IN AN EVER more populous and competitive world nothing can be taken for granted. From legislation to lifestyle, our choices have consequences that can spread across oceans and generations alike. And it is becoming harder to advance by gaming a system or excluding those we do not like. Old tactics – colonial systems, squashing minorities, unchecked polluting, trade protectionism – are now either impossible or an invitation for pariah status. These forces remind us, in different ways, of our interdependencies; of how we cannot afford to overlook or dismiss any serious contribution to the future, whether it be women in the workplace, Chinese consumption or green technology.
While Australia takes pride in its tradition of adapting with the times, of embracing and accepting difference if it is clear that we might benefit, it is not inevitable that we will continue to prosper from change. Australia may have been an innovator in social policy, from pensions to ‘populate or perish’ immigration and difficult economic reform to cope with globalisation. But it seems also to be falling away from mainstream progress on twenty-first century issues of social capital. Piecemeal support for childcare is one example, but the most glaring and easily fixable problem of all is the lack of marriage equality in Australia.
The institution of marriage is so much a part of life’s tapestry that most Australians take it for granted. We cannot imagine an Australia without it, so we do not bother to imagine it at all in a political sense. But, for more than a million Australians, marriage cannot be taken for granted. It cannot be taken at all.
Here the Western tendency to prioritise the economic in favour of the social, and the Australian tendency to take good things for granted, collide. Yet the absence of marriage equality from Australian life is harming many, and will end up hurting the institution and the country at large.
WHILE WE ARE seeing a return of ‘back to the future’ approaches in many strands of life (Indigenous-managed lands, banking constraints, a renewed focus on literacy in the classroom), such shifts are less plausible in social matters. In the same way that women are not about to give up the workplace for the kitchen, gay men and lesbians are not returning to the closet. This invites us to ponder what such progress means. Should we manage it? Can we ignore it? Does it affect us? The claims of same-sex marriage advocates are well placed to feature in such debates.
While gay rights movements have enjoyed rapid success in Australia – achieving a near legislative volte-face in just two generations – there is much they could not predict and which no social movement could control. Australia has accorded to homosexuals a range of rights, mostly relating to private relations. We have yet to link them to the sorts of responsibilities that can give a full and balanced meaning to those rights. Like teenagers getting their hands on booze and cars and freedom from parental surveillance for the first time, Australia’s gay and lesbian communities have enthusiastically taken up their new rights. But in giving permission for sex we forgot to find ways to legitimise the relationships and love that usually go with it.
The absence of marriage and, importantly, the prospect of it, in these million-plus lives denies gay and lesbian Australians the best social support structure available in our society. For more than a hundred and fifty years data on the effects of marriage has demonstrated that marriage builds happier, healthier and longer lives. While no two marriages are alike, the majority are roughly the same. Being in a marriage is likely to save you expensive care costs, steer you away from crime, and deliver a sense of security that reduces stress and its ill effects. Name another institution or government policy that can do all that.
In contrast, consider what the absence of role models, development paths and stability might do to those who cannot marry. Is there no connection between this and the disproportionate numbers of suicides and risky and addictive behaviours found in gay communities? Are we not denying the very best safety net of all to some of the people who need it most?
Opponents of marriage equality may be enraged not so much by the marriage aspect as the homosexual aspect. But herein lies the key to gaining grassroots support for change. Marriage is an excellent conservative institution, but for gays getting married is the most radical way to express their commitment to each other. Extending marriage is therefore a unique opportunity to bridge political and cultural divides.
Recognising marriage equality is also a reasonable response to our increasing understanding of how gay men and lesbians lead and want to lead their lives. Adapting to this is progress in action, the application of new information to an existing problem.
By adding to an existing institution, rather than wrecking it or building a rival one, marriage equality also meets the core test of conservatism: guarding what works, in order to save it from sacrifice at the altar of fashion. Marriage is an appropriate conservative way to channel equal opportunities into a broader moral framework of responsibilities.
All of this fits with the pattern of Western liberal history, of including in an institution good people who make a good case to join. The rights of workers to own property, Indigenous Australians to be citizens, women to vote – these cases set the precedent for allowing gays to marry.
TO BE PART of marriage means to be part of society. Were your parents married? Do you think your classmates from high school would have expected to marry? How many single forty-year-olds did you know as a child? The answers will almost certainly illustrate that marriage is a powerful norm.
And yet most gay and lesbian Australians have spent most of their lives believing marriage is not something they will experience. The empty feeling this produces is best captured by the English actor Sir Ian MacKellen, who said in an interview: ‘It never crossed my mind that it’d ever be possible for me [to get married]. That’s the scar that I and so many others bear – we believed ourselves to be second-rate citizens for so long, the idea of being able to say This is my husband, these are my children was not an option.’
Perhaps it is the parents of gay children who are best placed to see that marriage is often the best shot their children will have at happiness. In hoping for happy children, it is hard to see why one should get this chance and not the other. As the fears of gay parents shift from questions like ‘What will the neighbours think?’ and ‘Will he get AIDS?’, the question of marriage keeps rising to the surface. Why would any parent want to condemn their child to what the journalist Jonathan Rauch describes as ‘a partnerless life in a sexual underworld’?
No families and couples I have interviewed in my research on the topic want this insecure existence. I have spoken to couples from Brisbane who saved for a year to fly to Canada to be married alone in a registry office, and others who left Australia because it was the only way to be with the one they loved. I’ve listened to mothers from Wollongong talk about the pain of seeing one daughter marry while the other is left in limbo. I have watched the frantic balancing act of gay politicians pushing uphill to change the law while desperately trying to keep their own personal lives together. And everywhere I have found couples who feel the burden and responsibility of being public role models, who fear that if their relationship or marriage founders they will help ruin the future for everyone. Nearly half of all opposite-sex marriages fail, despite their total anonymity. So imagine how hard it is for same-sex relationships to survive public pressure without the social endorsement that opposite-sex marriages enjoy.
It makes it easy to wonder whether the walls of privacy around the likes of Penny Wong and Bob Brown tell us more about their own nature or that of Australian politics. Is it just a coincidence that we know next to nothing about the family lives of our gay politicians? It is certainly a stark contrast with Tony Abbott putting family life at the centre of his political pitch. The Rudds are not camera-shy, and the Obamas have made their marriage the centre of a global political brand.
THE PUNTERS ARE racing ahead of the law, if opinion polls are to be believed: most Australians now regularly tell pollsters they support marriage equality. While these responses are a welcome sign of progress for equality activists, the strength of this support remains unclear. Will it dissipate as did support for euthanasia, in the face of aggressive opposition, or founder when the choice is not about a general principle but a specific model, as with an Australian Republic?
No major political party supports marriage equality, quarantining discussion to the fringes of politics – Senate inquiries, web petitions, street rallies and queer magazines. The advantage of this political cul-de-sac is that it gives equality supporters time to mobilise the growing list of supportive data and hone arguments that engage the ‘middle Australians’ politicians court and fear. A longer debate also forces Australians to confront their own prejudices. Would you be happy to take your kids to a wedding with two blokes walking down the aisle? What if one of the blokes is your brother? Do you really think gay relationships are as meaningful as your own?
Naturally, some Australians will take time to adjust to such ideas. The elaborate sets of support and understanding for opposite-sex marriage took thousands of years to settle, and it is only twenty-one years since Denmark introduced the first gay weddings. But in taking time, campaigners may be giving Australia something much better. As the philosopher Alain de Botton writes: ‘You can’t legislate for humanity.’ You can’t legislate for the feeling that you are okay as a person, the feeling that you and your relationship matter. Only a supportive community can provide that, and only a full debate can guide Australia to that outcome.
Gay and lesbian Australians now enjoy tolerance, but not acceptance. Approval of same-sex marriage would mean acceptance by the rest of Australia. That may surprise the many liberal Australians who now have gay friends and family. Yet beyond geographical pockets, and the millions of individuals who accept gays and lesbians for who they are and what they aspire to be, it cannot be said that acceptance is the social norm or the legal standard. Annual extravaganzas like the Sydney Mardi Gras are not a norm; a norm is what goes on in public every day when the cameras aren’t looking. And it is perhaps only the ongoing public institution of marriage that would bring Australians to a state of acceptance, and indicate to gay Australians that they are wanted.
Not So Private Lives, a recent research project by the University of Queensland, found that more than four-fifths of a surveyed 2,300 gay and lesbian Australians want the right to marry. The majority, including those in committed relationships, aspire to marriage. That means around a million of Australia’s estimated 1.3 million or more gays and lesbian support marriage equality. And more than half a million of them want to marry. In this era of mass migration and the death of distance, where as Brigid Delaney puts it we churn through dozens of jobs, countries and lovers, it seems the greatest request of these communities is nothing more than the right to settle down.
Imagine arbitrarily telling all the residents of Canberra or the northern suburbs of Perth that they will never be allowed to marry. Imagine telling the several hundred thousand children of same-sex couples (whether from previous relationships, adoption, surrogacy or an alternative arrangement) that you think their parents don’t deserve to marry like their friends’ parents.
Such exceptionalism is bizarre, even by historical standards. While for decades governments refused to count Indigenous Australians as people, they still allowed them to marry in many circumstances. Indeed, it is only children and gays who have been forbidden to marry in Australia. Gays can buy cigarettes and alcohol, run companies, trade shares and act as guardians to children – unlike children themselves. It is only marriage we bar them from. And even though our churches do not propose to ban atheists from marriage, they mostly oppose the idea of gay Christians from marrying. Indeed, instead of opposing people living in sin, these churches are condemning gays to that fate.
For gay men and lesbians, the prospect of marriage is tantalising – the opposite of the hidden lives that have been lived throughout Australia’s modern history. Above all, marriage is something that everyone understands. Unlike a ‘civil union’ or ‘registered partnership’ or ‘deed of relationship’, marriage needs explaining to no one.
As with all forms of discrimination, the type that surrounds gay relationships is corrosive to its victims. It’s rarely one personal act or one law that cements the inequality – it builds slowly over time. I realised early in discovering my sexuality that honesty meant I could not have a married future. It made me worry about disappointing my family. Having no personal experience to go on, my family in turn had no words with which to discuss my relationships. Very quickly, I went from a person shy of discussing private life with family to being unable to talk about it all. It cut me off from my parents when they wanted to reach out most; it damaged my relationship with a gay sibling who dealt differently with the situation. And I cannot believe it would have been like this if I lived in a country where gay marriage and a language for gay relationships existed. Multiply that frustration and pain a million times over, and you get a sense of what the status quo is doing to Australian families.
Would the creation of a rival to marriage, a kind of ‘civil union’ system, be a solution? No. You are either equal or not. And what would it mean for marriages made overseas? Would they finally gain recognition, or will Australia continue to refuse to recognise them? Imagine if you were to suddenly become single in the eyes of the law while visiting Europe with your husband of twenty years. It happens every day to foreigners visiting Australia, where you must leave your same-sex marriage at the border along with your fruit and the soil on your shoes.
These scenarios are not the fair go we have all been taught to believe in. You cannot support a ‘separate but equal’ stance, and pick and choose which marriages you recognise, and still claim to support a fair go.
‘Separate but equal’ and ‘We don’t like your foreign marriage’ represent a class system of relationships. It is akin to telling a woman she is welcome to work at a company while also banning her from promotion to management, or telling an Indigenous Australian that he can only fly economy or must stay on the mission.
Keeping prizes like marriage away from deserving and interested couples is unbecoming of a responsible middle power, and in contrast to our peers and closest allies. From Mexico City to Malmo, Lisbon to Lillehammer, Buenos Aires to Brussels and Boston and Birmingham, our partners in the most advanced nations and leading economies have all introduced marriage equality. All of our main Commonwealth peers have reformed their laws to offer marriage or marriage in all but name – leaving Australia in the company of the likes of Nigeria rather than Canada.
In the same week that Anthony Albanese tried and failed to win Australian Labor Party support for equality, in June 2009, Albania’s parliament voted to introduce marriage equality. If Nepal passes its widely advertised marriage-equality law in late 2010, as expected, Australia will be the only inhabited continent without marriage equality.
In that case we will be a fortress holding out against equality – not only in spite of our national tradition as an open and egalitarian land, but in spite of rational thought. We live in a world of crumbling borders, a world where our children are rightly told that they must work hard to improve themselves and seize the limited opportunities to build a life better than that of their parents. In such a world, how can it be that we tell a million or more Australians that no matter what they do they can never be acceptable to the institution of marriage? In doing so we tell these people that they can’t ever be good enough for us, their fellow Australians.
IN A TIME when we all need to take on more responsibility to secure the future it seems odd that we would tell a million people to live for the minute and forget responsibility and family. It seems absurd that we would explicitly prevent the strengthening of communities and allow our politicians to cower before a minority opposed to marriage equality. The damage from such social exclusion is not limited to gays and lesbians. It affects their children, their wider families and their ability to participate fully in a productive Australian future.
It also affects everyone else in a marriage. Marriage has a special status partly because it helps to connect us. Unlike exclusive goods or clubs, marriage loses meaning and cache if it is not ubiquitous among those who want it. Denying marriage to those who deserve and want it therefore degrades the status of every married person – it disconnects them.
When we think of the legacy we will leave to future generations, we must think of our families as well as our bank accounts. Our social capital is part of our wealth, and the strength of our families is the bedrock of future life chances. This can’t be separated from the need for marriage equality; the goals are one and the same. Gay and lesbian Australians have been outsiders for too long, it’s time to bring them in from the cold.