[Updated 4 August 2016]
On Friday 13 August 2004, the Senate passed the Howard Government’s shameful amendments to the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961. These amendments included a new definition of marriage – “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” – thus confirming the second-class legal status of same-sex relationships in Australian law.
In mid-2014, in the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of the passage of that homophobic law, I wrote a series of posts on the top ten things which I hate about marriage inequality, to ‘celebrate’ (or, more accurately, to vent). Sadly, as we approach the 12th anniversary on 13 August 2016, the list remains all-too-relevant today.
As you would expect, given how much this ongoing discrimination against LGBTI-inclusive couples pisses me (and, let’s be honest, most of us) off, there are some things which I had to leave out. But I hope you will nevertheless enjoy reading the ten reasons that did end up making the cut. Anyway, on with the list:
#10: Because it makes me embarrassed to be Australian
The 1st marriage equality laws came into effect in the Netherlands on 1 April 2001. In the now 15 years since, it has been joined by 19 other countries, namely:
- Belgium (2003)
- Spain (2005)
- Canada (2005)
- South Africa (2006)
- Norway (2009)
- Sweden (2009)
- Portugal (2010)
- Iceland (2010)
- Argentina (2010)
- Denmark (2012)
- Brazil (2013)
- France (2013)
- Uruguay (2013)
- New Zealand (2013)
- Luxembourg (2015)
- Ireland (2015)
- United States (nationwide 2015)
- Colombia (2016)
- Finland (from 2017)
Marriage equality is also recognised in some parts of Mexico and the United Kingdom (England, Wales & Scotland, although it remains unlawful in Northern Ireland).
I think most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians probably accepted lagging behind the Netherlands on this particular reform (well, most social changes actually), and trailing their Southern neighbours Belgium too. Although it was perhaps a little bit of a surprise that highly-Catholic Spain would get there so quickly – but I guess we got used to that.
Canada was less of a surprise. Meanwhile, no-one could begrudge South Africa, especially given it was achieved, in part, as a consequence of the inclusive Constitution adopted in the post-apartheid era. And I suppose we probably couldn’t expect to get there ahead of most of the Scandinavian countries either.
But the longer this list has become – and, sadly, it will likely be longer still by the time we eventually get there – the more embarrassing it has become to be an Australian, and that embarrassment stings whether you are an LGBTI individual, or couple, or simply someone who believes in the equality of all people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
It didn’t need to be this way. I am old enough to remember a time, in my youth, when, at least at the Commonwealth level, Australia was capable of doing some things better than most of the world. When we adopted a world-leading response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS. When we were one of the first countries to recognise same-sex couples for the purposes of immigration. When we allowed ‘gays in the military’ ahead of, or at the same time as, the majority of our peers.
Alas, no more. On what has become one of the signature issues for progressive reform, not just for LGBTI rights but for social justice more generally, we have fallen, and are falling further, behind.
It has to stick in the craw of most decent Australians that the New Zealand Parliament managed to pass marriage equality, even with a Conservative Government, while at the same time our Parliament, with a then-Labor Government, could not. And thinking about the fact that LGBTI couples have been able to get married in the cornfields of the American mid-West (Iowa) for more than seven years (and can now marry everywhere in the US, from Alabama to Alaska), while we cannot, is enough to make one cringe.
My fiancé, Steve, likes to talk about how ‘his’ country (Portugal) has had marriage equality for six years – even though his parents left there in the 1970s. In recent years my response to that argument has been to point out that ‘my’ country (Scotland) has it, too – but then, my ancestors have been in Australia for more than two centuries, so it is even more difficult for me to stake that claim.
We only talk about our respective ancestral countries in that way because the one where we were both born, and where we are (second-class) citizens, refuses to acknowledge that our love can be the same as any other adult couple. In truth, at times we would prefer to identify with another country – even one where our links might be more (mine) or less (his) tenuous – because being a citizen of Australia is, and there isn’t really a nicer way of putting it, downright embarrassing.
There are, of course, many other reasons for Australians to feel embarrassed (including our shameful treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and also our, frankly, criminal abuse of people seeking asylum). But the ongoing failure of our country to recognise marriage equality must also take its very own place on that ignominious list. Shame, Australia, shame.