I loved growing up in Warrnambool. Sure, I’ve made my fair share of jokes about the occasionally-less-than-exhilarating experience of being a 16-year-old with delusions of grandeur living three-and-a-half hours away from the Big City, but ultimately I know how lucky I am to call this place home. A safe and friendly community, natural beauty, long summers by the beach, playing tennis with my dad at Supergrasse, prancing around onstage with Holiday Actors, the Jamo school uniform – these things are fundamental parts of me. They're in my DNA. For that, I’m very grateful.
But things weren’t always perfect. I realised that I was gay when I was 15 years old. I was not a fan of that realization initially: in fact, for a few years, I hated that part of myself. I tried to deny it, to push it down inside. Closeted and ashamed, I witnessed homophobia in the schoolyard, on the internet, in the media, in our parliament and yes, in my local community. My peers liberally bandied about the word "gay" as an insult. I was told in no uncertain terms that being gay was the worst thing you could possibly be. I once heard a friend's father say casually that he'd rather have a son who was dead than queer.
Despite this, in many ways, I’ve been extremely lucky, thanks to my loving family and friends. There are plenty of queer-identifying people who have it much tougher than me. But that unmistakable sense of rejection that comes from growing up in a homophobic society lingers with me. I can’t help but see it all around me as this national debate on marriage equality plays out. I have often been made to feel dirty, lesser, excluded or abnormal because of something about myself that I cannot change and that doesn’t hurt anybody else.
I was so happy for my best mate when he tied the knot at The Last Coach and I smile every time I see folks in fancy clothes gathering together for a wedding in the Botanic Gardens, but there’s an undeniable implication there: I am not welcome here. This institution that we’re told is so integral to human happiness and a healthy society currently has no place for people like me. That is, quite simply, unjust.
Inside a boring envelope inside your letterbox is an opportunity to finally – finally – reform the Marriage Act. I believe the ticking of that yes box is an opportunity for us to acknowledge the wrongs of the past – decades of societal, legal and religious discrimination towards the queer community – and to celebrate our diversity. It’s a chance for us to send a message to the same-sex couples who have been together for decades and for the next generation of queer youth: a message that says you are loved, you are full citizens and you deserve to be treated equally before the law. Speaking from experience, I know that to a scared 15-year-old growing up in a regional centre like Warrnambool, trying to figure out his place in the world, a message like that would mean a lot.
I am an Australian. I am a Warrnamboolian. I am gay. I am not ashamed of being gay anymore. I am proud of who I am. I try my best to be a good person. I deserve to be treated equally.
In this community I have been your friend, your co-worker, your student, your customer, your neighbour. And I am now asking you to please, choose love, not fear. Please, vote in favour of marriage equality and help make our community a kinder, more loving and more welcoming place. For everyone.
Tom Ballard (@TomCBallard) is a comedian, former triple j radio presenter and occasional TV personality who grew up in Warrnambool.