Kath and Kim show exactly how Australia can accept same-sex marriage
If Australia legalizes same-sex marriage, you only need three words to find out how it happened: Kath and Kim.
I promise that will make sense in a moment, but first we need a little context.
The postal investigation into same-sex marriage is finally underway, and while it’s not sure, the Yes campaign has a very good chance of winning. According to the CBA Voting Compass, support for marriage equality is at 50 percent or more in 134 of Australia’s 150 federal electorates. This support has more than doubled since John Howard changed the marriage law in 2004.
This did not happen in a vacuum. A profound change in the way Australians think and experience LGBTI people in general was needed for such a discussion to even be possible.
In the mid-1980s, 64% of Australians thought homosexuality was “always bad” and in 1989 only 58% thought homosexuality should be legal. While this attitude is still concerning – a 2016 Roy Morgan poll found that 21% of voters view homosexuality as “immoral” – it has lost the war of numbers.
In his 2013 book The End of the Homosexual ?, longtime LGBTI rights activist Dennis Altman set the moment for Australia’s transition “from a general atmosphere of disapproval to grudging tolerance and then to the current mood of cautious acceptance “in the early 21st century.
Kath is the average Australian
This turning point was captured, with heart and honesty, by one of Australia’s most beloved cultural touchstones: ABC’s Kath and Kim.
One of the show’s first episodes, in which Kath Day-Knight has conniptions that her daughter Kim could be gay, is an authentic and surprisingly sincere look at Central Australia’s journey from disapproval to “l ‘cautious acceptance’ of homosexuality.
One of the reasons Kath and Kim always resonates so strongly with Australians is that we recognize ourselves, or people we know, in the main characters. It’s worth double for Kath.
Where Kath goes, the nation goes too.
Kath and Kim first aired in 2002, at a crossroads identified by Altman – a 2003 study found that more than a quarter of adults disapproved of same-sex sex between two adults. So, in episode two of the show’s first season, Kath’s initial fanaticism toward “homosecksuals” comes as no surprise.
She looks askance at gay couples at Fountain Gate Mall and is quietly horrified by Kim’s decision to go golfing with Sharon (along with Sharon’s friends KD, Ellen and Martina).
In her private thoughts, she growls that “if it’s not illegal, it should be bloody” – words that have devastated so many LGBTI children when recklessly spoken by their parents.
A journey towards acceptance
When her fiancé Kel casually discusses her homosexual experiences in the Navy, it triggers an existential crisis in its own right. “Has the world gone mad? Or me?” Kath is in agony as she wanders the streets of Fountain Lakes, looking for her “chasms to make sense”.
Above all, the episode never hits. The humor always comes from the ridiculousness of Kath’s distress; she steps back in front of the store signs that read “Fruit”, “Veg Out” and “Curry Puffs”.
Nor is the show a good time to learn about Kath’s journey. In her overnight browsing session of LGBTI canon like Holding the Man, Kath doesn’t magically let go of all her prejudices; one of the words she stares at in terror in her quest for the abyss, floating benevolently in a restaurant window, is “Lebanese.”
Kath’s path to “cautious acceptance” isn’t naive proof that everything is going to be okay, and the show doesn’t try to convince us otherwise. It’s just.
Which makes this acceptance all the more powerful as it finally arrives. Kath’s hesitant attempts to explain to Kim that she agrees with her daughter as “a Dutch dyke” are both extremely awkward and truly moving.
Kim, of course, is not gay. But until the punchline rolls in, this scene mirrors the countless groping and tearful conversations that have taken place in suburban living rooms across the country over the past decades and have changed us in the process.
Tragically, Magda Szubanski’s adorable netball galoot Sharon had to settle for passing Brett, instead of one of her golf buddies. But 15 years later, we see the end result of Kath’s evolution.
Kim’s refusal to “throw her purse in the river” ended up slightly disappointing Kath, who was excited to be a supportive parent at Mardi Gras.
In 2017, she doesn’t have to be quiet. In recent weeks, more than 60,000 people have marched in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in support of the Yes campaign – the largest LGBTI rights protest Australia has ever seen.
Twenty years ago, Kath would have been groping about this. Today she would have walked there, with Epponnee-Rae in the stroller.
Where Kath goes, the nation goes too.
Alex McKinnon is a freelance writer.