After a tense and at times tearful debate, Wollongong councillors voted 8-4 to raise the rainbow flag over the city’s headquarters.
Greens councillor Mithra Cox urged her colleagues to support a motion to fly the pride flag until November 17, as a symbolic action to demonstrate support for those who have been discriminated against during the same-sex marriage survey.
“An overwhelming number of people across all age groups support the right of our gay and lesbian friends to get married,” she said.
“However, the same-sex marriage survey has opened up a debate that is having a serious and personal impact on members of our LGBTI community here in Wollongong.”
Like the survey itself, the motion proved divisive among the 12 councillors present with several speaking against flying the flag.
Wearing a rainbow flag around his neck, Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery – a former Uniting Church minister who has spoken strongly in favour of marriage equality in recent times – said he would not support replacing the City of Wollongong flag with the rainbow symbol.
Liberal Leigh Colacino said he thought raising the flag would be “isolating people, rather than making [Wollongong] more inclusive”, while Labor’s Chris Connor called upon his faith and said the council had a responsibility to also represent “the no vote”.
“Council should keep out of the debate,” Cr Connor said.
“Council should not be used to support one side of the debate. In the eyes of the Wollongong community, the rainbow flag is a symbol of the yes campaign.”
But notable yes campaigner Tania Brown, who has repeatedly spoken out about her sadness that her son, Nathan, does not have equal rights to marry, said “leaders need to make hard decisions and lead – that means we have to have the courage to stand up against opposition”.
“This is personal to me – I cannot understand in this country that my two children do not have equal rights,” she said.
“I’ve been brought to tears on so many occasions over the last few months. It’s time that we showed our true colours.”
Recounting a story of violence against a friend, Labor’s Jenelle Rimmer told councillors they had “a duty to be there for our community in their time of need”.
“I refuse to believe we should sit on our hands and say ‘it’s not our responsibility’ or ‘if we do it for one, we’ll have to do it for everyone’,” she said.
“Both of those arguments are a cop out – it is our responsibility to make decisions for the betterment of the community. If anyone can come up with a way to fly the flag, it’s the city of innovation.”
Joined by a number of equality campaigners in the public gallery, Simon Zulian from the Illawarra’s marriage equality campaign urged the councillors to lead the way in flying “a powerful symbol of inclusion, love, confidence and pride”.
“It’s currently flying in front of hundreds of homes all over the Illawarra, it’s yet to find a home in the civic heart of our community,” he said.
“The councillors that vote for this proposition will be on the right side of history.”
Mr Zulian said gay people had been “vilified for the first time in years” in the Illawarra, and noted there had been a surge in demand for counselling services.
Asked by the Lord Mayor which of the four flags out the front of the Burelli Street headquarters should be removed, Mr Zulian said the council should remove the city flag for the next two weeks, until postal survey results were revealed.
Greens member Joshua Bell also addressed the council on the issue, urging councillors to make a visible show of support for people who had suffered during the postal survey.
He noted there were 58 other councils in Australia flying the rainbow flag.
“I stand here as a young gay man from Dapto… I have felt the affects of the postal survey. I’ve had my life questioned, I’ve had my civil rights questioned and I’ve had to justify my experience to people,” he said.
“The debate has been unbearable… It’s harmful, and very hard to hear.”
The council will raise the flag on one of the four poles outside the Burelli Street headquarters until November 17.