The Accidental Activist

I knock and wait at the door of the suburban house in The Gap that Michael O’Brien has temporarily moved into with his partner Anthony, their child and their grumbling St Bernard.  I’d been asked to turn up at 5:30pm to give Michael time to take handover of his child minding duties from Anthony who had already done the school run and cooked dinner. Both men work long hours and juggle home duties between them, but I get the feeling Michael is the one who perpetually cuts it fine.

This home is a temporary stop for the young family. They’ll eventually move into another home that they have under contract. Unlike the civil union contract they signed as a same-sex couple, they hope that one will be honored.

“I literally just beat you,” explains Michael, waving me in, a little flustered. “I haven’t even said hello. Excuse the mess.”

He kisses Anthony and I watch as he then hugs their son whom he calls “Flash” (an alias they like to use to protect the boy’s identity when talking to the media).

I stand around awkwardly while Michael negotiates with Flash for some extra time to do “daddy’s work” against a barrage of petulant protests. I can tell Flash wants me to hear what he has to say about that.

Anthony keeps out of it while he sees to the dishes, prior to his own departure for an evening of exercise.

“I’m off to play dodge ball,” he tells me, grinning.

Dodge Ball. I wonder if the couple’s previous year of controversy has equipped Anthony well for the game. Pretty good training, I reckon.

“We were in the most complained about ad of 2011,” Michael reminds me.

Of course I know all about this. At the time, I headed the ad agency that was involved in the creation of the ad campaign to which Michael refers, although I’m not as proud as he is of that statistic from the Advertising Standards Council.

The “most complained about ad” was a poster titled “Rip&Roll”. It featured a photograph of Michael and Anthony in a couple’s embrace. It was designed to promote condom use amongst gay men, although the campaign got a lot more than it bargained for when it appeared on bus stops around suburban Brisbane.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) took offense at both its content and placement, enlisting hundreds of its members to apply pressure to the poster company to have it removed. The poster company acquiesced. Then a social media campaign to have the poster reinstated gained surprising momentum, creating one of the biggest local social media uprisings and mainstream media storms of 2011.

Twelve months on, Michael is still surprised at the reaction of both the public and the ACL. At the time, he remembers thinking the other posters in the campaign would have drawn more complaints (for their more suggestive poses) so he was pretty shocked when the poster of he and Anthony was singled out.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fairly benign but intimate image of two fully clothed men hugging, lost in a moment of their own. Still, it was two men and they weren’t shaking hands or slapping backs. They were hugging like lovers, which was a concept the ACL felt too challenging for children to see on the street.

Back then, after the posters were removed, the organization behind the campaign, the Queensland Association of Healthy Communities (QAHC) began formulating its response to what it considered a clear case of homophobia by the ACL. They were keen to take up the fight in an official capacity and in many ways were prepared for the task, having tested the conservative public’s appetite for challenging imagery in previous campaigns.

What they didn’t bank on was that Michael and Anthony, the face of the campaign, would take the poster’s removal as a personal slight.

As Michael tells it, “These people (the ACL), these strangers, were commenting on us, the two of us, as though we were some sort of criminals out to corrupt society. They mentioned us, our right to wear an engagement ring and Anthony’s right to wear a Christian cross. It hurt and it made me mad.”

Michael decided to create a protest online via his personal Facebook account.

It wasn’t long before the couple sensed that the online protest might go viral. Up to 500 people added their support in the form of Facebook “Likes” in the first few hours.

Michael stayed up all night watching the protest grow in popularity. By the next day it had generated tens of thousands of followers and many hundreds of messages of support from all over the world eventually attracting 100,000+ followers to the Facebook page.

Rip&Roll, was also trending on Twitter. Even Kylie Minogue saw reason to respond, tweeting “Reinstate #Ripnroll!!!!!”.

Smelling a sensation, the mainstream media came calling, running Michael’s personal and business phone lines hot.

Michael recalls having to enlist staff from his fledgling event management and hospitality staffing agency to help him deal with the media calls that came in. There were local and national newspapers, radio stations and morning television producers looking for interviews.

He is yet to count how much actual company time was “hijacked” during that frantic week although he says that for the first two weeks after the controversy it was a full time job just dealing with the calls, the emails and the online traffic. His team have since told him that while they’re “happy he’s famous for being gay” they’d prefer him to put his focus back on the business.

Still, it may not be that easy for an accidental activist to let go. Not when you’re involved in a gay health initiative, where messages tend to live on the border of community acceptance. It only takes a change in government for campaigns like Rip&Roll and the organisations and people behind them to be caught up in a moral political debate.

And so it was recently, when the new Queensland Health Minister, Lawrence Springborg took umbrage at what he termed QAHC’s misuse of Queensland Health’s funding for “overtly political lobbying for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and law reform on age of consent and civil partnerships”. Queensland Health promptly announced it was stripping QAHC of its entire funding budget, bringing gay HIV and sexual health programs back under the immediate control of the department.

If the lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community was worried that LNP conservatives may be signaling an intent to roll back many years worth of hard fought equality, they felt even more-so when the Queensland Attorney General also announced his intention to repeal the civil unions law for same-sex couples. That move ignited protests from a second angle and drew howling cries of LNP homophobia from a 2000 strong protest that took to the streets, marching on Parliament House on May 30. At that protest, Michael O’Brien was given something akin to a rockstar’s welcome, many protestors brandishing placards featuring the poster of he and his partner.

Despite the protests, the Newman Government, under pressure from Christian groups and conservatives within its ranks pushed through the watered down civil unions legislation during a late, rushed sitting and as if to add salt into the wounds of the protest, made another unheralded announcement, that child surrogacy and adoption laws will also be revised to exclude gay and lesbian couples as well as some de-facto couples.

Now that Queensland seems to be headed for less equality in both its civil partnership and surrogacy legislations, many gay and lesbian couples have found themselves at the centre of a more desperate fight, because the rolling back of this legislation means they’re not fighting for gains but defending against losses.

Michael and Anthony were the first male-to-male couple to have their relationship registered as a civil union in Queensland under the old legislation. At the time, they opted not to have a civil ceremony. Michael says they had hoped to save that ceremony for the day there was full marriage equality, when they could walk down the aisle and do what they have watched their “brothers and sisters do”.

Now that day seems even further off, and Michael and Anthony too feel that the rolling back of the legislation and the rewording of “civil unions” to become “registered relationships” has made their partnership feel diminished.

It’s not surprising then, that Michael and Anthony are happy to be thrust forward as the poster couple for the fight.

Still, the public airing of anyone’s relationship has a down side, one that seems even bigger when yours is at the centre of a moral debate.

When the Rip&Roll campaign went viral, Michael and Anthony’s relationship became a very public crucible, drawing all kinds of criticism and comment.

“Yes, we were being judged and thrown out there as morally corrupt and perverse because our image was outside schools and on bus shelters.”

Now, with the divisive debate for a change to the marriage act all fired up, and their relationship once again being cited and discussed by both sides of the debate, I sense some dread in Michael about how it will again affect his family.

He already worries about the time he spends at work, and then after work, the time he spends making appearances, speaking to pressure groups, attending planning meetings for protests, talking to the media. He also worries about Anthony and Flash, wanting to shield them from too much public and media scrutiny.

When you start to read the hate mail they’ve received since the Rip & Roll storm broke, you can understand why this young family might regret their loss of anonymity.

Hate mail has been a constant sinister presence between the positive messages of support Michael and Anthony have received since the Rip&Roll campaign began.

In comments on news stories they’ve been called faggots, pedophiles, rapists and told to burn in hell. Michael’s also taken friendly fire from the LGBTI community, having been called a “media whore” by those who feel he’s been too enthusiastic about leveraging media attention. His Facebook page too was bombarded with images of hard core porn until the contributor responsible was blocked and the wall posts were moderated. And in one particularly unsettling example, one of the posters of Michael and Anthony was graffitied with the message “Kill Em All”.

Until the Rip&Roll campaign however, Michael had not experienced a lot of gay hate.

“I grew up in a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone.” he tells me.

It’s not the cliche of backward country towns you’d expect though. When Michael decided to make his homosexuality known he did it in at atmosphere of support from his family and friends who he says have been “amazing”.

Michael believes he was the first and only boy to “come out” in his high school. The mostly positive reaction he received gave him the confidence to go to university in Brisbane and be the person he “wanted to be”.

Six months after arriving in Brisbane to study at university, Michael met Anthony.

By any other young couple’s standards, they had been living a pretty regular life ever since, building a happy home, planning a child and juggling their respective careers. Michael’s company supplies casual hospitality staff, Anthony works full time as a nurse in a busy hospital.

When the controversy erupted though, the couple left their ordinary life behind.

Watching Michael juggle the needs of a primary school-aged child, his very public relationship with Anthony and a business that is disrupted whenever he is drawn into a new fight for gay rights, I wonder how he manages.

You could ask that question of any ordinary person who has been unexpectedly thrust into the limelight of a cause and you’d probably get the same answer.

It’s not something you get training for.

Think of the parents of Daniel Morecombe, who could never have prepared themselves for the role they would take on, following the awful abduction and murder of their son. Yet we all watched how stoically they managed to set up a national foundation for harm reduction with skills they could never have known they had.

Accidental activists just seem to manage.

You’d assume the positive support they receive on a daily basis helps sustain them, but in Michael’s case there is the constant personal flak to navigate as well.

Still the flak is a catalyst and for Michael it’s a strong motivator.

Michael, who’d never been involved in any form of activism before, admits he has gained confidence and direction since the Rip&Roll controversy. He says it has awakened an interest in politics and the way he’s conducted himself since the campaign began hasn’t gone unnoticed either. He says two separate political parties have made approaches to him to join.

His natural tendency for grace under fire may be one talent the political parties have spotted. It’s something the Queensland Director of the ACL Wendy Francis, a much more experienced campaigner, must have found surprising in her encounter with him during an interview they did on Triple J during the first days of the Rip & Roll media storm.

The two faced off across a small table in a tiny recording booth while a radio host in another room mediated. Michael recalls how awkward the intimate seating was. “I was sitting just arms distance from this woman who had led a campaign to vilify us. She got more and more flustered and I got more heated. It was weird, completely surreal.” he says.

Despite feeling affronted by what she had to say, Michael says at the end of the interview he apologised to Wendy Francis for any of the awful things that had been said to her by his supporters and she too apologised and reiterated that hers wasn’t a personal attack against him or against homosexuality per se, rather a “continuation of a campaign she had been running for a compulsory G-rating to be applied to outdoor ads”.

Even so, the battle continued 12 hours later in the studios of Channel 7 during the filming of the Sunrise program and they faced off once more in the gallery at Parliament House when the civil unions bill was being passed by the Bligh Government.

The political learning curve has been steep for Michael. “I’ve learnt to be more of a critical thinker.” He has also matured to a philosophical view about the way opposing politics affords begrudging respect from both sides. “I think Wendy (Francis) and I both understand our position of being in the spotlight and standing up for something we believe in.”

How Michael handles the current toxic debate over marriage equality and child surrogacy and adoption remains to be seen. He has misgivings about the impact it will have on his family, saying if Anthony and Flash wanted him to stop, he would. But he also has high hopes for what a win on that front will achieve.

“I look at my two boys at home and know that the things I fight for will ultimately help bring us together as a family legally and completely one day soon.”

In the meantime, this accidental activist will continue to add his voice to a growing voice of dissent over the Queensland Government’s handling of equal rights for the LGBTI community.

I asked one more question of Michael before I left our interview, I asked him what Flash thought about his dad appearing on billboards and on the news.

“He just seems to think it’s cool, but he’s a kid and it’s kind of in one ear and out the other really. He has more important things to deal with, like cars, trucks and Lego.”

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