This reason is closely related to number 7 (“Because Sometimes it Overshadows Other Important LGBTI Issues”), because it too derives from the fact that marriage equality now dominates the Australian LGBTI policy landscape.
As a result of this dominance, the position that Members of Parliament – indeed, all candidates for elected office – take on marriage equality has come to be the ‘primary’ LGBTI question which they are asked during election campaigns. Of course, in many ways that makes sense, given the high level of interest in this issue, both in our community and across society.
The answer that each MP gives can also be a useful pointer to how they may vote on other issues. An MP who says they support marriage equality is assumed to be more likely to support LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, or inclusive aged care services, or safe schools.
In this way, the simple yes/no, good/bad answer on marriage equality has the potential to serve as ‘shorthand’ for whether they are likely to vote yes or no on other reforms important to our community. In fact, I used this approach (analysing past votes on marriage equality) just this week in helping to estimate whether particular MPs might be more or less sympathetic on an education-related initiative.
But we run into significant difficulties when this question becomes the only question that we ask of our MPs, when the only calculation that we make about whether an MP is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on LGBTI issues is whether they support marriage equality or not.
First and foremost, if we only ask about marriage equality, then we are letting our MPs ‘off the hook’ in terms of their responsibilities to deal with the full range of issues which are important to and affect the LGBTI community.
If the only LGBTI topic they ever have to talk about is whether or not we can get married, then we are not making them talk about how to achieve equality of outcomes in health, in education and employment, we are not making them discuss how the state should support diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.
Second, we are letting our MPs off the hook because answering yes to marriage equality is, when you think about it, actually fairly easy. As the long and drawn out debate over the past 12 years has demonstrated, there really isn’t much of a debate to be had at all – either you support the equal recognition of our relationships, or you do not (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #5).
There are many other LGBTI issues which are either more complex (for example, what are the best or most effective ways to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI young people in terms of mental health issues, depression and suicide), or which many of our MPs have never had to genuinely turn their minds to (such as where limits on religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be drawn). To say yes to marriage equality is simple – we should be making our MPs work a little bit harder than that in order to get our support.
Third, by not asking about a range of issues, we run the risk of letting off the hook those MPs who are supportive of marriage equality but who do not support other LGBTI issues. For example, it is possible to support inclusive marriage laws but also to support the exclusion of same-sex couples from the right to adopt or to access assisted reproductive technology (just ask Portugal, where gay couples can marry but not adopt or use ART).
It is also possible (and in practice it is far too common) for MPs to support marriage equality, but to simultaneously believe that religious organisations should be able to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people, in schools, in health care, in employment, in pretty much any context. In this light, the simple yes/no, good/bad ‘shorthand’ fails us – because it is possible to support marriage equality, but not support LGBTI equality more broadly.
Conversely, it is possible to oppose marriage equality but be supportive on other LGBTI reforms. The best example of this was former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her position on marriage equality – to oppose it, while also supporting a conscience vote inside the Labor Party, thereby ruining any chance of its passage in the last parliament – was unconscionable, and, from my perspective at least, can never be forgiven (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #4).
And yet, Gillard’s period of leadership saw more pro-LGBTI reforms than most, if not all, of her predecessors. The introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in Commonwealth law for the first time, progressive Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, funding for the QLife counselling initiative, PBS listing for Gardasil vaccinations for boys and a national LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, among other things, all happened during her (brief) tenure.
All of which goes to show that the position of our MPs on LGBTI issues is much more complicated than a single question, and much more layered than any simple yes/no answer could hope to capture. Marriage equality supporters can be poor on other reforms. Alternatively, MPs who oppose marriage equality can be supporters on other important issues.
Which means we do ourselves a great disservice if the only thing we ever talk about with MPs is whether they support our equal right to get married. We cannot, we must not, let them off the hook by allowing them to ignore the full breadth of LGBTI issues. We need to be better at putting more questions to them, and above all, we need to be better at asking more of them.