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Whenever I see him, I always ask my friend how his family is and I look forward to his answer because of its predictable positivity.

“They’re great,” he usually says.

There’s a comfort in getting this same answer.

His has always been to me an ideal family. Not because they’re perfect, they’re not. I admire them because my friend is gay and his family doesn’t seem to notice and it’s nice to know there are families like that around.

They just get on with the business of being a family without the need to even mention the subject. They’re not in denial. They know he’s gay. They just, as families like theirs tend to do, keep calm and carry on.

Until last week.

Last week during a picnic, something unsettling made its way into his family’s conversation: people protesting over the Newman Government’s handling of Queensland’s civil unions law for same-sex couples.

My friend’s sister, who he’d always thought of as his “greatest supporter” gave her view on the subject, something to the order of, “I just wish they’d all get back to work.”

Perhaps with some generational desire to agitate her mother or a need to challenge the running rules of the family, my friend’s niece leapt on this opportunity to point out the elephant in the room: my friend, her uncle.

She said, “I wouldn’t think like that if MY brother was gay.”

I won’t go into the details of the conversation that followed, except to say that it raged around him, almost in spite of him and it was excrutiatingly awkward for my friend to be there.

As he told me the story, I pictured his idyllic family panicking in the middle of the minefield they’d successfully been picking their way through for years. Someone had inexplicably put a foot wrong, they were making a mess of defusing the mine and were all expecting some kind of devastating explosion.

From what I understand, it didn’t come.

I hope it won’t be a slow explosion.

My friend did say that since the picnic, he had started questioning his relationship with his sister.

He’s a considered fellow so I’m hoping he’ll find a way around it with her. Perhaps she just hadn’t thought about it enough.

Hers was, after all, a pretty typical reaction from middle Australia to the protest movement in general: an implied “Get back to work, you bunch of hippies.” She’s probably said it a hundred times before and as far as I know there have never been any hippies in my friend’s family to take offense.

The trouble is, the protestors this time weren’t hippies. They were people just like her brother, so she found herself, through her offhandedness, somehow diminishing him, his life and his relationships. She may not have meant to, but that’s the effect her statement had.

I wondered about the split second choices that my friend made on the day, about how he would react. If he had called his sister out on her comment and discussed it directly with her, that may have drawn a cordon around the conversation. He could have spared the rest of the family from having to take a position.

I do know however, that he opted to hear the family out as they discussed the issue around him. It was a risky strategy. He gave them all an opportunity to express their views, which could have been disastrous for him and his sense of support within the family had they all agreed with his sister.

His niece, behind her youthful enthusiasm for conflict must have sensed her uncle teetering between feeling supported in the family or alienated. My friend tells me that the vigor with which she defended him pretty much shut down the voicing of any similar views to his sister’s.

In any case, the awkward picnic endured by my friend’s family is a good indication of why this debate about marriage equality is not going to go away soon or when there’s a new government in power. Because it’s not just a debate for politicians or religious groups to have, it’s really a debate for families to have.

Issues of sexuality are something that all families have to deal with. Sooner or later, somebody in every family will be born gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Maybe not in your immediate family, maybe not in this generation, but eventually there’ll be somebody. And then there’ll be important choices to be made on issues like marriage equality: should you alienate someone in your family or recognize their right to a whole and fulfilling life.

If this was your family, how would you react if the subject of marriage equality came up?

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