10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #8: Because it gives our opponents a platform for their bigotry

One of the more frustrating things about the marriage equality debate, which in Australia has been going for 12 years and, potentially, has several more left to run, is that it has provided the perfect platform for our opponents – religious fundamentalists and right-wing extremists alike – to express all manner of hateful comments about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians and, in particular, about our relationships.

It does not seem like a month has gone by, since the Howard Government first entrenched marriage discrimination in Commonwealth law in August 2004, that we have not been subjected to the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ramblings of bigots who believe that allowing two consenting adults to get married will somehow precipitate the downfall of civilisation.

All the while these vile views have been dutifully reported far and wide, often without challenge, by the media, under an obligation to report ‘two sides’ to any public policy argument, even when one of those sides involves perpetuating hate speech against an already vulnerable minority group.

And the people who oppose marriage equality have certainly given the media plenty of sensationalist material to choose from – no-one more than Australia’s premier anti-gay hate group (and sometime pro-religious organisation) the Australian Christian Lobby.

Two ACL ‘standouts’ (it would be too generous to call them ‘highlights’) of the past 12 years were then managing director Jim Wallace unfavourably comparing homosexuality with smoking in September 2012:

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years…The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”

And the current managing director’s own disgraceful media release, in May 2013, which went even further. Titled “Rudd’s change of marriage sets up a new stolen generation”, it argued that:

“The Prime Minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another. Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies.”

Mr Shelton has since repeated this appalling comparison, on multiple occasions, including earlier this year on ABC’s Q&A.

Truly, is there anything more disgusting than denigrating the love between two people, who simply want the same legal recognition as other Australians, by linking it with one of the most shameful episodes of Australian history?

Lyle Shelton, breaking Australia’s equivalent of Godwin’s law: The first person to use the Stolen Generations in an argument about something that has nothing to do with the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people automatically loses said argument.

Lyle Shelton, breaking Australia’s equivalent of Godwin’s law: The first person to use the Stolen Generations in an argument about something that has nothing to do with the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people automatically loses said argument.

Nevertheless, some members of our political class have given it their best shot in trying to match the homophobia of the ACL during the marriage equality debate. We all remember Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s infamous ‘contribution’ to public life:

“The next step, quite frankly, is having three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society – or any other type of relationship… There are even some creepy people out there… [who] say it is OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals… Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, “These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union.” I think these things are the next step.”

I would of course not be the first to point out that Senator Bernardi was the only person who seemed ‘creepy’ as a consequence of these comments. But he was certainly not the only Senator to cross the threshold from genuine public debate into outright vilification. His Coalition colleague, National Party Senator Ron Boswell, made a similarly outrageous speech during that debate, which it is not possible to do full ‘justice’ to here, but which did include the following gem:

“Two mothers or two fathers cannot raise a child properly. Who takes a boy to football? Who tells him what is right from wrong? What does he do – go along with the two mums? How does he go camping and fishing? Yes, there might be some attempt by one of the mothers to fill in as a father figure but it will not work. It is defying nature. And what about a young girl changing from a teenager into a young woman? Is it fair to say to her, “You don’t have a mother; your mother can’t take you shopping” or to not be able to help her understand how her body is changing? What are we trying to do here? Why are we trying to defy what has been the right thing for hundreds of thousands of years?”

And, in the spirit of bipartisanship, we should not overlook the Labor Party’s own intellectual vacuum herself, Senator Helen Polley, who during the same debate read the following into Senate Hansard:

“From D and AO: “Most of the world has chosen not to change the definition of marriage. Those who seek to change the definition ignore the impacts on children and the potential to create another stolen generation by putting an adult desire above the needs of children.”

Just like Lyle Shelton, in Helen Polley’s weird but less than wonderful universe it is somehow appropriate to connect the idea of marriage equality with the tragic history of the Stolen Generations (in the process contravening the Australian equivalent of Godwin’s law).

Helen Polley: Bigot.

Helen Polley: Bigot.

These are just the highest profile examples of the many, many outrageous things that have been said about our relationships over the past 12 years. Probably every bit as offensive, and potentially damaging, has been the slow drip of more ‘ordinary’ homophobic comments, the everyday, even mundane, verbal slings and arrows wielded by our opponents against us, attacking who we are.

These comments have come from public figures and politicians not otherwise known for their homophobia, including from one MP who, at least until the 2014 Federal Budget, was generally considered to be at the more ‘mainstream’ end of his particular political party.

In May 2012, on the ABC’s Q&A, then Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey argued against marriage equality by saying:

“Well, I don’t believe we necessarily make better parents because we’re a male and female. I must confess that my view has changed since I’ve had children and that’s very hard and lot of my friends, whether they be heterosexual or gay, they hold the same view as you. But I think in this life we’ve got to aspire to give our children what I believe to be the very best circumstances, and that’s to have a mother and a father. And I’m not saying that – I’m not saying gay parents are any lesser parents, but I am being asked to legislate in favour of something that I don’t believe to be the best outcome for a child.”

Such arguments – essentially bleating ‘but what about the children?’ while simultaneously ignoring all the evidence that the children of same-sex parents turn out just fine, thank you very much – have become depressingly common.

But just because they are common, does not mean that they do not hurt, and does not mean that they cannot cause profound and long-lasting damage. I would try to explain just how hurtful the bigotry of the marriage equality debate can be, but there was a speech in early 2014  which was far more eloquent on this subject than I could ever hope to be.

Irish drag queen Panti Bliss gave an impassioned talk on the 1st of February that year about just what the consequences of gay rights ‘debates’ can be. I encourage you to watch or read the whole speech but one of the passages which stood out to me was this:

“Have you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television and there is a panel of people – nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers. And they are having a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether you are safe around children, about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact you are “intrinsically disordered”. And even the nice TV presenter lady who you feel like you know thinks it’s perfectly ok that they are all having this reasonable debate about who you are and what rights you “deserve”.

And that feels oppressive.”

Amen. To me, Panti (real name Rory O’Neill) has summed up perfectly the experience of watching as your worth as a human being is assessed, at length, by others, simply of the basis of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It doesn’t just feel oppressive. It is oppressive.

Before anyone goes all Andrew Bolt on me, and suggests I am some kind of ‘closet totalitarian’ who wishes to shut down all public debate on terms that are suitable to me and my side of politics, let me first say this: I recognise that in order to achieve this important social reform it is inevitable there will be a public debate which exposes multiple sides to the issue, including some arguments that most normal people find objectionable. After all, that is part of democracy [And of course it is a debate that has already been had, time and time again, since Howard’s discriminatory law was first passed].

And if we are to secure long-lasting change maybe we do need to flush out (and I use that term deliberately) the prejudice, the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic views, of people who are opposed to the fundamental equality of their fellow Australians. Perhaps, in doing so, we can help secure not just marriage equality, but also a more tolerant, and even more accepting, country in the decades to come.

But, that is me talking as an adult, as someone who is comfortable in who they are, who understands the context of the debate and that much of the extreme prejudice currently being expressed is simply the lashing out, the childish tantrums, of people whose narrow view of the world is being challenged – and who are on the verge of defeat.

So, while the comments of the ACL or bigoted Commonwealth Parliamentarians might hurt, and might feel oppressive, to me, my fiancé Steven and to other marriage equality activists, we know that they can be endured on the long path to progress.

For others, who are not as comfortable in who they are, the hurt and oppression of such comments is undoubtedly magnified. For young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, being told that their sexual orientation is worse than smoking, or that recognising their relationships would be akin to recognising bestiality, or even that allowing them to marry the person they love is somehow the equivalent of the Stolen Generations, exacerbates the already high rates of mental health issues, including depression and self-harm, that they experience.

The Jim Wallaces, Lyle Sheltons, Cory Bernardis, Ron Boswells and Helen Polleys of this world need to understand the real-world consequences of their words and actions, that their bigotry can and does lead to depression – and worse – amongst young LGBTI people. Even the more everyday or ‘mundane’ homophobia expressed by people like Joe Hockey can be seen, in this context, as malevolent because it too leads to many young LGBTI people feeling like they are ‘less than’ their heterosexual and cisgender peers.

The fact that they do not accept responsibility for the harm that they cause, that the ACL and others refuse to concede that the bigoted views they express during the marriage equality debate do have consequences, definitely makes this one of the things I hate about marriage inequality – and one more reason why I will be glad when this debate is finally over, and we have taken another step on the path to full equality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #9: Because sometimes I feel guilty for having #firstworldproblems

Have you ever felt that pang of guilt that we in Australia spend so much time campaigning for marriage equality when so many of our LGBTI comrades around the world are fighting for things that are even more fundamental, like the right to simply be who they are without fear of criminal prosecution?

I must admit I have – sometimes, when I am writing my umpteenth submission calling for the right to simply marry my fiancé, or attending my 20th or even 30th rally supporting marriage equality, I do feel slightly guilty for having what on twitter might be referred to as #firstworldproblems (albeit of a far less trivial nature than complaints like ‘my raisin bran had too many raisins in it this morning’).

When you look at this recently released map from ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association):

ILGA 2016

ILGA, June 2016.

and see large sections of the globe coloured orange (where being gay is a criminal offence) and even dark red (countries which have the death penalty for homosexuality) – and they are at least as large as, and include many more people, than the sections which are dark green (ie countries and states that have full marriage equality) – then experiencing such guilt might seem understandable.

Now, before I get roundly slammed for expressing this view, I acknowledge that this perhaps says more about me than about the Australian marriage equality movement per se. I also recognise that these thoughts are likely the products of internalising a couple of the arguments which have been used against LGBTI equality for some time.

The first, that people elsewhere have it worse off than us (undoubtedly true), and that we should be grateful for what we have (also true – although from my perspective I am grateful to the activists who have brought that situation about), is essentially an attempt to say that we already have ‘enough’ rights, and therefore should stop campaigning for more.

This argument is easy to reject – just because we have already achieved some rights (decriminalisation, anti-discrimination protections etc), doesn’t mean we should accept anything less than full equality – and that includes exactly the same legal recognition of our relationships as already enjoyed by cisgender heterosexual couples.

However, the second, related argument is a little more difficult to dismiss out of hand, and that is that there are bigger and more important issues in the world, and consequently we should be concentrating our efforts on those instead.

In the domestic context, this type of argument is used by marriage equality opponents to say that jobs, the economy, health, education – indeed, all manner of things – are more important than marriage equality, and that we should just ‘drop it’ and put those other issues first.

Of course, our straightforward response to that argument is that Parliament is capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time, and therefore there is no need to put things like marriage equality on the backburner until somehow all of those other issues are magically ‘fixed’ first.

In the international context, the argument would go something like: given there are still roughly 75 countries where being gay is a crime, achieving decriminalisation globally is far more important than campaigning for marriage equality in countries like Australia where we already enjoy most substantive rights, and therefore that is where we should exert all our energies.

Based on the domestic example (above), the most logical response is to say that we are capable of doing both – that there is absolutely no reason why we cannot simultaneously campaign for marriage equality within Australia (and similar countries), while also supporting movements for decriminalisation elsewhere.

But, and here’s the important thing, the strength of that argument is based on us actually DOING both. If we only look at improving our own (already quite privileged) lot, and effectively ignore the struggle for more basic equality from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in other countries then, at the very least, we expose ourselves to the potential criticism that we are being indulgent (even if most would see such criticism as unfair).

That is not to say that anyone should feel guilty for campaigning for their own individual equality or rights – and not just because, as I have discovered perhaps a little late in life, guilt is not an especially productive emotion. To me, one of life’s great joys lies in finding the strength to stand up against the discrimination or prejudice that we encounter.

But I guess I am saying that, if we are interested in campaigning for full equality for ourselves, by securing marriage equality domestically, we should also see that struggle in its appropriate context, and also devote some of our time and effort to helping the fight for equality by our LGBTI comrades in other countries.

NB If, after reading this, you agree with me and want to do more (or even if you disagree vehemently with what I’ve written but still want to help international LGBTI equality), here are five groups which you might consider joining/supporting:

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #10: Because it makes me embarrassed to be Australian

[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.

Abbott-Turnbull-Gillard-Rudd-750x393

The four Australian Prime Ministers since John Howard was defeated have all failed to overturn his 2004 ban on marriage equality.