What changed at 19?
I had a crush on a girl in a way that was different from anything before. I couldn’t get this person out of my head. I would go to sleep-thinking about this girl. I remember driving down Stirling Highway in Perth and it clicked in my head, this sudden realisation. I had an autonomic response to this realisation. And it felt like realising I had cancer. Gee. How so?
I was driving and crying because all of a sudden there was a thing inside me. I didn’t choose it, I couldn’t get rid of it, I couldn’t control it.Where do you think you got that negativity from, in terms of how you saw gayness and queerness?
I remember feeling the world was going to be hostile towards me. I’d always been really ambitious and wanted to do big things. All of a sudden I was realising it was going to be much harder for me if I came out because the world is hostile to gay people. I didn’t know any gay people growing up. The first time I heard about gayness was when I learned it as a slur and that slur was used against me in high school. All my friends in high school suspected I was gay. [laughs
] They called it. I got called “Rugg-muncher” in high school.You don’t want to be the thing people tease you about.
Exactly. One of the other things I was scared of was that friends of mine would say, “I told you so.” The shame that other people knew this thing about me before I knew it. I hated that.Is that what ended up happening? That friends told you, “I told you so”?
No. They were just supportive. And uninterested. [laughs
]A lot of people know you mostly for the work you do advocating for LGBTIQA+ rights. When did you get into activism?
Well, the roots of my activism largely come from the fact I’ve always really cared about children and young people. When I left school I did a lot of volunteer work with kids and young people who came from disadvantaged – or “under pressure” – backgrounds; kids who had behavioural issues or hard family lives. I got a job at GetUp while doing my masters because they were focusing on mental health campaigning and refugee rights. Then the national director of GetUp was like, “Great, you’re gay. You can also take care of our marriage equality campaign.” And I was like, “Absolutely not.” [laughs
]Why did you have that reaction?
Because I thought marriage equality was a sham. [laughs
] I obviously don’t believe that any more but I thought it was not a priority for the community. I thought, “I never want to get married.” And I thought marriage was …A distraction from other important LGBTIQA+ issues?
Exactly. And I kind of thought the institution itself was gross and weird. And I took umbrage with the fact I was given the campaign: “Well, it’s just ’cause I’m gay!” Whereas now I look back on it and I’m like, “That’s good. We should have people from affected communities involved and leading.”What swung you around to the fight?
At the end of 2013, the ACT accidentally legalised same-sex marriage for six days; it was a bureaucratic fuck-up. I went to Canberra in my capacity as a same-sex marriage campaigner and attended a bunch of weddings as a guest, making videos and lobbying – stuff like that. And I went to the wedding of Ivan and Chris Hinton-Teoh
. It was the first time I’d been to a wedding where I didn’t think it was gross and weird. I felt like I belonged there. When I looked around, there were my people.the wedding of Ivan and Chris Hinton-Teoh Suddenly it was a queer space.
Yeah. Watching Chris and Ivan get married, seeing this demonstrated to me, I realised marriage belongs to us as well. It’s not a heterosexual thing that’s being extended to us. We’re just as entitled to it. From that moment on, I became completely obsessed with it. I remembered being 19, discovering I was gay and feeling like I had cancer. And I didn’t want other young people – when they’re discovering who they are – to feel like that. That was the other part of my obsession with marriage equality. My belief was – and remains – that if kids grow up knowing it’s OK to be gay, they’re going to have the same opportunities and the same acceptance. In what ways do you feel you’re still growing up as a queer person in Australia?
I grew up a lot over the five years I worked on the marriage equality campaign. For better and for worse, I developed a hardened shell to withstand that much criticism – from opponents and community alike – to withstand the torrents of anonymous abuse and attacks in the rightwing media and to withstand the constant setbacks on the campaign.It’s a trade-off, isn’t it? On the one hand, emotional vulnerability is a really important asset to have but it can be a liability.
Totally. And the nature of the marriage equality campaign – but also the nature of all LGBTIQA+ reform – is built on the back of people telling their personal stories. As queer people, we open up the most intimate parts of ourselves and our lives and our families in order to appeal to the majority.For them to recognise our basic human dignity.
In the desperate hope they’ll see their humanity reflected in ours.And that’s taxing.
Yeah. So I think in the wake of opening up myself repeatedly, again and again, once my book is out, I’ll close myself up for a little bit.You mentioned attacks from enemies: that’s expected. But attacks from within the community might be less expected for some people.
“Attacks” is probably too strong a word. But when I first started receiving hard criticism from the LGBTIQA+ community, it hurt so much more.You can never please everyone, even if ostensibly you’re on the same side.
Absolutely. But at the end of the postal survey, I understand that being an almost self-appointed spokesperson for our community’s issues and having a public profile means I might get reported in the media as a spokesperson for a community. So it’s not only fair but right that I’m criticised and held accountable.That’s a healthy way of looking at it. For a lot of people, it’s really challenging to get any criticism. Our immediate reaction is defensiveness.
Especially when it’s criticism about work that’s taken so long and required your blood, sweat and tears. It’s hard. But if I’m not getting criticism, I’m not progressing the conversation around our rights and the legislative reform we need.Say you could go back in time and go back to little Sally Rugg and give her advice about her burgeoning queerness, what would you tell her?
I’d tell her to stop having sex with men to try to figure out who she is. I’m surprised I didn’t get pregnant! And I’d tell her to try to find her community. Had I found a queer community sooner, I would’ve known I had the belonging and unconditional love of the community as chosen family.
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