. I spent the last few years with no compromises - work hard, play hard, go hard. What it meant was I burnt myself out to the point that when Donald Trump was elected – even though it had nothing directly to do with me – I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I went outside and bought a packet of cigarettes because I was like, well, we’re all going to die. I cried in the rain smoking cigarettes.
Personally, getting my heart broken really badly a few years ago was pretty bad. It completely broke not just my heart but my whole world. I was a broken person. I just didn’t know where the pieces fit together again and I didn’t know who I was. When I’m in a relationship, I just give everything to it. I’ve spent the last three years putting myself back together, gently and excitedly, and it was a challenge but in the end, it’s been the most awesome thing. Discovering who I am again. I don’t regret the relationship at all, it was beautiful and amazing. I lost myself a little bit and then when that all fell apart, part of this figuring out how I piece myself back together was remembering who I used to be. It’s a shame that all of life’s lesson’s have to come after intense situations.
Do you have a vision for your future?
I want to save the Safe Schools program. I want to stay at GetUp and I want to kick this government out at the next election. At GetUp I’ll be in a role that’s back to storytelling and video/social media stuff, so I’m excited to shift some public narrative.
In terms of me personally, I’m not sure. In the past three years I’ve been in learning and developing and exploring. I feel like the last month of being off work I’ve been able to distill that and ask myself, who do you want to be? Where are you going? Something that keeps coming to the front of my mind is responsibility. I want to take responsibility for my family more and I want to take responsibility and leadership for LGBTI issues more. I want to take responsibility for my work-life balance.
Where is your happy place?
Being under water at Leighton Beach, suspended in the still blue. I grew up coming here. It’s the closest thing I have to spirituality. Also, the Courthouse in Newton because it’s my favourite pub. Everytime I go there, lots of my friends are there and it’s just near my house.
Photography / Julia Petricevic & Simone Ruggiero
Words / Sally Rugg
Location / Leighton Beach, Fremantle