On 7 December 2017 Australia became the latest country to legislate for marriage equality. Below, Virgin Unite Community members Brooke Horne and Tom Snow discuss how a small gesture turned them into accidental activists, and led to a two year campaign that finally changed the law.
Tom Snow and his husband, Brooke Horne, were married in 2014, in front of close family, including their two-year-old twins, in a small ceremony in New Zealand.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” says Brooke, “of course we would have preferred to hold the ceremony in Australia but at the time that wasn’t an option”.
Like many gay couples in Australia, Brooke and Tom felt let down by successive Australian governments which, despite nearly 10 years of public polling showing a majority of public support of marriage equality, couldn’t pass the legislation. “It seemed crazy that Australia, whose people pride themselves on the idea of ‘a fair go’, wasn’t able to get it through,” says Tom.
However, in August 2015, there was a renewed momentum for change – just months before, Ireland had become the first country in the world to adopt marriage equality via a referendum. Then, in June, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision to allow gay couples to marry. “We watched our Facebook feeds turn into one big rainbow and felt that Australia had to be next,” says Brooke.
Tom then had an idea. His family own and operate Canberra Airport and knowing Australia’s politicians were returning to work and would all pass through the airport in the next few days, Tom made a call to the airport’s operations manager.
“You know those new lights we installed, is there any chance we can change the colours?” His plan spun into action and Australian politicians were welcomed by a giant rainbow and a sign that said: “We can do this”.
What followed however, was the proposal of a national plebiscite; a non-binding and non-compulsory vote used only three times in the nation’s history.
“Nobody was expecting that outcome,” says Brooke, “it was obviously a tactic to delay the reform."
Knowing that the opponents of marriage equality were well funded and well organised, Tom sold his infrastructure business to become a fulltime volunteer – as did Brooke, who was staying at home looking after their third child. They then donated the seed money to get the ‘YES’ campaign started. Over the next few months Brooke and Tom, along with the leaders of the equality movement, set about creating what would become The Equality Campaign, Australia’s first professional LGBTI campaign body, to build on the great work that so many volunteers had already done in the space.
“We knew we would have to go all in if we were going to succeed, but we never anticipated that it would consume our life,” says Brooke.
Over the following two years The Equality Campaign built itself into an organisation that, at the height of the campaign, had over 80 full time staff and over 15,000 volunteers. It was during this time that they met Jane Tewson, Virgin Unite Partner and CEO of charity Igniting Change.
“Tom and I were flying all over the county asking for advice and trying to build our advocacy network and Jane’s name kept on coming up. We arranged a meeting and towards the end Jane mentioned she was taking a small group to Necker Island. She didn’t give us too many details she just said that we would get a lot out of it," says Brooke.
“Jane is the queen of understatement,” said Tom.
In March 2017 Tom and Brooke joined Jane's Igniting Change Leadership Gathering with Virgin Unite, on Necker Island, meeting business, community and political leaders from around the world, including soon-to-be friend, Ian Darling. They both agree that it was a pivotal point in the way they thought about their advocacy.
“We’d been so focused on what we were doing in Australia that we hadn’t thought about examining the experience of advocates internationally," says Tom. “We stared to approach everything from a different perspective.”
Perspective wasn’t the only thing Brooke and Tom took away. When the Government announced a second shot at the plebiscite (the first having been blocked in the Senate), Virgin Unite community members were among the first to offer their support.
“It was a call from Ian Darling (Australia’s Philanthropist of the year and Virgin Unite Community member) that really floored me.” said Brooke “He told me, hand on heart, that he would contact his network and raise $1,000,000 for the campaign. It still gives me goosebumps to think about that call.”
On November 15 2017, the official results of the plebiscite were announced – 62 per cent of Australians voted in favour of marriage equality.
“Being part of the marriage equality movement has been a defining moment in our lives,” says Tom. “It’s been a privilege to work alongside some of the most dedicated and hardworking activists in the country”.
And as for what’s next: “I’m planning a lot of holidays, but I know it won’t be long before we start looking for the next thing. Jane Tewson told me she has some ideas,” Brooke says with a smile.
If you'd like to meet more of our Community members, let us introduce you to Alan and Juliet Barratt and their work protecting the gentle giants of the Sabi Sands.
We’ll be sharing more stories about our wonderful community in the weeks to come so watch this space!