I know we are supposed to show respect to the NO side in the marriage equality debate but for how long?
When Robert Menzies introduced the Marriage Act in 1961, a Country Party senator wanted to change the act to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
The amendment was voted down 40 to eight by the Senate.
The conservative government of the day viewed the Marriage Act as a framework, which society was free to shape as and when required. Rather than defining marriage, the thrust of the legislation was to ensure that participants be of legal age and sound mind.
Liberal senator John Gorton said at the time: “In our view it is best to leave to the common law the definition or the evolution of the meaning of marriage.”
Whilst this may not have been about supporting marriage equality at the time, they certainly recognised that society evolves over time.
In the ensuing 56 years, many changes have happened.
In the 1980s, Australian state and territories began amending their legislation to provide de facto couples with similar rights to married couples. In terms of family and employment benefits and property settlement, de facto couples were treated as if they were married.
From the end of the 1990s, states and territories also began to extend these rights to same-sex de facto couples to remove discrimination based on sexual orientation in relationships.
In 2007, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Australian Human Rights Commission) conducted an inquiry into discrimination against people in same-sex relationships.
The resulting report identified 58 Commonwealth laws that denied same-sex de facto couples some financial and work-related entitlements that are afforded to opposite-sex de facto or married couples.
The following year, the Australian Government introduced reforms to remove the discriminations in the identified pieces of legislation.
De facto, registered or civil union relationships do not equate to marriage. Although the vast majority of state and federal legislation apply equally to couples regardless of marital status and sexual orientation, there remain a few areas in which non-married couples are disadvantaged due to their lack of marital status, such as providing proof of relationship.
The debate around same-sex marriage rights is not limited to legal issues. Although solely a legal contract in Australia, marriage is a religious institution for many that is closely entwined with religious tradition, ceremony and meaning. It is also a symbolic social contract, reflecting Australia’s values about relationships and families, the meaning of the institution of marriage, and equality.
The case for legalising same-sex marriage had been made time and again. These are some submissions put to a parliamentary enquiry in 2009.
Dr Paula Gerber from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, submitted that:
There have recently been a suite of reforms that have removed discrimination against gays and lesbians in the areas of taxation, superannuation and social security—the last bastion is marriage. In accordance with international human rights law, principles of non discrimination and equality, this too must be addressed. Civil unions and domestic partner registries are not sufficient. They are the equivalent of the ‘separate but equal’ response in America in the era of segregation, and we know from that time that that does not result in uniform enjoyment of human rights by all.
Mr Gardiner, Vice President of Liberty Victoria, added:
…the ban on same-sex marriage authorises discrimination…Young same-sex attracted people…are harmed by the environment that authorises discrimination. There are pressures on young gay people growing up in a society which is not merely largely heterosexual but heterosexist, which says, ‘If you are not heterosexual then you are unworthy.’ That is difficult. The existing marriage law, with its insistence on inequality, creates an environment, as we say in our submission, which authorises discrimination and which harms young people…Those young people are pushed in the direction of depression and, indeed, suicide, by the environment which is created by things like this marriage law.
The Australian Coalition for Equality submitted that:
The institution of marriage has changed over the 200 year history of Australia. No longer is marriage allowed between men and a 12 year old girl. Consenting adults may now choose who their partner for life is, rather than being forced into an “arranged marriage”. Women are no longer denied legal rights nor treated as property during a marriage transaction of business. Couples of mixed-race may now be married and recognised by the law. Marriages between people of Aboriginal heritage are no longer restricted as they were previously. People from differing religious backgrounds are no longer frowned upon by society if they enter into a commitment for life. Society in Australia now recognises and accepts divorce.
Australian Marriage Equality submitted that:
In the past, defenders of absolute monarchy, established religion and the second-class status of women, sought to place these forms of oppression beyond change by claiming some divine, natural or historical mandate for them. However, in each case the progress of history revealed these institutions to be purely social arrangements. Discrimination in marriage is no different. The future will show that this discrimination is mandated neither by nature nor by history and that its removal is both inevitable and desirable.
Baptist pastor Reverend Nathan Nettleton said:
I would support the view that many marriages involve procreation, but I am yet to hear from the groups who argue that that we should outlaw postmenopausal marriage. It seems to me to be inconsistent. There are many marriages that we know where there is no possibility of children and we still support those marriages…My view is that procreation is a part of some marriages, but is not one of the conditions that define a marriage as a marriage.
Australian Marriage Equality agreed, submitting that:
There is no intrinsic association between marriage and the raising of children. There is no evidence that children fair worse when raised by two parents of the same-sex. Indeed, the children raised by same-sex partners benefit from marriage equality. Therefore, there is no basis upon which to assert that children will be harmed by same-sex marriage.
Rev. Nettleton also argued:
To criticise the homosexual community, as many do, for its alleged promiscuity while at the same time working to deny them access to the social structures that encourage and support fidelity for the rest of us is surely disingenuous.
Dr Gerber went on to say:
The Convention on the Rights of the Child also requires that any decision that impacts or affects children must be made with the best interests of the child being a primary consideration. Prohibiting a child’s parents from marrying is not in the best interests of the child. All children deserve the chance to grow up in a stable and loving home with parents in a relationship that is publicly recognised and respected. There is extensive empirical research…that says that children raised in same-sex families are not disadvantaged by the fact that their parents are of the same sex, but what will disadvantage them is when those parents are discriminated against purely on the basis of their sexual orientation.
These are just a few of the reasons our politicians should legislate for marriage equality. The NO campaign studiously avoids them by speaking of everything but marriage equality.
Our politicians in 1961 voted overwhelmingly ‘no’ to defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. How utterly ludicrous that we are less enlightened almost 6 decades later.
If you, as some suggest, think the YES campaign is being too strident, who could blame them. Reasoned debate hasn’t worked. Equality is rarely bestowed by the ruling majority unless advocates get “uppity”.