Why is Australia so far behind on marriage equality?

Tonight, exactly one year ago, the US Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in Obergefell v Hodges, making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. In doing so, they also reinforced the sinking feeling for many Australians, myself included, that we have fallen far behind our contemporaries around the world as we continue to refuse to treat the relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people equally under the law.

 

Of course, the United States was by no means the first place in the world to introduce marriage equality – that honour belongs to the Netherlands, which has had marriage equality since 1 April 2001, or more than 15 years ago. The list of countries that have joined their ranks in the time since grows longer by the year:

 

  • The Netherlands (2001)
  • Belgium (2003)
  • Spain (2005)
  • Canada (2005)
  • South Africa (2006)
  • Norway (2009)
  • Sweden (2009)
  • Portugal (2010)
  • Iceland (2010)
  • Argentina (2010)[i]
  • Denmark (2012)
  • Brazil (2013)
  • France (2013)
  • Uruguay (2013)
  • New Zealand (2013)
  • England & Wales (2014)
  • Scotland (2014)
  • Luxembourg (2015)
  • Ireland (2015)
  • United States (nationwide 2015)
  • Colombia (2016)
  • Finland (2017)
  • Taiwan (2017 – to take effect by 2019)
  • Germany (2017)
  • Malta (2017)

 

But, perhaps because of our community’s disproportionate focus on events in the United States, or simply because it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the fact that, as of 12 months ago, LGBTI couples anywhere from Albany to Alabama and Alaska could get married, while we still could not, was the point at which many people felt we could no longer ignore the reality that, on marriage equality, Australia has officially become a backwater.

 

The question I am interested in asking is why? What are the factors that have caused Australia to fall so far behind its counterparts on this fundamental human rights issue? Why, when we compare ourselves to countries like the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, is it just us and Northern Ireland left in discriminating against couples on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status?

 

There is a range of possible reasons that I will explore below, but first I want to highlight one factor that has not contributed to our lack of progress, and that’s public support. In short, the level of community support for marriage equality in Australia – which has consistently polled above 50% for the past seven or eight years, and is now frequently above 60% or even 70% – is not materially different to that recorded in countries that have already introduced this reform. Indeed, in several of the countries listed above, marriage equality has been implemented with much lower support from the public. So, if a lack of community support isn’t the problem, what is?

 

  1. The lack of a Bill of Rights

 

Perhaps the most obvious reason why Australia is behind the United States on marriage equality is that, while the US Bill of Rights allowed the Supreme Court in Obergefell to determine that state same-sex marriage bans are a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, Australia has no equivalent Bill of Rights (or even nation-wide Human Rights Act). Constitutional rights have also played key roles in the history of marriage equality in other countries, including Canada and South Africa.

 

In contrast, given the limited human rights protections contained in our own Constitution, when the High Court of Australia was asked to rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriages conducted in the ACT, all it could determine was whether marriage equality could be passed by Parliament at all, and if so at which level (only by Commonwealth Parliament as it turns out) rather than being able to find that the denial of the right to marry on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status was in itself ‘unconstitutional’.

 

  1. The power of the right wing of the Liberal-National Coalition

 

In the absence of a constitutional ‘circuit-breaker’, the onus has been on Commonwealth MPs and Senators to pass marriage equality. Unfortunately, of the 15 years since the Netherlands led the way, the Liberal and National Parties have formed Government for nine. This included the Howard Government that, in 2004, introduced legislation to amend the Marriage Act to ensure couples married overseas would not be treated equally under Australian law.

 

In the 12 years since then the Coalition’s stance against marriage equality has barely softened – with exactly zero Liberal or National Party MPs or Senators voting in favour of change when it was last voted on in September 2012 (and only one, Senator Sue Boyce, abstaining).

 

Even in the most recent term of Parliament, right-wing members of the Abbott and then Turnbull Governments succeeded first in blocking any substantive vote on marriage equality, and then in adopting a policy of holding an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite before holding any such vote in the future.

 

The National Party – which can itself be considered one large bloc of the right wing of the Coalition – felt so strongly that Parliament should not vote on marriage equality without a plebiscite, it even included this condition in its agreement with Malcolm Turnbull after he deposed Tony Abbott as PM in September 2015.

 

The power of the right wing within the conservative side of politics, and their obsession with marriage equality (or at least, their consistent focus in denying it) appears to have been a much stronger force in Australia than in comparable countries, such as New Zealand and England & Wales, both of which passed marriage equality during Conservative Governments[ii].

 

  1. The power of the right wing of the Australian Labor Party

 

Unfortunately, it is not just on the conservative side of politics where people opposed to LGBTI equality have exercised disproportionate influence in Australia – the right wing of the ALP, and particularly the hard-line SDA (or ‘Shoppies’) led by religious fundamentalist Joe de Bruyn, have also played a key role in denying equality to LGBTI Australians.

 

This included helping to bind ALP parliamentarians to support Howard’s ban on marriage equality in 2004, but then opposing an attempt to impose a binding vote in favour of marriage equality at the ALP National Conference in December 2011. And, while a majority of ALP House of Reps MPs, and Senators, voted in favour of marriage equality in September 2012, it was still a much lower proportion that supported change than their comrades in both UK and New Zealand Labour.

 

In recent years the tide seems to have finally turned against the homophobes of the hard right of the Australian Labor Party, with the 2015 National Conference agreeing to support a binding vote from the 2019 federal election (albeit long after they should have), and their strengthening position in favour of marriage equality compelling the resignation of ‘Shoppie’ Senator Joe Bullock in March 2016. Nevertheless, the SDA’s influence in ensuring marriage equality was not passed before today should not be ignored.

 

  1. The lack of diversity among Australian parliamentarians

 

The fact that both the conservative and progressive sides of Australian politics have had higher levels of opposition to marriage equality than their equivalent parties elsewhere cannot be considered a mere coincidence. One of the reasons why I believe this is the case is the fact our Parliament is far less diverse than those in other countries.

 

The most obvious example, at least with respect to marriage equality, has been the dearth of ‘out’ LGBTI politicians in Commonwealth Parliament. While there has been a small number of LGBTI Senators over the past 10-15 years, the first out gay man to be elected to the House of Representatives, Trent Zimmerman, took his seat less than five months ago[iii].

 

This places Australian a loooooooong way behind places like Canada, the UK, New Zealand (which had the world’s first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, last century) and even the United States. And, based on the principle that it is much harder to deny someone’s rights when they are ‘in the room’, our historical absence from the ‘House of Government’ has not only left us sitting outside looking in, it has left us behind too.

 

But it’s not just the lack of out LGBTI parliamentarians that has held us back – I believe the under-representation of female MPs and Senators has also played a part. While in the mid-to-late 1990s female representation in Commonwealth Parliament was among the highest in the world, Australia’s progress in this area has stalled over the past decade, with the proportion of women in the House of Representatives in particular stuck around 25%.

 

According to Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data, Australia slipped from 20th in the world on female representation in 2001, to 48th in 2014, a downward trend that shows no signs of abating[iv]. As well as being a negative in and of itself, this lack of diversity undermines marriage equality, both because women have consistently shown higher levels of support for this reform than men and because a more gender-balanced, and therefore demographically representative, Parliament might be expected to be closer in opinion to the community’s existing strong support for marriage equality.

 

  1. The lack of diversity in Australia’s commercial media

 

Perhaps more controversially – especially to some commentators who believe that marriage equality is a trivial issue only placed on the public agenda by ‘leftists’ at the ABC – I believe the lack of diversity in our commercial media has also had a negative influence on marriage equality in this country.

 

I’m speaking in particular of newspapers, and especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch. As a former ‘political staffer’ I can attest that the main stories, and lead opinion pieces, in the day’s papers, including Australia’s only national broadsheet (The Australian), and the highest circulation papers in our three major cities (The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, The Herald Sun in Melbourne and The Courier Mail in Brisbane), are paid very close attention.

 

The fact all four newspapers have been opposed to marriage equality – almost universally at The Australian, and also by the main commentators at the tabloids (including Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman and Miranda Devine, and Des Houghton) – means the views our politicians are reading about this issue are largely out of touch with those of the voters they are there to represent. Even in 2016, with the newspaper industry in what appears to be a death spiral, these NewsCorp publications continue to exert disproportionate influence on our politicians.

 

In short, I suggest the lack of diversity in our commercial media has meant that MPs and Senators have been led to believe the issue of marriage equality, and LGBTI rights more broadly, is far more ‘controversial’ than it actually is.

 

  1. The existence of de facto relationship recognition

 

The only ‘positive’ reason on this list is the fact that, at least at state and territory level, Australia has long had de facto relationship recognition, including for same-sex couples. Under Commonwealth law, LGBTI de facto relationships were also finally recognised on the same basis as cisgender heterosexual relationships by the Rudd Labor Government’s Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – General Law Reform) Act 2008 and Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – Superannuation) Act 2008.

 

These long-overdue reforms, to at least 85 different pieces of Commonwealth legislation, mean that – outside of marriage – LGBTI couples now largely enjoy the same rights as other couples.

 

The reason why this has had an impact on marriage equality is that, unlike some countries (and especially parts of the United States), relationship recognition here is not an all-or-nothing affair – just because you aren’t married doesn’t automatically mean you are considered ‘single’ under Australian law (although, as some tragic recent case studies have shown, sometimes these de facto rights are not respected in practice[v]). If these de facto rights did not exist, it is likely there would be even greater urgency for marriage equality in Australia.

 

  1. The lack of leadership by Australia’s Prime Ministers

 

Irrespective of the above half-dozen factors, I genuinely believe that, if we had had Prime Ministers who were actual ‘leaders’ on this issue over the past dozen years, the outcome could have, would have, been very different. In reality, we have had five PMs who have each demonstrated serious flaws in their approach to marriage equality.

 

John Howard: Instead of having a constructive debate about marriage equality in 2004, Prime Minister Howard almost instinctively sought to use the issue as a pre-election wedge against the Mark Latham-led Opposition. The fact that the relationships of LGBTI Australians would be devalued and demeaned as a result seemed to matter naught to a man who just three years previously had based an entire campaign on attacking refugees.

 

Kevin Rudd: In hindsight, the first stint of Prime Minister Rudd (November 2007 to June 2010) can be seen as a major missed opportunity. Too risk averse, and notoriously focus-group obsessed, he failed to grasp the possibilities of taking leadership on this issue – and therefore didn’t pursue it at the 2009 ALP National Conference. If he had, Rudd could have seized control of the agenda, just as public support in Australia was rising, thereby adding to his ‘legacy’. While he did support marriage equality during his second stint as PM (June to August 2013) he was never going to win re-election or be in a position to pass it.

 

Julia Gillard: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard is still the most disappointing to me on this issue (although Malcolm Turnbull is rapidly catching up – see below). Supposedly left wing, and an avowed atheist, the expectation was that she was an ideal candidate to make progress on marriage equality.

 

Wrong. For whatever reason (and speculation has long centred on a possible deal with Joe de Bruyn and the SDA to oppose marriage equality as a condition of their support for her as PM), Ms Gillard did everything in her power to deny the right to marry to LGBTI Australians, including blocking the resolution for a binding vote at the December 2011 ALP National Conference, and voting against it herself in the House of Representatives in September 2012. Whatever her other merits, I will never forgive her for standing squarely in the way of ‘equal love’.

 

Tony Abbott: In some respects, there is less ‘disappointment’ in Prime Minister Abbott – because nobody ever expected anything different from him. A staunch Catholic, and someone who brought his religious fundamentalism to bear in political office, he was never going to be the Prime Minister to ‘lead’ on this issue. Although the fact one of his last acts as leader was to oversee the six-hour joint party room meeting that eventually settled on a plebiscite (primarily as a means to deny or at least delay marriage equality) means he nevertheless takes his place in the pantheon of Australian Prime Ministers who have ‘screwed over’ LGBTI Australia on this issue.

 

Malcolm Turnbull: Last, and in many ways, ‘least’, there’s the current Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, who claims to support marriage equality, he just doesn’t want to actually have to do anything about it. Within 24 hours of toppling Tony Abbott, he had signed a new Coalition Agreement with the National Party, caving in to them – seemingly without protest – and their demands to continue with the plebiscite on marriage equality. And he has soldiered on with this policy, right up to the July 2 election, and will presumably hold it in late 2016 or early 2017 should he win next Saturday.

 

An intelligent man, Turnbull does so knowing that it is entirely unnecessary, and, at $160 million, fundamentally wasteful. And he continues to advocate a plebiscite even though he understands the harms it will inevitably cause to young and vulnerable LGBTI people. Unlike others inside his party, I’m not going to accuse him of not caring about these adverse impacts – he just cares about them far less than his obvious desire to remain Prime Minister.

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who probably cares about the harms a plebiscite will cause young & vulnerable LGBTI people – just less than his desire to remain PM.

 

These are seven reasons why I believe Australia is so far behind other countries on this issue. It is not an exhaustive list – no doubt others will suggest additional reasons (including possible shortcomings within the LGBTI movement itself, although from my perspective that is a topic for a different post, on a different day – and probably after the battle for marriage equality has finally been won).

 

One final point I would make, however, is that if the Liberal and National Parties are re-elected on July 2 then this list will automatically expand to eight. Because, if Turnbull is returned, and he does hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, then Australia will have found a unique way to ‘screw up’ on this subject.

 

Not one of the countries listed at the start of this post introduced marriage equality by way of a non-binding public vote. As far as I’m aware, only in Ireland has it been passed at national level via referendum – but it was actually needed there to change the Constitution.

 

Holding a plebiscite, which, as multiple reports over the past few days have confirmed won’t even be binding on Cabinet Ministers, let along the Bernardis and Christensens of the Coalition backbench, will involve yet more delay, and more disappointment for the LGBTI community.

 

So, if you’re reading this before July 2, then please think about this issue before you cast your vote, and put the Liberals and National last (or next to last, only ahead of extremists like Pauline Hanson and Fred Nile), so we can avoid an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite. If we elect Bill Shorten’s Labor Party, we might even get to add Australia’s name to the above list between Colombia and Finland. Above all, we could end the wait of LGBTI couples in this country who have been denied equality for far too long.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Marriage equality has also been available in Mexico City from 2010, and is now legal in four additional states, with all being recognized nation-wide.

[ii] While only a minority of Conservative MPs in the UK, and National Party MPs in New Zealand voted in favour of marriage equality, in both places it was at least 40%, which is substantially higher than what would be expected even under a ‘free vote’ within the Coalition in Australia.

[iii] The lack of LGBTI representation in Australian Parliaments is an issue I have written about previously, see: LGBTI voices absent from the chamber

[iv] From Australian Parliament House Library “Representation of Women in Australian Parliaments 2014”.

[v] Including Tasmanian man Ben Jago who was allegedly mistreated by Tasmanian Police and the Tasmanian Coroner’s Office after the death of his de facto partner: Samesame, “I was treated like I meant nothing after my partner died”, 8 November 2015.

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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.

No 8 Marriage Equality Marches on Around the World

In contrast to the lack of sustained progress in Australia, internationally marriage equality continued its onwards march in 2013. In fact, we end the year with approximately 10% of the world’s population now living in jurisdictions where same-sex couples are able to get married.

That seemed like an impossible goal five years ago, let alone way back in 2001 when the Netherlands had the somewhat radical (but in reality also rather conservative) idea that all couples should be allowed to wed, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

In 2013, marriage equality became a reality for couples in Brazil (16 May), France (18 May), Uruguay (5 August) and New Zealand (19 August). Which means 15 countries now treat all of their couples equally. It should also be noted that England and Wales also passed marriage equality during the year, although it won’t commence until March 29 2014 (NB Given Scotland has yet to pass marriage equality, and it looks unlikely to pass Northern Ireland, I do not include the United Kingdom in the number of countries with full equality).

There was just as much progress in the United States – both through the courts, and through legislatures around the country.

First, to the two momentous decisions of the US Supreme Court, both handed down on 26 June. In one, plaintiff Edith Windsor (a phenomenal woman, and deserved nominee for Time Person of the Year) was successful in her case that the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by then President Bill Clinton back in 1996, was in fact unconstitutional.

The Court declared DOMA to be “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment”. The consequence of this decision is that the US Federal Government is compelled to recognise the validity, and entitlements, of couples who are married under various state laws providing marriage equality around the country.

In the second decision, the Supreme Court struck down California’s Proposition 8 from 2008, a ballot initiative which had outlawed same-sex marriages just five months after they commenced in June of that year. The Supreme Court, in Hollingsworth v Perry found that the appeal, by people seeking to uphold the marriage ban, did not have standing meaning that a lower court ruling, reinstating marriage equality, stood. Californian same-sex marriages resumed shortly after this decision.

Probably more important has been the ongoing moves to introduce marriage equality through state legislatures. The year started with marriage equality taking effect in Maryland on 1 January, and it was followed by Delaware (1 July), Minnesota (1 August), Rhode Island (1 August), New Jersey (21 October – although this was largely the result of a state court case, after the Governor had previously vetoed marriage equality legislation), and Hawaii (2 December), with Illinois to commence formally on 1 June next year (although couples where a partner has a serious illness can marry now).

This is remarkable progress – and underscores just how conservative Australia is by comparison. After all, if roughly one third of US states (plus DC) have already introduced marriage equality, and with progress in Australia looking several more years away, we have well and truly cemented our place as the backwater of the Anglo-sphere on this issue.

In fact, Australia, with last week’s High Court decision overturning the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws, has provided one of the few ‘lowlights’ of the global marriage equality movement. The other that springs immediately to mind was the recent referendum in Croatia which, by a margin of 65% to 35%, voted to enshrine the definition of marriage as “a living union of a woman and a man” in that country’s constitution. Shame.

Leaving Australia and Croatia aside, though, the prospects for continued global progress on marriage equality look assured. It is highly likely that Scotland will pass equality early next year, and, after its elections this week, there is a good chance of Chile following suit (which would make it the fourth South American country to do so). I am sure that other countries, and more US states, will also take the plunge in the next 12 months.

Which leaves LGBTI-inclusive couples in Australia with a helluva lot more choices in overseas places where they can get married. Which is all very nice and well, but what we really want is the ability to marry at home, in front of our family and friends. Til then, we will continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the world.

I was going to end there but, contrary to my usual nature, I will instead sign off with my personal highlight of global marriage equality in 2013 – and that was the moment that marriage equality passed across the Tasman, and in particular the singing of a traditional Maori love song immediately afterwards. I challenge you to watch this and not get chills down your spine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9pOJ8Bc_-g

UPDATE: Just 3 days after I posted this, and two more US states have legalised same-sex marriage – New Mexico and Utah – bringing the total number to 18 (plus DC). With this rate of progress it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of developments, which, as an LGBTI activist, is a wonderful (and somewhat novel), problem to have. May it continue into 2014.

Submission to Scottish Marriage Equality Consultation

Today I made a submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on their Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. Submissions close 5pm Wednesday 20 March 2013(Scottish time). Below is the text of comments which I made in addition to the model response to the Bill provided on the Equal Marriage UK website: http://www.equalmarriage.org.uk/takeaction I encourage other people to make a submission if you have time.

Scotland flag

I am writing this submission in support of marriage equality as an Australian of Scottish descent, and therefore someone who wishes to see Scotland leading on a key progressive issue. I am also a gay man, engaged to be married to a wonderful partner, but currently prohibited from doing so by my own government. As a result, I am keenly aware of the negative consequences of the imposition of inequality in relationship recognition on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

I do not propose to detail the general arguments in favour marriage equality here because I am confident that LGBTI people in Scotland, and their families and friends, will be able to do so far more eloquently than I could. However, from my vantage point on the other side of the world, I do wish to highlight the potential symbolic importance of a move by the government of Scotland to finally accept lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people as equal citizens.

I sincerely believe that the introduction of marriage equality by the Scottish parliament would have precedent value for other members of the Commonwealth of Nations. As one of the first countries colonised by the English, and one of the last to adopt any form of self-government, Scotland embracing LGBTI human rights in this way would demonstrate that it is possible to overcome the history of homophobia which often accompanied imperialism.

Together with the expected passage of marriage equality in England and Wales in the near future, and on top of earlier moves by Canada and South Africa, Scotland would be sending a signal to other members of the Commonwealth that LGBTI people deserve equal treatment under the law. This is especially important because 41 Commonwealth countries continue to impose criminal penalties for homosexuality, and with homosexuality attracting life imprisonment in six of these.

There are also two upcoming events of symbolic significance within Scotland which, I believe, would be enhanced by the passage of marriage equality. The first is the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in July and August 2014. I think it would be a wonderful achievement if these were to be the first games held on soil where LGBTI people were full and equal citizens. This would deliver a message of acceptance of different sexual orientations, gender identities and of intersex people to those Commonwealth countries who attend.

The second event with symbolic significance is the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, which is currently expected to be held in the autumn of 2014. I submit that it is important to remove the blemish of legislated discrimination against LGBTI people ahead of this referendum: if the Scottish people are to embrace independence, then surely all of its citizens should be able to celebrate this achievement as equals. This newly-independent country, if that is the outcome of the referendum, should be able to start its life with a clean slate, and not one that has been tarnished by homophobia, bi-phobia, trans-phobia and anti-intersex prejudice.

Of course, I am not writing this submission completely unmotivated by self-interest. If Scotland were to adopt marriage equality, it would add another name to the long list of countries which have left Australia behind on this issue. Our near neighbours New Zealand look likely to do the same in the next few months. Hopefully, as the marriage equality movement continues to sweep the world, my own government will finally be embarrassed into action on this issue.

Leaving self-interest aside, and irrespective of the symbolic arguments which I have outlined above, the most powerful argument in favour of marriage equality must always be the thousands of LGBTI-inclusive couples in Scotland who would be able to take advantage of this Bill if and when it is eventually passed. The happiness of these couples would be immeasurably increased by a law which does not deny anyone else their rights, but simply extends the rights which one group already has to other communities.

I know how important and affirming it would be to have legal recognition of my relationship with my fiancé. The LGBTI people of Scotland are no different in terms of their hopes and aspirations for full legal equality. I hope that Scottish parliamentarians listen to these voices before deciding whether to say “Yes” or “No” to the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. Ultimately, any person should be able to determine for themselves whether to say “I do”.

New Zealand Marriage Equality Submission

The following is my submission to the New Zealand Parliamentary Inquiry into their marriage equality legislation. I think that it is a fantastic initiative of their parliament to allow submissions from Australia, and I hope that they pass equality later this year or early next year, even if it casts an even larger shadow over the performance of our parliamentarians on this issue.

new_zealand_flag

First, as a citizen of Australia I would like to thank the Parliament of New Zealand for allowing people from across the Tasman to make a submission to your inquiry on the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill 2012.

This is an important inquiry on legislation which has the ability to affect a wide range of people, not just in New Zealand, but also from other countries in the region.

I am one of those people who could potentially be affected. I am a 34 year old gay man living in Sydney with my partner of more than four years, Steven. We have been engaged to be married for almost three of those four years (I proposed to him at the beginning of 2010, and to my eternal happiness he said yes).

However, as you would be aware, the Parliament of Australia voted in 2004 to ban same-sex and gender diverse marriages, and extended this ban to apply to couples wishing to get married in other countries (by deciding not to issue certificates of no impediment to same-sex and gender diverse couples).

Even worse, as I am sure you are also aware, the Australian Parliament recently voted to reconfirm its opposition to marriage equality, and did so by a large margin (98 to 42 in the House of Representatives), meaning that marriage equality is unlikely to be recognised within Australia (at least at the federal level) for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, there was a brighter moment early in 2012 when the Australian Attorney-General, the Hon Nicola Roxon MP, overturned the previous ban on the issuing of certificates of no impediment. This means that, despite being denied the right to marry in our own country, there is now no legal obstacle to our getting married in those countries where it is legal.

But there are other obstacles. While we can choose to get married in a range of countries, they are all some distance from Australia. This means that any option to get married for Steven and I would be expensive. Much more importantly, it means that any option to get married overseas would likely to be too far and too expensive for most of our family members and friends to come along with us and be there for our special day. And we both have elderly grandmothers for whom travelling to Europe, North America, South America or South Africa would be out of the question.

For Steven and I, and countless other couples like us in Australia, this is a heartbreaking decision. We can either legally get married in another country, but do so in the absence of the special people in our lives, or choose to wait many years before we can get married in our own country, and risk people like our grandmothers no longer being with us.

The legislation which is currently being considered by your Parliament might provide an opportunity for couples like us to be able to travel to our neighbour, and get married with many more of the special people in our lives being able to join us. I believe that many couples would make the same decision that we would – if marriage equality were to be legalised in New Zealand, and available to citizens of Australia, we would seek to get married in your country.

Some people might try to make an economic or financial argument based on this fact (ie that same-sex and gender diverse marriages from across the Tasman would provide a windfall to New Zealand). I do not support this proposition because fundamental human rights should never be determined by whether a nation benefits from it financially.

However, I do make the argument that, by legislating for marriage equality, and allowing same-sex and gender diverse couples within New Zealand, and from around the region including Australia, to get married, you would be substantially increasing human happiness. There are few moments where politicians have the opportunity to do that so decisively – by voting yes, you would not just bring happiness to the couples getting married but also to the family members and friends who finally get to celebrate that fact.

This submission may seem somewhat self-interested – after all I am putting forward my case as to why I should be able to access a legal right in your country. But it is also selfless in the same way that true love can be. Because I don’t just want to get married for my own benefit – I want to marry my fiancé Steven because I know that it would make him happy, and that our wedding would also bring happiness to countless others.

That makes me no different to any heterosexual person who wishes to get married, and no different to the same-sex and gender diverse couples within New Zealand who also wish to have a legally recognised wedding.

Obviously, your primary duty as elected representatives of New Zealand is to represent them. And I am sure that LGBTI New Zealanders are making the necessary arguments to you based on love, equality, acceptance and respect which all support the introduction of a definition of marriage that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or sex and gender identity.

If you accept those arguments and vote yes, you will no doubt bring happiness and joy to same-sex and gender diverse couples within New Zealand who wish to get married, and to all LGBTI New Zealanders for being recognised as full citizens.

What this submission has tried to make clear is that the positive outcome of a yes vote is not restricted to New Zealand and its citizens – the benefits of supporting this legislation could extend to couples from other countries, including Australia like Steven and me, who may also be able to get married as a result.

And who knows, just like with giving women the right to vote in 1893, a first move by New Zealand on this legislation might be enough to convince Australia’s own parliamentarians to finally vote for marriage equality.

Update: New Zealand passed marriage equality in April 2013, with weddings set to commence from August. What a wonderful achievement from our cousins across the Tasman, and what an indictment on Australia’s politicians that we do not appear even close to passing similar legislation here. Anyway, possibly the best moment of the NZ marriage equality debate happened immediately after the Bills were passed, with the Gallery breaking out into a traditional Maori love song. Simply beautiful:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilMBLV3A6ug