I Went To An Anti-Marriage Equality Book Launch And Had A Very Strange Night
One book launch, two of Australia's most notorious marriage equality opponents.
On Tuesday night, two of Australia's most notorious opponents to marriage equality and more than 100 of their supporters gathered at the Hellenic Club on Sydney's Elizabeth Street.
The event? The Sydney launch of Toowoomba doctor David van Gend's new book, Stealing From a Child: The Injustice of 'Marriage Equality'.
The controversial book – which made headlines last week after the printer declined to take the order due to its "subject matter and content" – is set to become a manifesto for the "no" campaign, as Australia prepares for a national vote on same-sex marriage that may or may not happen.
Waiting for traffic on the juncture of Elizabeth and Park beforehand, I idly check my phone and glance leftwards. I do a double take. Standing next to me is Lyle Shelton.
If van Gend is a big name in the anti–marriage equality line-up, Shelton is the headliner. The managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Shelton has been at the forefront of debates over marriage, the Safe Schools Coalition, and other LGBTI rights over the past two years. The ACL is co-sponsoring the launch, along with the Australian Family Association and Marriage Alliance.
I take off my headphones.
He hesitates for a second, not knowing if I'm about to berate or praise him. I introduce myself – "Lane Sainty, from BuzzFeed" – and he relaxes, a bit.
Shelton deflects some questions about the "no" campaign as we walk two blocks down Elizabeth Street – "Well, how do *you* think we're going?" – and complains about the threatening phone calls to the Mercure Hotel last week that forced a planned meeting of the "no" campaign to shift locations and meet in secret.
He is convinced his side of the debate is consistently respectful.
"David is a gentle and respectful man," Shelton tells me. "He is not homophobic. He has gay patients."
"I was a bit taken aback by his submission to the Queensland age-of-consent law review," I say.
Earlier this month, Queensland voted to equalise the age of consent for all legal sex acts to 16. Previously, the age for anal sex was 18.
Van Gend told the committee the change would allow older men to initiate younger boys into a "homosexual subculture". Pressed on whether this concern applied to older men who could initiate 16-year-old girls, he said he was less worried about the girls, because their sexuality was more likely to be fixed, while the young men would probably grow out of same-sex attraction.
The argument about predatory older gay men was also put by federal MP George Christensen and Queensland Katter Australian Party MP Shane Knuth.
We reach the Hellenic Club, and meet an unexpected issue with entry. Shelton only decided to come at the last minute, and so isn't on the RSVP list. My name safely checked off, I step between the two security guards hired to watch the door, while Shelton remains on the other side.
"I promise, I am part of this group," he says. He gestures at me. "She can vouch for me."
"Trust me, he is with these people," I say, laughing.
The guards relent, and Shelton and I joke about the BuzzFeed reporter being ushered in to an anti–marriage equality event while he is left outside. As we wait for the lift, he asks "You're, you are gay, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am," I say, slightly puzzled.
We're joined in the lift by a straight couple, the woman heavily pregnant. They're from the Greek Orthodox church and the very image of the nuclear family van Gend and Shelton hold so dear.
Then, the lift doors open on the wrong floor. As it turns out, level three of the Hellenic Club building is occupied by Bobbi's Pole Dance Studio.
It's like the opening line to a joke – Lyle Shelton, a gay journalist, and a pregnant straight couple walk into a pole-dancing studio.
We eventually make it to level five and I wander into a drab room made to look larger than it really is by a full-length mirror on the back wall.
The demographic is largely, though not exclusively, old and white. We're right on time, but most of the chairs are already occupied, people politely murmuring to the people they came with instead of milling around.
Van Gend takes the stage after an introduction from Labor MLC Greg Donnelly. A practising doctor, van Gend is one of the most outspoken opponents to same-sex marriage in the country.
He believes same-sex couples having children creates a new Stolen Generation, and has compared the US supreme court ruling on same-sex marriage to the Dred Scott decision on slavery.
He launches right into the controversial decision for the printer to reject his book.
"How can there be no printer and yet there be a book?" he asks. "Well, our publisher, Connor Court, smelt the proverbial rat right from the start when some questions were asked."
The publisher got a second printer to "run off a few thousand on the side", van Gend says.
"When we heard the day before the launch that the printer who had had the manuscript for a couple weeks was not going to print, we were not sabotaged."
He pauses and says slowly, for dramatic effect: "The show went on." The crowd breaks into polite applause.
And then he threatens to sue me.
"I also acknowledge one media person. I believe Lane Sainty from BuzzFeed is here." He peers out over the audience, searching for me, but we don't make eye contact.
"Lane, I haven't decided yet whether to sue you for your last article on me but we'll talk later," he says. "Cheers."
Approximately 50% of the audience laughs nervously. A dumb smile plastered on my face, I fight a bizarre urge to stand up and wave, and furiously jot down notes instead.
He adds, congenially: "I'm not the suing type."
Van Gend reads out a lengthy excerpt from the book's introduction, making various arguments commonly heard from opponents of same-sex marriage: It strips children of the right to know their mother and father, it erodes the traditional family, it will make LGBT sex education compulsory in schools. Et cetera.
He contends that same-sex marriage will not help overturn the social isolation felt by many LGBT young people. Clearly he is rattled by the rhetoric of Bill Shorten and others, who say an ugly plebiscite debate will hurt LGBT youth.
"Is it proportionate to overturn the foundational institution of society, with all the adverse consequences that flow from that, as a form of psychological therapy for some troubled kids?" he asks. "There are less radical ways to help.
"Give us marriage equality, we are told, or you are causing young people to suffer, be bullied and even commit suicide... as BuzzFeed, under Lane Sainty, recently published, smearing me in the process."
I continue scrawling notes. His voice is slow and deliberate when he talks about me. For the record, this is the article in which he believes I smeared him.
His lengthy reading of an excerpt from the book is followed by a Q&A session. Questions range from the logistical to the philosophical.
One person asks what would happen with the plebiscite if Labor voted it down – van Gend says he thinks Labor will "blink", but won't be drawn on the issue.
One woman asks if the "ship has already sailed", given same-sex couples can have kids via IVF, surrogacy, and adoption. Van Gend says these laws vary from state to state, but all would be overturned if same-sex marriage becomes legal.
"If you bring in a federal law for same-sex marriage, it overrules all those state discrepancies under our constitution. All of them go. Because marriage is a compound right in law. The right to marry and found a family. If you give two men the right to marry, you are giving them the equal right to obtain a child via surrogacy or adopt with a man-woman couple. In law."
Interestingly, one man gets up and starts talking about homosexuality and paedophilia – but van Gend shuts down the comparison immediately. In Stealing From a Child, he talks about polygamy and incest, but it appears comparisons to child sex abuse are where he draws the line.
"Sit down, mate. It's not about that." The man retreats, nodding.
I buy his book, handing over $30 cash to van Gend's beaming son, and wonder if it's an ethically dodgy move for a journalist. All proceeds go to the "no" campaign – am I, in a way, donating to it?
The man in front buys 10, taking full advantage of the $5 discount per copy for bulk purchases. His stack amounts to $250 worth of rainbow paperbacks. Van Gend signs every one, vigorously shakes the man's hand, and turns to me.
"Lane!" He stands up, pumps my hand back and forth with a broad smile, and starts gregariously chastising me for the story that had offended him so much.
"Sorry for having a bit of a go at you," he says. "But you were so rough on me!"
We exchange cards and chat briefly about the printer that rejected his book. I ask if he was implying the printer deliberately waited to tell him.
"I hope it wasn't sabotage," he says. "But why didn't they tell me until the day before the launch? They had the manuscript for two weeks."
The printer's parent company, Opus Group, did not return a call from BuzzFeed News asking for comment.
Conscious of the line of fans clutching books lined up behind us, the encounter wraps up quickly, just as cordially as it began.
I walk away and realise my hands are shaking so much I can barely insert his card into my wallet.
Before exiting the Hellenic Club, I spy Shelton, deep in conversation, and tap him on the shoulder.
"Nice to meet you, Mr Shelton."
"You too, Lane! Sorry about David mentioning you."
On the train home, I flip through Stealing From a Child, the cover of which seems to be an unintentional homage to the '90s obsession with Microsoft WordArt.
The book is dedicated to "the victims of marriage equality", including future children, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and people who object to "LGBT dogma".
The book contains just one picture. It's some graffiti, reading "van Gend: Bigot" , spray-painted on the side of van Gend's Toowoomba doctor's clinic in June last year. The anarchist symbol is clumsily rendered below the scrawl.
During his talk, an hour earlier, van Gend had proudly displayed the picture to the room of traditional marriage supporters.
"What an honour it is to cop this sort of abuse for the sake of something so nearly sacred – the life between mother, father, and child," he said, grinning.
"How bracing it is to be on the wrong side of history."