By Alex McKinnon
If and when Australia legalises same-sex marriage, you only need three words to know how it happened: Kath and Kim.
I promise that will make sense in a moment, but first we need a little context.
The postal survey on same-sex marriage is finally underway, and while it’s no sure thing, the Yes campaign has a very good chance of winning. According to the ABC’s Vote Compass, support for marriage equality is at 50 per cent or higher in 134 of Australia’s 150 federal electorates. That support has more than doubled since John Howard changed the Marriage Act in 2004.
That hasn’t happened in a vacuum. A profound shift in the way Australians think and feel about LGBTI people in general was needed for such a discussion to even be possible.
In the mid-1980s, 64 per cent of Australians thought homosexuality was “always wrong” and in 1989 just 58 per cent thought homosexuality should be legal. While that attitude is still worryingly prevalent — a 2016 Roy Morgan poll found 21 per cent of voters regard homosexuality as “immoral” — it has lost the war of numbers.
It’s hard to pinpoint when or how a nation changes its mind, especially without the benefit of hindsight.
In his 2013 book The End of the Homosexual?, longtime LGBTI rights activist Dennis Altman put the moment of Australia’s turn “from a general atmosphere of disapproval to a grudging tolerance, and then to the current mood of cautious acceptance” at the start of the 21st century.
Kath is the average Aussie
That turning point was captured, with heart and honesty, by one of Australia’s most beloved cultural touchstones: the ABC’s Kath and Kim.
One of the show’s first episodes, in which Kath Day-Knight has conniptions that her daughter Kim may be gay, is an authentic and surprisingly heartfelt look at middle Australia’s journey from disapproval to “cautious acceptance” of homosexuality.
One of the reasons Kath and Kim still resonates with Australians so strongly is because we recognise ourselves, or people we know, in the main characters. That goes double for Kath.
If Australia had a First Mum, it’d be Kath. Middle-aged, middle class, suburban and conservative, though not dogmatically so, Kath is the mystical “average” Australian voter political parties desperately hunt for in focus groups.
They know that if you win Kath, you win the debate.
Where Kath goes, so too goes the nation.
Kath and Kim first went to air in 2002, at the crossroads Altman identifies — a 2003 study found that more than a quarter of adults disapproved of sex between two adults of the same gender. So in episode two of the show’s first season, Kath’s initial bigotry towards “homosecksuals” comes as no surprise.
She looks askance at gay couples in Fountain Gate shopping plaza, and is quietly horrified at Kim’s decision to take up golfing with Sharon (along with Sharon’s friends KD, Ellen and Martina).
In her private thoughts, she snarls that “if it isn’t illegal, it bloody well should be” — words that devastated so many LGBTI kids when carelessly uttered by their parents.
A journey to acceptance
When her fiance Kel casually mentions his homosexual experiences in the Navy, it triggers a full-blown existential crisis. “Has the world gone mad? Or have I?” Kath agonises as she reels through the streets of Fountain Lakes, searching her “chasms for meaning”.
Importantly, the episode never punches down. The humour always comes from the ridiculousness of Kath’s distress; she recoils from shop signs reading “Fruit”, “Veg Out” and “Curry Puffs”.
Nor does the show make a teachable moment of Kath’s journey. In her all-night speed reading session of LGBTI canon like Holding the Man, Kath doesn’t magically abandon all her prejudices; one of the words she fixes on in terror on her chasm quest, floating benignly in a restaurant window, is “Lebanese”.
Kath’s path to “cautious acceptance” is not naive evidence that Everything Is Going To Be Alright, and the show doesn’t try to convince us otherwise. It just is.
Which makes that acceptance all the more powerful when it finally comes. Kath’s halting attempts to explain to Kim that she is OK with her daughter being “a Dutch sea wall” are both crushingly awkward and genuinely moving.
Nothing to be gropable about
Kim, of course, is not gay. But until the punchline comes, that scene mirrors the countless fumbling, tearful conversations that have played out in suburban living rooms around the country these past few decades, and changed us in the process.
Kath and Kim was perfectly in and of its time, not ahead of it.
Tragically, Magda Szubanski’s lovable, netball bib-wearing galoot Sharon had to settle for pashing Brett, instead of one of her golfing buddies. But 15 years on, we see the end result of Kath’s evolution.
Kim’s refusal to “throw her handbag in the river” ends up mildly disappointing Kath, who was excited at the thought of being a supportive parent at Mardi Gras.
In 2017, she doesn’t have to sit things out. In recent weeks, more than 60,000 people marched in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in support of the Yes campaign — the single-largest demonstration for LGBTI rights Australia has ever seen.
Twenty years ago, Kath would’ve been gropable about it. Today, she would’ve been marching in it, complete with Epponnee-Rae in the stroller.
Where Kath goes, so too goes the nation.
Alex McKinnon is a freelance writer.