Sally Rugg was shaking things up well before she became a leader in the marriage equality campaign or was celebrated for giving a meaningful side eye on ABC’s Q&A. But it wasn’t the status quo she was shaking up back then, it was mangoes and peaches, bananas and pears. The LGBTQI activist’s first after-school job was at smoothie brand Boost Juice when she was 13 – a role that over seven years morphed into managing stores and working in the company’s national operations team.
“I still have dreams about making smoothies constantly,” Rugg jokes (her favourite, for the record, is the green tea mango mantra), as we sit at a high table in the outdoor area of Newtown pub favourite, The Courthouse Hotel. Appropriate to its name and location close to Newtown local court and police station, there’s a group of suits sitting nearby who we surmise are undercover detectives on their lunch breaks.
Sally Rugg at Newtown’s Courthouse Hotel.Credit:Nick Moir
If smoothies occupy Rugg’s dreams, it’s the marriage equality movement that has occupied her waking moments over the past several years. Rugg was one of the main public faces of the marriage equality campaign, working as campaign director and creative director for the activist organisation GetUp.
In her new book, How Powerful Are We, Rugg lifts the curtain and takes us behind the scenes of the campaign. And if tear-triggering images of love were strewn across newspaper front pages when the postal survey returned a Yes vote in November 2017, the 30-year-old’s book makes clear there was no shortage of broken hearts left trailing behind the result. At the core of Rugg’s book is a determination to “counter the rewriting of how Australia achieved one of the most significant social changes in a generation” in a bid to ensure the work of the LGBTQI community and activists are not forgotten.
“During the survey there were just so many instances of absolute absurdity I had started to hope that someone would capture it all. As soon as the bill passed, it was like watching the last 14 years, but certainly the last six years in earnest, completely rewritten in real time. The bill passed and there are press conferences and newspapers and speeches and all this stuff saying that Malcolm Turnbull has delivered marriage equality, the postal survey has delivered marriage equality, and it felt like I was going crazy. Like gas lighting on this industrial, national scale,” Rugg tells me.
“We should absolutely celebrate how we achieved it and the wonderful thing we did together but I feel like if we don’t interrogate how we got there then the end will always justify the means and I feel like the means by which we operate in society should always be accountable. We shouldn’t just be like, ‘oh well we got there in the end’.”
The vegetarian lasagna at The Courthouse Hotel.Credit:Nick Moir
Rugg now lives in Melbourne and is an executive for online petition platform change.org, but has a special connection to "The Courty" which has maintained its laid-back charm as other pubs in the area have undergone the hipster treatment. During the busiest and most stressful periods of the marriage equality campaign, she lived around the corner from the pub, in Camperdown, and her friends held weekly "friendship beers" each Sunday afternoon. Rugg has a schooner of Young Henry’s Australian pale ale, the Newtowner, and goes for her menu favourite, the vegetarian lasagne. I opt for a tofu bowl, packed with broccoli, avocado, edamame and tofu.
There was no rest for Rugg after the marriage equality legislation passed in December 2017 – she took a quick 10 days off over Christmas and spent the next 18 months reliving the trauma of the campaign while writing her book.
Marriage equality has enjoyed wide public support for more than a decade and the postal survey, Rugg says, “was a shameful, callous political manoeuvre that cost lives, broke families, saw communities divide themselves in two and gave a national platform to an underbelly of homophobia and transphobia”. It was a disgrace, Rugg says, and was the result of the government’s inability to do its job and legislate. Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who backed the Yes vote, said at the time the postal ballot was the way to deliver on the government’s election promise.
Rugg was one of the most prominent faces of the Yes campaign.
If you have seen a GetUp advertisement, chances are that Rugg made it. She was doing her master’s degree in broadcast journalism and working for the Blue Knot Foundation when she saw a job for GetUp posted on Twitter in 2013. It was a one day a week position where Rugg had to call regular donors whose credit card had expired and ask for updated banking details. The team was small – a dozen people under then national director Sam McLean – and when a federal election was called in 2013, Rugg offered to take charge of the videos, social media and television advertisements.
As the only queer person in a campaigning role at GetUp, Rugg was chosen to take the lead on the marriage equality campaign. She had not initially supported marriage equality, thinking marriage was an outdated and naff concept, but achieving equality became her “north star” after she attended a wedding when same-sex marriage was briefly legalised in Canberra in 2013.
The campaign took its toll on the LGBTQI community broadly – and on Rugg the political proved particularly personal. It infiltrated every part of her life. During the campaign, she would wake with her heart racing and chest tight, her hands shook with exhaustion and she suffered insomnia. There were plenty of crisis moments Rugg had to deal with, including when the postal ballets were sent out earlier than expected, when Tony Abbott was head-butted by a man reported to be wearing a Vote Yes badge and when the glitter bombs she organised to be sent to MPs resulted in a chemical weapons scare.
When she received her own ballot in the post, Rugg writes that “it felt like every moment of homophobia I’d experienced in the past decade and every bad word I’d heard about LGBTQI people was inside that envelope, bristling to get out”. She tacked the envelope to her wall and burst into tears – a friend had to post back the ballot for her.
[The bullying] could fill pages and pages. It was humiliating, cruel and perverse.
As one of the public faces of the campaign, Rugg says she heard every form of vile abuse from online trolls (and she copped her fair share of attacks in the media as well). And while we live in a world where sadly, and wrongly, it’s no surprise that someone in Rugg’s position is subject to abuse, the shock is that she copped it from her own team as well.
Rugg, in her book, details the bullying and harassment she experienced from members of the marriage equality campaign, outside of GetUp: “It could fill pages and pages. It was humiliating, cruel and perverse. Several times, it almost broke me… I have never, ever, been spoken to the way male marriage equality campaigners spoke to me in my years working with them.”
Sexism was, Rugg says, a broad problem. Gay men, she says, dominated the campaign at the expense of women, non-binary and trans people.
Rugg tells me she is nervous about the release of the book – she doesn’t want to be seen as a traitor or to do damage to the LGBTQI community. She doesn’t name her specific harassers or go into significant detail because she says it wasn’t worth risking her career for.
“I still feel really nervous about writing that and how it will land because it is still this thing… putting it on the public record, even in the super vaseline-lensed, broad brush strokes way, there’s still a part of me that feels like I am betraying the cause or betraying the greater good or centring myself or airing my dirty laundry. All this stuff that tells people to be quiet,” Rugg says.
“On the inverse, when I have spoken to particularly women and non-binary people about this, not all but most are grateful because they can’t say anything.”
Change.org’s executive director Sally Rugg served up plenty of side-eye on Q&A.Credit:ABC
While some of her activist colleagues believe that “no one wants to see how the sausage is made”, Rugg is open about the sophistication of the marriage equality campaign. GetUp, Rugg says, is often represented as being made up of fringe lefties, but her book details the world-class skill and strategy that helped lead to 7.8 million, or 61.6 per cent, yes votes in the postal ballot.
In the past year and a half, Rugg has found a new type of activism working at change.org. Members of the public are able to use the platform to start online petitions, and Rugg and her team select a handful to work with in order to improve the effectiveness of their campaign. The people who start petitions, Rugg says, overwhelmingly tend to be mothers grieving for their children or people who have survived terrible injustice and have exhausted all other avenues of achieving justice.
Rugg also remains a strong activist presence in the media. She received praise for her eloquent response (and side-eye stare ) during her debut appearance on the panel of ABC’s Q&A in June.
An audience member questioned whether rugby player Israel Folau’s comments about queer people were “actually attempting to help people, to help them repent, so as to be saved, and therefore avoid hell?” and were therefore “a brave act of love”.
“How do they make me feel? They make me feel sick. They make me feel tired,” Rugg responded, later walking off the studio set to find she had become a meme having been captured on camera giving a meaningful side-eye stare (which she later dubbed as “judging in lesbian”).
“I think that sort of discussion was legitimised by having a postal survey where opponents of LGBTQI rights and equality were given legitimacy and 50 per cent air time. I had prepared for a question – I thought it might be about free speech, or about religious freedom – I didn’t think it would be a conceptual question about whether gay people are going to hell but that is the discourse that is now normalised,” Rugg says.
“It doesn’t surprise me but it still alarms and makes me despair. I don’t think it’s OK to have an esoteric discussion about whether gay people are going to hell.”
It was such homophobia that made Rugg feel like she had a disease when she was driving along Perth’s Sterling Highway, aged 19 or 20, and realised she was gay. She felt in crisis; she didn’t know any gay people and Alex from the television soap opera The O.C. was the only queer person she had seen in popular culture.
“All of a sudden it was like, ‘this is what it is, this is what’s wrong with you.’ It felt like discovering I had cancer. I had been hooking up with girls for years and had crushes on girls but I hadn’t allowed myself to think it was real. It felt like intense denial. It felt all of a sudden like I had this thing inside me that I didn’t want and I couldn’t control and it was going to change my life forever and I didn’t choose to have it,” Rugg says.
“It was really scary. I’ve always felt like I was an ambitious person and a hard-working person and I thought that the things I had wanted for my life wouldn’t be possible. Up until then I had felt like the world was a big oyster for me and then suddenly realising that the world was hostile and my whole life was going to be much harder was really awful and frightening.”
I don’t know that people are ready to accept their public representatives have pasts and bad haircuts.
Rugg grew up in Fremantle, Western Australia. Her father, a computer salesman, and her mother, a music teacher, split up when she was 10 after an unhappy marriage. She lived with her mother and two younger sisters, and describes a childhood where money was in short supply. They wore second-hand clothes, going to op shops and cutting the surf brands off clothes and then stitching them onto their own outfits. It was as a girl that Rugg had her first taste of community and people power. The state government had plans to build a bypass – but it would not bypass Rugg’s school, White Gum Valley Primary was set for destruction. Rugg attended demonstrations; White Gum Valley Primary was saved (she also tentatively admits a march against the construction of a Bunnings “which I think is wild now because Bunnings is my favourite place”). The experience proved formative.
Rugg’s father, who had struggled with alcohol and his mental health, took his own life when she was 21. “Part of this is growing up, but it allowed me to see things to exist with multiplicity of truths. It is true he wasn’t a great father, it’s also true he loved me very much. It’s true that he couldn’t imagine a future for himself, he couldn’t imagine staying alive, but what is also true is he was incredibly sick and let down by the system,” she says. “It’s less about what his death taught me and more about what his life taught me. I think it is about how people are not inherently good or bad.”
Intelligent, charismatic, a public persona and a skilled networker and campaigner – surely there’s a political run ahead of Sally Rugg? Rugg feels she can be more effective as a changemaker in her current role. She says, emphatically, she would only run for politics when the public and political parties are ready to embrace a candidate who has grown up on the internet.
“For people my age, 30, my entire life is online. It’s not that I have anything to be ashamed of. It’s just that I don’t know that people are ready to accept their public representatives have pasts and bad haircuts.”
Sally Rugg’s How Powerful We Are is published by Hachette at $32.99.
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