No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here.

 

12 months ago today, the House of Representatives passed Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017.

 

It was the culmination of more than 13 years of campaigning by Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities.

 

When that law took effect, two days later, Australia finally permitted same-sex couples to wed and recognised the marriages of most[i] LGBTI couples.

 

But we did not achieve genuine marriage equality – nor do we enjoy it exactly one year later.

 

This is because the terms and conditions which apply to the marriages of LGBTI couples after 9 December 2017 are different to those which applied to cisgender heterosexual couples before that date.

 

First, and most importantly, at the time of writing, forced trans divorce – where a transgender person who is already married cannot gain access to accurate identity documentation unless they first divorce their partner – still exists in Western Australia and Tasmania[ii] (while legislation to abolish forced trans divorce has only passed in the Northern Territory in the past fortnight).

 

One of the positive aspects of last year’s marriage Bill is that it included a 12-month phase out of exceptions to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which allowed states and territories to enforce these discriminatory laws.

 

Which means that, from this Sunday, trans people who are already married in WA and Tasmania will be able to lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) about their mistreatment under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 (WA) and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999 (Tas).

 

Presumably, they will also be able to seek a new birth certificate through this process (although whether the respective state Governments provide one remains to be seen).

 

Nevertheless, for as long as forced trans divorce sits on the statute books in any Australian jurisdiction, and we compel some trans people who are already married to take action with the AHRC – or even have to go to Federal Court – just to gain access to accurate identity documentation, it is inaccurate to say we have genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

[Update May 2019: Western Australia abolished its forced trans divorce laws in February 2019, while Tasmania removed its own forced trans divorce provisions in April 2019, taking effect earlier this month. This means that – finally – forced trans divorce is history.]

 

Second, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 didn’t just allow LGBTI couples to wed – it also inserted new ‘religious exceptions’ into the Marriage Act 1961 itself. For example, it gave existing civil celebrants the ability to nominate themselves as ‘religious marriage celebrants’ and thereby refuse to perform the ceremonies of same-sex couples.

 

Importantly, this didn’t just apply to civil celebrants who were ‘ministers of religion’ of unrecognised religions (sub-section 39DD(1), which is at least arguably consistent with freedom of religion).

 

It also allowed existing civil celebrants to gain access to these special privileges based on nothing more than their personal beliefs. As is now set out in sub-section 39DD(2) of the Marriage Act 1961:

 

Marriage celebrants who wish to be religious marriage celebrants on the basis of their religious beliefs

(2) The Registrar of Marriage Celebrants must identify a person as a religious marriage celebrant on the register of marriage celebrants if:

(a) the person was registered as a marriage celebrant under Subdivision C of this Division immediately before Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 commenced; and

(b) the person gives the Registrar notice that the person wishes to be identified as a religious marriage celebrant on the register:

(i) in writing; and

(ii) in a form approved by the Registrar; and

(iii) within 90 days after Part 1 of Schedule 1 of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 commences; and

(c) the choice is based on the person’s religious beliefs [emphasis added].

 

In effect, a civil celebrant who was registered before 9 December 2017 could simply sign-up to be able to say ‘no gays allowed’ (or no lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people allowed either).[iii]

 

[Update 13 December 2018: In fact, as revealed by the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review Report, 406 existing civil celebrants registered to take advantage of these new special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Which, to be honest, is even more people choosing prejudice over equal love than I had anticipated.]

 

Remember that these celebrants are not ministers of religion, and the ceremonies they officiate need not be religious. There is also no test of their beliefs – it is based solely on self-declaration.

 

In practice, this provision has very little to do with actual religious freedom, but instead provides new legal protections to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as long as it is dressed up as ‘religious’.

 

That much is made abundantly clear by the fact similar provisions had never been introduced to ‘protect’ civil celebrants who wanted to refuse to (re-)marry people who had previously been divorced, or to reject ceremonies for couples of different faiths – both of which arouse strong religious beliefs for many people.

 

These provisions were introduced only when LGBTI couples were finally allowed to marry, demonstrating that they are not aimed at protecting genuine religious freedom at all – their real target is undermining LGBTI equality.

 

This is obviously a terrible provision in and of itself. It also sets a negative precedent for other laws.

 

After all, if civil celebrants – who are in reality a small business, offering commercial services to the public at large – are allowed to discriminate against their customers on the basis of the customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity, then why shouldn’t other businesses be allowed to do the same (a point that religious fundamentalists made frequently during the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review).

 

Indeed, that brings me to the third reason why we still don’t have genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

Amidst all of the celebrations of the passage of same-sex marriage (and yes, as someone engaged to be married, I still think some celebration was justified), I wonder how many people understand that the following is now written into the Marriage Act:

 

47B Bodies established for religious purposes may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services

(1) A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

(2) Subsection (1) applies to facilities made available, and goods or services provided, whether for payment or not.

(3) This section does not limit the grounds on which a body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage.

(4) To avoid doubt, a reference to a body established for religious purposes has the same meaning in this section as it has in section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

(5) For the purposes of subsection (1), a purpose is reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of marriage if it is intrinsic to, or directly associated with, the solemnisation of the marriage [emphasis in original].

 

This is an incredibly broad exception, applying to anything provided by a religious organisation that has anything to do with a LGBTI wedding – even where it is provided by a service that advertises to the public at large and is run for profit.

 

The most generous interpretation of the inclusion of this amendment is that it merely replicates, and reinforces, the existing religious exceptions found in section 37(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (provisions which have come under scrutiny this week because they also allow discrimination by religious schools against LGBT students and teachers).

 

But, if that is the case, their inclusion in the Marriage Act is entirely unnecessary. And for a reform that has powerful symbolic value, what does it say about the passage of same-sex marriage that it was accompanied by these equally symbolic, but discriminatory, amendments.

 

On the other hand, it is arguable that the addition of section 47B has actually increased the range of circumstances in which religious organisations can discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

This is particularly the case in relation to Tasmania, where the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 remains the best practice LGBTI discrimination law in Australia.

 

This is because the religious exceptions in section 47B of the Marriage Act 1961 are framed in a positive way (‘a body established for religious purposes may refuse…’), whereas the existing Sex Discrimination Act 1984 exceptions are phrased in a negative way (‘Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects…’).

 

This is an important distinction because it is more likely that a positively-framed religious exception will override the anti-discrimination laws of jurisdictions which are inconsistent. In practice, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 has likely allowed new forms of discrimination in our most Southern state.

 

Even if that interpretation is incorrect, it should again be highlighted that this type of exclusionary provision was never needed to allow religious organisations to refuse to serve couples where one or both had previously been divorced, or where the couple had different religious backgrounds.

 

Section 47B was only introduced when LGBTI couples were allowed to walk down the aisle. It’s true purpose is to allow religious bodies – even where they are advertise to the public at large and are run for a profit – to tell same-sex couples to go somewhere else.[iv]

 

Perhaps the most disappointing part about the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 is that, despite being one of the worst marriage amendment Bills ever introduced into Commonwealth Parliament,[v] it was signed-off on by Australian Marriage Equality (AME), and the Equality Campaign, supposedly on behalf of the LGBTI community.

 

In the days after the announcement of the postal survey results, they presented Senator Dean Smith’s Bill as a fait accompli, arguing for its passage without calling for the removal of its unnecessary provisions regarding existing civil celebrants or wedding-related services, effectively making them accomplices to this new discrimination.

 

In my opinion, AME/The Equality Campaign were wrong to do so.

 

They were wrong on principle. As an organisation purporting to advocate for marriage equality, they should have been calling for genuine equality, not defending the inclusion of provisions that were never needed for anyone else, but were only introduced to target LGBTI Australians. Their acquiescence makes it harder to push for the removal of these provisions in the future.

 

They were wrong on strategy. The religious fundamentalists inside the Coalition Government were the ones who had pushed for the unnecessary, wasteful, harmful and divisive postal survey – and they lost, with the majority of Australians showing they supported the equal treatment of all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

That is what the LGBTI community should have been demanding: full equality and nothing less. If the Coalition Government refused to pass it because it did not include new rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples, even after imposing an unprecedented $80.5 million three-month national opinion poll, then they would have experienced the biggest of backlashes. It was not up to the LGBTI community to save the Government from itself.

 

And they were wrong on process, because they never secured the informed consent of the LGBTI community to these changes. They never explained, in detail, what had been given up and why, and they never asked lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people whether it was a price they were prepared to pay.

 

Indeed, when other organisations like just.equal and PFLAG Australia did ask the community what they thought, the response was generally unequivocal – there must be no new discrimination.[vi] In the absence of other evidence, that is the position I think AME/The Equality Campaign should have adopted.[vii]

 

It is likely I will be criticised, possibly quite strongly, for writing this (and especially those last few paras). Many will argue that what’s done is done, and should therefore be left alone.

 

Maybe.

 

Except I would argue that what was done last year – the inclusion of new discriminatory provisions in the Marriage Act itself – needs to be undone.

 

In order to do so, we need to know what exactly is in the Act, and how and why it was included. And then we need to work out a strategy for ensuring sections 39DD(2) and 47B are removed from the statute books so that the stain of discrimination is washed clean, permanently.

 

Because for as long as any LGBTI couple is turned away by a homophobic or transphobic civil celebrant (calling themselves a ‘religious marriage celebrant’), and for as long as religious organisations enjoy special privileges to discriminate in the provision of wedding-related goods, services or facilities, then we don’t enjoy genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

House of Reps Vote

The moment Commonwealth Parliament passed the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017. It introduced same-sex marriage. But it isn’t marriage equality.

 

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Footnotes:

[i] See the discussion of forced trans divorce below.

[ii] Legislation to abolish forced trans divorce – as well as making the inclusion of gender on birth certificates optional – has passed Tasmania’s Legislative Assembly, but it is unclear if or when it will pass the Legislative Council.

Legislation to abolish forced trans divorce passed Western Australia’s lower house in late 2018. It was finally passed by the Legislative Council on 12 February 2019, leaving Tasmania as the last state yet to abolish Forced Trans Divorce.

[iii] Authorised under section 47A:

Religious marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

(1) A religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if the celebrant’s religious beliefs do not allow the celebrant to solemnise the marriage

Grounds for refusal not limited by this section

(2) This section does not limit the grounds on which a religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage.

[iv] There is a fourth problem with the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 and that is it reinforces the ability of defence force chaplains to discriminate in terms of which marriage ceremonies they will officiate. As outlined in section 81 of the Marriage Act 1961:

(2) A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if any of the following applies:

(a) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the chaplain’s religious body of religious organisation;

(b) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion;

(c) the chaplain’s religious beliefs do not allow the chaplain to solemnise the marriage.

Grounds for refusal not limited by this section

(3) This section does not limit the grounds on which an authorised celebrant (including a chaplain) may refuse to solemnise a marriage.

This provision is offensive because military chaplains are public servants, paid for by the taxpayer (including of course LGBTI taxpayers), and obligated to serve all of the people supposedly under their pastoral care. They should be required to provide these services to all ADF personnel, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity – and if they cannot, they should find another job.

On the other hand, it should be acknowledged that defence force chaplains already had the ability to determine who they performed marriages for (although the revised section 81 made this power even clearer) meaning it is somewhat distinct from the existing civil celebrant, and wedding-related services, religious exceptions, both of which are genuinely new ‘rights’ to discriminate.

[v] Perhaps equal worst with Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, which allowed all civil celebrants to turn away LGBTI couples, but which did not insert new general religious exceptions in the Marriage Act itself.

Liberal Senator James Paterson’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017 – written in conjunction with the Australian Christian Lobby – was obviously far worse than both, but it was never formally introduced.

[vi] See the results of their November 2017 community survey here.

In particular:

  • 63.1% of respondents opposed the Smith Bill’s civil celebrant provisions
  • 86.9% opposed the wedding-related services exceptions, and
  • 77.4% opposed provisions allowing military chaplains to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of LGBTI ADF personnel.

Importantly, 53.7% of respondents indicated they were willing to wait until marriage equality could be achieved without such provisions (while only 27.9% were not willing to wait and 18.4% were neutral on this issue).

[vii] For more on these issues, see Rodney Croome’s excellent recent article in New Matilda, ‘Yes Yes No: Why the History of Marriage Equality Must be Told Accurately’.

28 Reasons to Vote Yes on Marriage Equality

Untitled design-3

 

  1. Vote yes on marriage equality because love does not discriminate, and neither should the Marriage Act

 

  1. Vote yes for the tens of thousands of LGBTIQ Australian couples who are waiting for the opportunity to marry in front of family members and friends – just like anybody else

 

  1. And for other LGBTIQ couples who don’t want to get married, but who deserve the right to make that decision for themselves and not have it imposed upon them by the Parliament

 

  1. Vote yes out of respect for the couples where one or both have died over the past 13 years without being allowed to marry the love of their life[i]

 

  1. And to stop this same fate being experienced by other couples in the future

 

  1. Vote yes because no-one should be forced to divorce their spouse in order to have their gender identity recognised under the law[ii]

 

  1. Vote yes because a successful marriage is based on the content of your character, not your sex characteristics[iii]

 

  1. Vote yes to make it easier for LGBTIQ Australians to prove their relationships, especially when it matters most[iv]

 

  1. Vote yes to recognise the marriages of thousands of LGBTIQ Australians that already exist, having wed overseas

 

  1. And to ensure that, when some of those relationships break down, they are able to divorce[v]

 

  1. Vote yes so that all members of a family are treated exactly the same under the law

 

  1. Vote yes so that parents, and grandparents, and brothers and sisters, are able to attend the weddings of their family members

 

  1. And so that the children of rainbow families can attend the weddings of their parents

 

  1. Vote yes for all of the lesbian grandmas, gay uncles, bi aunts, trans nephews and intersex nieces, and queer cousins

 

  1. Vote yes if you think that your child should be able to marry whoever they want to when they grow up

 

  1. Vote yes if you think that every child should be able to marry whoever they want to when they grow up

 

  1. Vote yes on marriage equality for your friends

 

  1. And your colleagues

 

  1. And your teammates

 

  1. And your neighbours, and all of the LGBTIQ people in your community

 

  1. Vote yes for the many young LGBTIQ Australians still struggling to comes to terms with who they are, wondering whether they are accepted

 

  1. And for older LGBTIQ Australians who have experienced a lifetime of discrimination

 

  1. Vote yes for every LGBTIQ Australian, to show them that they are not lesser and should not be treated as lesser under the Marriage Act

 

  1. Vote yes because you are LGBTIQ yourself and this is a matter of pride

 

  1. Vote yes because you believe in a fair go for all, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics

 

  1. Vote yes because you think Australia can be a better, fairer and more inclusive country

 

  1. And because you want to help make Australia a better, fairer and more inclusive country

 

  1. Vote yes on marriage equality because all love is equal, and it’s time we changed the law to reflect that.

 

original_1495494419744.405

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Like long-term LGBTIQ rights campaigners Peter and Bon, who were together for half a century, with Bon passing away earlier this year after having pleaded with Malcolm Turnbull to allow them to marry before he died – a plea that was ignored.

[ii] Australia was criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee earlier this year because of its policy of forced trans divorce. Find out more here.

[iii] To find out more about how discrimination in the Marriage Act affects people with intersex traits, see OII Australia’s submission to the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016.

[iv] Tragically, Tasmanian Ben Jago was unable to bury his de facto partner, or even attend his funeral, after his premature death (see this piece in the Guardian). While such discrimination is already unlawful, being married would make these situations far less common.

[v] Australia has also been criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee because of its failure to allow LGBTIQ couples that have married overseas to be able to divorce when those relationships break down. Find out more here.

7 things we need to do now

Commonwealth_ Sex Discrimination Act 1984-3

 

At the end of a long week – which felt more like a month, and frankly had a year’s worth of ups and (mostly) downs – it’s time to take stock, and work out what we do next.

 

Thankfully, there are now two challenges to the Government’s pseudo postal plebiscite (aka the Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’), which will be heard by the High Court on September 5 and 6.

 

However, while we might hope for the best – that the judiciary finds this extraordinary and unprecedented process to be an unconstitutional abuse of executive power – we must also prepare ourselves for the worst.

 

In that context, I offer the following seven suggestions of how we should respond to Malcolm Turnbull’s supposed statistical survey:

 

  1. Enrol

 

The Government has already announced that, in order to participate in the ‘plebiscite’, you must be on the electoral roll by 6pm on Thursday 24 August.

 

So, the most immediate thing you need to do is:

 

  • Check your enrolment here.

 

  • If you aren’t enrolled, enrol to vote here.

 

Even if you are currently intending to boycott the ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’, you might end up changing your mind in the coming weeks and months, so please update your enrolment now and leave your options open in September and October.

 

  1. Engage

 

This step is harder than the first, especially when emotions are understandably running high and we feel that the process that has been inflicted upon us is incredibly unfair (because it is). But that doesn’t mean the pseudo postal plebiscite is necessarily going away either.

 

Which means we need to engage, with our family members (including extended family), our friends, our colleagues, our peers, basically anyone and everyone we have connections with, to encourage them to support the fight for equality.

 

Of course, there are limits to this ask. Don’t engage with trolls, or with people who show they are unwilling to genuinely engage with you (neither group is worth your time). And don’t engage where you don’t feel comfortable, and above all, safe in doing so.

 

But, please have these conversations wherever and whenever you can, because that’s how we remind people who are already on our side what they need to do, and how we persuade the people who have yet to make up their minds.

 

  1. Educate

 

This step, which is related to number two, is much more difficult again. It is hard when the decision by the Turnbull Coalition Government to hold this pseudo postal plebiscite has already politicised every minute, every hour and every day of our lives – politicised our mere existence – until this farce is over.

 

And there’s no denying the perennial problem that in struggles for justice, the burden of educating the oppressors falls disproportionately on the oppressed (when people should instead bear responsibility for educating themselves).

 

Nevertheless, there will still be many opportunities in the months ahead for genuine education. To provide information to people who may not have thought about LGBTIQ issues before. To answer questions from those who don’t know a lot about us, or our relationships, but who show a sincere desire to learn.

 

Of course, for many in our community, for different reasons, this task is not something they are willing or able to do – and that’s totally okay. And for anyone who does decide to engage in these discussions, you should always remember that your personal information is yours, and you should only disclose as much as you feel comfortable. Nobody has a ‘right’ to know everything about you.

 

But for those of us who are in a position to have these conversations, we should. And if you need help getting started, Australian Marriage Equality/The Equality Campaign have produced a number of useful resources (including translations into Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, Hindi, Greek, Italian, and Spanish).

 

  1. Vote

 

We’ve reached the fourth step on my list, and the third most important: to vote (and obviously to vote yes).

 

Before I start, I’d like to say to anyone who is currently considering boycotting the pseudo postal plebiscite that I completely understand where you’re coming from. It is a bullshit process, imposed for bullshit reasons. It is inherently offensive to LGBTIQ people; it is insulting, and demeaning, to our relationships.

 

In fact, the decision by Liberal and National MPs and Senators to adopt a supposed statistical survey on marriage equality made me even more angry, and frustrated, about a subject that I thought had exhausted my reserves of both. Despite all this, I have decided that I will vote, and I urge you to do the same, for the following reasons:

 

a) Most LGBTIQ people think we should

 

Before the Government’s appalling actions this week, PFLAG and just.equal conducted a survey of 5,261 LGBTI Australians to ascertain their views about a possible postal vote, and how we should respond as a community.

 

Only 15.2% thought we should boycott such a vote, with more than half publicly opposed to a postal ballot but prepared to win it if it’s held. And, even though that survey was conducted based on a hypothetical, and the subsequent reality might have changed the depth of our feelings, I don’t think it has altered our thinking.

 

b) Most LGBTIQ community organisations think we should

 

For people who have been engaged in LGBTIQ advocacy for a while, it’s no secret we sometimes don’t play well together. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that nearly all major community organisations have come out in the past 24-48 hours to say that, while they oppose the pseudo postal plebiscite, they will fight to win it.

 

How ironic that Malcolm Turnbull’s divisive debate, that will cause such disharmony across Australian society, could end up being a powerful unifying moment within the LGBTIQ community itself.

 

c) Pragmatic politics

 

There are several political reasons why we should vote, including the obvious one: that a yes vote offers the best chance (albeit no guarantee) of marriage equality being passed this year. A significant yes majority will also diminish the influence of the groups that oppose LGBTIQ rights, like the Australian Christian Lobby, not just on this topic but across all issues.

 

But, even if we lose (which is a real possibility, given a voluntary postal opinion poll has significant flaws, and skews towards older, more conservative voters, effectively stacking the decks against us), the closer the loss the easier it will be for Labor and the Greens to introduce marriage equality in future.

 

d) Personal

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a strong personal motivation to campaign for equality: the desire to finally marry my fiancé of seven and a half years. However, as much as I love Steven – and trust me, it’s a lot – he’s not the reason I will be voting, and voting yes.

 

Teenage Alastair is. Who realised he was gay on his first day at a religious boarding school in Brisbane in 1991. Who took about a month to understand just how homophobic his surrounding environment was, and became depressed. Who, from the second term of year 8, until the final term of year 12, thought about ending his life every day, multiple times a day, because he feared he would never find acceptance for who he was.

 

Alastair aged 12 to 17 probably wouldn’t have understood the ethical reasons why some people in the LGBTIQ community might have wanted to boycott a supposed statistical survey. But he definitely would have understood the message of a large no victory: that his country was explicitly rejecting him, and anyone like him.

 

So, I’m voting for him.

 

Many of us have been that person. Most of us know someone who has been through something similar. All of us can empathise with what that fear, that isolation, that loneliness, feels like. So let’s stand up for all of them – including those who tragically didn’t make it – and vote yes.

 

  1. Take Care of Yourself

 

We already know that, if the pseudo postal plebiscite is not rejected by the High Court, the next four months are going to be awful. There will be misinformation, and outright lies, spread against us by those who wish to do us harm. Indeed, their hate-based campaign has already started – so much for the Prime Minister’s so-called #respectfuldebate.

 

We should not underestimate the impact that this battle will have on all of us, or the fact it will disproportionately affect the more vulnerable groups within the LGBTIQ community itself (including young people, trans and gender diverse people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ people and rainbow families and their children).

 

Throughout this process, we must all take care of ourselves.

 

There are services in place that can help if you need it, including:

 

  • QLife, the national telephone and web counselling service for LGBTI people, families and friends. Call 1800 184 527, 3pm to midnight everyday.

 

 

For a longer list of the support services available to LGBTIQ+ community, see this article by SBS.

 

Beyond these formal services, however, there are plenty of other ways to practice self-care, and self-love, during this time. If you need to talk to someone, reach out to your friends and other people in your life. If you are finding yourself negatively affected by the public debate and/or social media, switch off. If you have to take a break from the campaign, do – drop out for as long as you need.

 

For other tips on what you can do to take care of yourself, see the helpful info-graphic produced by ACON at the end of this article. If you are a member of an LGBTIQ family, you can also check out this handy guide produced by Rainbow Families. And if you are aware of, or come across, other useful resources, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments below.

 

  1. And Each Other

 

The other, equally important, part of this equation is to look out for, and take care of, each other.

 

It is difficult to imagine a process that causes more damage, or has the prospect for greater division, than the three-month long, voluntary, non-binding ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’ designed by the Turnbull Government.

 

Indeed, that may have been the intention of some of those who advocated this option. At best, Coalition MPs and Senators have shown that they are completely indifferent to the harm the pseudo postal plebiscite will cause the LGBTIQ community.

 

They don’t care about us. So we must care about each other.

 

Be pro-active. Check in with the people around you to see they are okay. If you notice someone struggling, ask how they’re going, give them a call, have a cup of tea, offer a helping hand – or a shoulder to cry on.

 

Over recent decades, the LGBTIQ community has had to endure many challenges, to show resilience in the face of adversity. We need to do so again now.

 

**********

 

These last two steps – Take Care of Yourself. And Each Other – aren’t just the catchphrase of a trashy 90s talk-show host. They are also the two most important things we need to do in the coming weeks and months. Because while winning this vote, and achieving marriage equality, might be important, we – the members of the LGBTIQ community – are more important.

 

Before I finish, however, there is one last point that I need to make:

 

  1. Allies – It’s time to step up

 

I still remember early last year (although it seems longer) standing in front of a room full of mostly-cisgender, heterosexual activists and asking them for their help to win ‘Plebiscite 1.0’ – because the LGBTIQ community could not possibly win it on our own.

 

Well, that plea is just as relevant, probably even more so, for ‘Plebiscite 2.0’, especially with the challenges of voluntary postal voting, and an overall process engineered to benefit the side of those opposed to marriage equality.

 

If you consider yourself an ally of the LGBTIQ community, it’s time to step up. If you are a family member, friend, colleague or peer of an LGBTIQ person, it’s time to get involved.

 

Enrol. Engage and Educate (and, if you need to, educate yourselves). Vote, and encourage others to vote, too. I also have no doubt it will be an awful experience for many of you to see the trauma inflicted on the LGBTIQ people close to you – so look after them, as well as yourselves.

 

Most importantly, stand with us, by our sides, in this battle. Sit with us, and listen to us, if we ask you to. And fight for us, because we need you to.

 

And, if you’re not convinced by me, listen to the excellent advice of the even more excellent GetUp marriage equality campaigner, Sally Rugg:

 

“If you have ever put a rainbow filter on your Facebook profile picture, return your ballot paper the day you receive it.

 

If you have a friend, a family member or a co-worker who is LGBTIQ+, return your ballot paper the day you receive it.

 

If you have ever cringed at the words “one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” at a wedding, return your ballot paper the day you receive it…

 

The postal plebiscite will be won or lost on how allies of the LGBTIQ+ community step up over the next two months.”

 

Over to you.

 

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Marriage equality or marriage discrimination – a simple test

Based on media coverage over the past few days, it now seems possible that Commonwealth Parliament will – finally – hold a free vote in coming weeks on the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians to marry.

 

Of course, it is just as likely (perhaps even more likely) that the Turnbull Government will instead decide to hold a non-binding, voluntary postal vote on the subject, but that unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and downright offensive proposal is a subject for another day.

 

What I wanted to write about today is the kind of legislation that might ultimately be voted upon.

 

Because, amidst the understandable excitement of activists and advocates, the LGBTI community, our family members and friends, indeed all Australians who believe in fairness and the right of all people to marry the person they love, that progress might be imminent, we must not overlook a fundamental question:

 

Is it marriage equality, or is it marriage discrimination?

 

That is, does the Bill treat LGBTI-inclusive couples exactly the same as cisgender heterosexual couples, or will it introduce new special rights for civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to discriminate against us?

 

If it is the former, it is genuine marriage equality. If it is the latter, then it is something else, something lesser: marriage discrimination.

 

Unfortunately, based on multiple news reports it appears that the private member’s bill being drafted by Western Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith will include new ‘protections’ that provide celebrants with the right to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of LGBTI couples.

 

Given religious celebrants already have this ability, presumably Senator Smith’s Bill will extend this ‘right to discriminate’ to (at least some) civil celebrants.

 

The argument that will inevitably be put forward to justify the differential treatment of couples under the Marriage Act 1961 is that it is necessary to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of the celebrants involved.

 

From my perspective, whether we should accept this argument, and indeed whether we should accept legislation that includes these types of ‘religious exceptions’, comes down to this simple test:

 

Will it treat LGBTI couples in the future differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to get (re-)married today?

 

Now, I admit this might seem to be a somewhat strange comparator, so please allow me to explain.

 

There is a wide range of religious beliefs about the rite of marriage, from groups who believe in marriage between more than two people, to others who do not believe in marriage between people of different faiths.

 

One of the more common religious beliefs about marriage, and indeed still the official position of what is the second-largest religious group in Australia (the Catholic Church, after ‘No religion’), is that divorce is a sin, and consequently people who have divorced should not be allowed to re-marry.

 

The Marriage Act currently allows churches, and religious celebrants, the ability to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of couples where one or both parties have already been divorced.

 

However, despite the fact some civil celebrants are Catholic themselves (and therefore may have some qualms about second, third or even fourth marriages), there is no equivalent right for civil celebrants to decline to perform these weddings.

 

And that seems like a reasonable distinction to make – because civil ceremonies under the Marriage Act are secular, rather than religious, in nature, there is no need to provide civil celebrants with the right to reject divorced people on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.

 

But, if it is not deemed essential to protect ‘religious freedom’ by allowing civil celebrants to discriminate on the basis of marital or relationship status now, then it should not be necessary to permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in the future.

 

Indeed, by comparing the rights of divorced people seeking to re-marry today with the rights of LGBTI couples under any future legislation that seeks to permit all couples to marry, it becomes clear that:

 

Amendments that provide civil celebrants with the ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI couples are not based on protecting ‘religious freedom’, but instead are legislating a right to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

As a result, any legislation that allows LGBTI Australians to get married, but does so on the condition that civil celebrants are able to turn them away because of their personal prejudices, is not marriage equality, it is marriage discrimination.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill that was released by the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, during the debate on the (traditional) plebiscite way back in October 2016 clearly failed on this front.

 

Not only did it significantly expand the right of civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, it also clarified that defence force chaplains (who are public servants) could reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It even allowed for-profit businesses, run by religious organisations on a commercial basis, to turn LGBTI couples away.

 

For all of these reasons, the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill was Unacceptable.

 

It is possible that Senator Smith and others have ‘learned’ from that experience, and that his private member’s bill will look significantly different to the Brandis Bill on the surface. The new ‘protections’ may not even explicitly target LGBTI couples, and instead be couched in more neutral terms.

 

But the real question will be how it treats LGBTI people in its substance. Irrespective of the wording used, if the legislation allows civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to treat LGBTI couples differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to re-marry today, it is simply homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in a pretty wedding dress (or tuxedo).

 

And so, by all means get excited by the possibility that the interminable debate about the right of LGBTI couples to marry in Australia might soon be over. But we should also be on guard against any proposals that provide civil celebrants and others with the ‘right to discriminate’ against us.

 

We’ve waited long enough for genuine marriage equality. We shouldn’t settle, or be forced to settle, for marriage discrimination.

 

Untitled design-2

We should hold off on cutting the celebratory wedding cakes until we know exactly what is in the substance of any Bill, including any religious exceptions it may contain.

Our 7-Year Engagement (and Counting)

7 years isn’t just the name of a nauseatingly awful song by Lukas Graham. It also happens to be the length of time that, as of today, Steve and I have been engaged.

 

On 23 January 2010, after about 18 months together and on a trip to Melbourne, I asked him to marry me. He made me an incredibly happy man when he said, “Of course I will.”

 

What should have followed were several months of wedding planning – including the inevitable fights over guest-lists, and the small ‘p’ politics of who sits at which table (or, more likely in our case, arguments over the music play-list).

 

What has followed has been seven years of advocacy – of fighting for the right just to be treated the same as other Australians, and the capital ‘P’ politics of trying to change the ALP national platform, then attempting to make that platform binding, of resisting an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, and finally of arguing for Commonwealth Parliament to actually hold a vote on marriage equality, instead of countless inquiries and endless delays.

 

It’s fair to say that, after seven years of campaigning for change, Steve and I are becoming increasingly frustrated by the inability of our so-called leaders to pass this reform. After all, it should take seven seconds, rather than seven years, for most people to recognise that all couples deserve to be treated equally under the law, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

It’s also true to say that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are feeling worn out, and worn down, by the ongoing battle, of having exactly the same conversations, with the same nonsensical responses by those against marriage equality, ending in the same result: yet more inaction.

 

There is a real risk that many in the LGBTI community, not to mention our family members, friends and allies, will find this debate increasingly tiresome (I know that, even as someone who is clearly passionate about this topic, I am starting to find writing about it somewhat tedious).

 

To a large extent, that is what our opponents want. They would love nothing more than for people who support marriage equality to become depressed about the lack of tangible results to date, and to consequently give up the fight.

 

Groups like the Australian Christian Lobby lost the policy argument a long time ago – they are now engaged in a war of attrition, hoping that, if this issue sits in the too hard basket for long enough, it will disappear from the political agenda altogether.

 

We can’t afford to let that happen. As annoying as it is – as boring as it is – we must start the year in exactly the same way we started last year, and the year before that, and the year before that (plus several more besides).

 

By writing letters to, and calling, our MPs and Senators, by using traditional media, and social media, to keep marriage equality in the spotlight, by marching, and protesting, by making a noise, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves.

 

Our 226 elected federal representatives must be constantly reminded that we will not go away until this, the simplest of reforms, is finally passed.

 

It could even happen this year. All it would take is for Malcolm Turnbull to demonstrate the leadership that many once hoped he possessed. Or for the Liberal party-room to decide the issue has dragged on long enough, and by holding a conscience vote. Or even for a small handful of Liberal MPs and Senators to decide this is something worth crossing the floor over.

 

Of course, marriage equality may not happen this year either. It could be delayed until 2018, 2019 or even longer. But no matter how much time it takes, we will continue pushing until our parliamentarians catch up to where the Australian population has been for some time.

 

In the meantime, there are literally tens of thousands of couples just like Steve and I who are essentially stuck in limbo, unable to do the basic things other engaged couples do: pick a wedding date, book a venue, and send out invitations (to those who make the agreed-upon final cut anyway).

 

We are reminded of this discrimination every time a day like today rolls around – the anniversary of an engagement that was happily entered into, but that has been unhappily, and involuntarily, extended by our government.

 

On a personal level I must admit I am finding this particular anniversary – our 7-year ‘engagement-versary’ – to be a particularly frustrating one, and just a little bit odd too.

 

It is weird to consider that we have now been engaged so long there is even a popular myth – at least partially backed up by research[i], as it turns out – that this is the time at which many married couples actually start to divorce.

 

And it’s a strange event to ‘celebrate’ – or at least commemorate – when you would prefer to be able to reflect on your wedding instead (as an aside, if we were married, the traditional 7-year gifts are wool, or copper – does that mean I should be buying Steve a nice new jumper?)

 

It is probably fitting that I will spend our anniversary at work, listening in the background to yet another Senate Committee hearing discussing whether couples like us should have the ability to marry – and, if we do, what new special ‘rights’ civil celebrants, religious bodies and others should have to discriminate against us[ii].

 

If I had the opportunity to address that Committee, I’d let them know how large a difference they could make if they just made a small change to the Marriage Act, thereby allowing Steve and I – and thousands of couples just like us – to exchange wedding vows.

 

I’d finish my testimony by making my own vow, on behalf of Steve and I – that I will not stop fighting until our relationship is finally treated equally under the law. Because one day, hopefully not too far in the future, we deserve the right to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, and not our 8th, 9th or even 10th engagement anniversary.

 

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Steve (left) and I on the January 2010 trip to Melbourne during which we got engaged. 7 years later and I only love him more.

 

Footnotes:

[i] New York Times, Study Finds a 7-Year Itch, and a 4-Year One, 5 October 1999.

[ii] The Senate is holding an inquiry into the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, with the first hearing, in Melbourne, held on Monday 23 January. Full details of the inquiry can be found here.

If we want genuine marriage equality, we’re going to have to fight – & write – for it

2017 might be the year that Australia finally introduces marriage equality[i].

If it is, it will only be because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, and our families, friends and allies, have fought long and hard to make it happen.

However, there is also a very real risk that we end up with something less than genuine equality.

This is because there are some members within the Liberal National Coalition who are willing to support the right of LGBTI couples to marry, but only on the condition that new special rights to discriminate against us are included in any amendments to the Marriage Act.

That is simply not good enough.

As the US Supreme Court found more than 60 years ago[ii], separate but equal is not equal. And so we must reject any attempt to impose a 2nd-class system of marriage for LGBTI Australians, where we can be treated differently to cisgender heterosexual couples, merely because of who we are.

In the same way that we have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to marry, we must also fight for the right to marry equally.

The battleground for this campaign is the Government’s Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, released in October 2016. This is the legislation that the Government would have introduced had its (unnecessary, wasteful and divisive) plebiscite been held, and had it been successful.

While the Bill allows any two people to marry – and therefore would provide LGBTI Australians with the ability to finally tie the knot – it also proposes four new special rights to discriminate against any relationship that is “not the union of a man and a woman[iii].” This includes:

  1. A specific provision allowing ministers of religion to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[iv] – even though ministers of religion can already reject any couple for any reason. That means this clause is both unnecessary, and unfairly targets our relationships.
  1. An entirely new right for civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[v]. No other section of the Marriage Act 1961 currently allows these celebrants to discriminate. This homophobic provision is especially concerning given three out of every four weddings in Australia are conducted by civil celebrants.
  1. A specific provision allowing ‘religious bodies and organisations[vi] to deny facilities to, and withhold goods and services from, LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[vii]. This has been included despite existing religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, at both Commonwealth and state and territory level, and applies even where these groups are engaged in commercial enterprise.
  1. A new right for Defence Force chaplains to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[viii]. This is despite the fact these chaplains are public servants, paid for by all taxpayers – including LGBTI Australians – and that they are expected to “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion” (emphasis added)[ix].

None of these new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples are necessary. All are completely unjustified. All must be challenged.

Fortunately, this Bill generally, and these proposed new ‘religious exceptions’ specifically, are currently the subject of a Senate inquiry.

The Select Committee examining this Bill has called for public submissions, which close next Friday (13 January). Full details of the Inquiry, including how to lodge, can be found here.

I encourage you to make your own submission, calling for the Committee, and ultimately the Parliament, to reject these four new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

In doing so, you could make the following two main points:

  • This Bill is NOT marriage equality

While the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill would allow LGBTI couples to finally marry, by including new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples – and only LGBTI couples – the Bill actually establishes a 2nd-class system of marriage for some Australians based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. ‘Separate but equal’ is not equal – which means this Bill would not deliver genuine marriage equality.

  • The exceptions included in this Bill do not protect religious freedom, they promote homophobia and transphobia

There are a variety of different religious beliefs about marriage. Some people believe only cisgender heterosexual couples should be able to marry[x]. Others do not believe in divorce, and therefore oppose the right of people to participate in second (or subsequent) weddings. Some even continue to hold the (once widespread) belief that people of different faiths should not marry.

If the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill reflected genuine concerns about protecting ‘religious freedom’, it would allow civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against divorced people, or against inter-faith couples[xi].

The fact that it does not, and that it establishes new special rights to discriminate solely against LGBTI couples, reveals the fundamental truth of this legislation: it has very little to do with protecting religious freedom, and much more to do with promoting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia[xii].

**********

3 Ways to Take Action

If you agree with me, then now is the time to get involved, to get fighting – and writing – to let the Senate Committee, and the Government, know that marriage equality should mean exactly that: equality. And we won’t accept anything less.

Here are three ways you can take action in the next week:

  1. Write your own submission to the Senate Inquiry. As noted above, details on how to do so can be found here. Alternatively, two LGBTI organisations have designed web platforms to make writing a submission easier:
  1. Complete these surveys about the Bill. Both the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby and just.equal (& PFLAG Australia) are consulting the LGBTI community about what they think of the proposed religious exceptions. Let them know your views here:
  1. Sign and share this petition to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, demanding that Equal love should not be treated unequally.

Above all, if you think that equal means equal, no ifs, buts, or maybes, then it’s time to get writing…

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Footnotes:

[i] Of course, if Malcolm Turnbull continues to fail to show any leadership on this issue, we might instead be forced to wait until 2019 or 2020.

[ii] Brown v Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954)

[iii] Interestingly, this phrase would not cover all LGBTI couples – for example, civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains would not be able to reject heterosexual couples where one or both members are transgender and where the couple identifies as a man and a woman.

[iv] Proposed sub-section 47(3)

[v] Proposed new section 47A

[vi] It is worrying that these terms are not defined in the Bill, meaning the number of bodies or organisations allowed to discriminate against LGBTI couples could be high.

[vii] Proposed new section 47B

[viii] Proposed new note to section 81

[ix] For more on why these new special rights to discriminate must be rejected, see The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in Unacceptable.

[x] Of course, they should not be able to impose that belief on others through secular law.

[xi] I am not arguing for either to be made lawful, merely highlighting the double-standard that lies at the heart of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

[xii] The Government, having revealed its (homophobic) intentions, also cannot now turn around and extend these new special rights to discriminate against divorced people and inter-faith couples because they will only be doing so to ‘cover up’ the anti-LGBTI nature of its original legislation.

It’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace

Commonwealth Parliament returns this week, for the final sitting fortnight of the year.

 

During the previous sitting week, on Monday 7 November, the Senate finally killed off, once and for all, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

The welcome actions of Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators, and even Derryn Hinch, have spared the country from what would have been an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive public vote on the human rights of a minority group.

 

In doing so, they have also ensured that the public, and political, pressure to finally pass marriage equality sits squarely where it should have been all along – on Liberal and National MPs and Senators.

 

After all, they are the ones sitting on the Government benches, meaning they shoulder the responsibility to introduce legislation to treat all couples equally, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

From now until the next federal election, likely to be held in the 1st half of 2019, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should put pressure on Coalition parliamentarians to fix this mess.

 

More specifically, we will need to target one of the three main groupings within the Government, the cohort who are more likely to be receptive to our messages – Moderate Liberals.

 

It is difficult to see the other two ‘factions’ changing their respective tunes. National Party MPs, who are supposed to represent all people in rural and regional areas, have instead shown themselves completely uninterested in the relationships of the many LGBTI couples that live in their electorates.

 

In fact, the old ‘Country Party’ rump of the Coalition have been so determined to delay and potentially defeat marriage equality that they included the plebiscite as a core component of its formal agreement with Malcolm Turnbull when he became Prime Minister in September 2015.

 

Apparently, it is far more important to spend at least $170 million, and probably more than $200 million, on a non-binding opinion poll, than on meeting the health, education and infrastructure needs of non-metropolitan Australians.

 

The other major grouping within the Coalition – Conservative Liberals – are even less interested in recognising the human rights of LGBTI people. They would prefer just to see marriage equality blocked, and only agreed to holding a plebiscite under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott because they saw it, correctly, as a stalling tactic.

 

With the plebiscite now dead, the terrible Tory trio of Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, and their factional colleagues, are comfortable in seeing this issue left off the political agenda – from their perspective, hopefully permanently.

 

All of which is to say that the only hope of passing marriage equality in the remainder of this term rests with what is, in 2016, perhaps the smallest and least powerful of the Coalition groups – Moderate Liberals[i].

 

These MPs and Senators are the only ones within Malcolm Turnbull’s Government who could foreseeably take any action on marriage equality, at least in the short-term.

 

That’s because, if they are genuinely moderate in their beliefs, they are likely to understand the following three things:

 

  1. There is no justification for discrimination against people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status under secular law – and that includes in the Marriage Act 1961.

 

  1. The plebiscite was the wrong process to achieve marriage equality. Not only was it unacceptable to the vast majority of LGBTI people, it also contravened the traditions of Australian democracy[ii], which has only ever witnessed three national plebiscites, and none on substantive policy for almost a century, and

 

  1. Most importantly, LGBTI Australians have already waited long enough (far too long actually) for their relationships to be treated equally under the law, meaning a parliamentary vote should not be delayed until 2019.

 

But, while they may understand these points, the real question is: What will Moderate Liberal MPs and Senators now do about it?

 

Will they stand up for their principles and push for a parliamentary vote, or will they continue their modus operandi from the past ten to 15 years and adopt the path of least resistance against their National Party and Conservative Liberal counterparts, by maintaining their official support for the discredited plebiscite?

 

Unfortunately, the signs to date are not encouraging. North Queensland LNP MP, Warren Entsch, who has pushed for marriage equality inside the Coalition for several years, has indicated that he is choosing right now, when we arguably need him most, to ‘give up the fight’[iii] on this issue for the remainder of this term.

 

He has, in effect, walked away from the LGBTI community rather than walking five metres across the chamber floor to vote for reform.

 

Disappointingly, few if any of Entsch’s colleagues have so far suggested they are interested in picking up where he left off.

 

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Warren Entsch, introducing his private member’s bill for marriage equality in 2015. Sadly, it seems he is unwilling to even vote for equality for the next two and a half years.

 

What would we ask them to do if they were ‘ready and willing’? There are two ways in which Moderate Liberals could progress marriage equality this term.

 

The first, and most challenging, path would be for them to push for a conscience vote inside the Liberal Party room (and in the absence of National MPs and Senators who, as Christopher Pyne accurately pointed out, were included by Tony Abbott in August 2015 as a means of ‘branch-stacking’ against equality).

 

Their arguments would be strong – the Government has tried and failed to implement its election policy (to hold the plebiscite), so it needs to find another way to recognise the legal equality of LGBTI relationships. A free vote also has the benefit of being far more consistent with the past practices of Australia’s main right-of-centre party than a public vote.

 

But they would also face strong resistance, led by PM-(again)-in-waiting Tony Abbott, among others, meaning it is unclear what the outcome would be.

 

If they failed, the second way in which Moderate Liberals could help pass marriage equality would be by ‘simply’ crossing the floor.

 

It would only take one or two principled Senators to secure passage in the Upper House, and probably only a small handful of MPs, perhaps half-a-dozen, to do so in the House of Representatives.

 

In the absence of a Prime Minister, Ministers or Assistant Ministers who were prepared to give up their positions of power for the sake of the human rights of their fellow citizens, they would all need to come from the backbench. And, by taking such a step, these backbenchers would know they were potentially jeopardising any future advancement within the Party.

 

It is unclear whether there are enough Coalition MPs and Senators to make that crucial difference. But, it is incredibly important that Moderate Liberals find these numbers, one way or another.

 

Not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and our family members and friends, who have already endured 12 years – and counting – of John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on our weddings.

 

It is also important for the future of Moderate Liberals themselves.

 

Make no mistake, this is a fundamental test for the section of the Liberal Party who identify as moderate, even ‘progressive’, on social issues.

 

Their ‘slice’ of the Coalition has been diminishing for decades, and their influence has waned noticeably from even the time when I was growing up.

 

On many issues, from the (mis)treatment of people seeking asylum, to the prioritisation of ‘national security’ over civil liberties, and even their growing obsession with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, they are now almost indistinguishable from their National Party, and Conservative Liberal, colleagues.

 

So, if they cannot stand up to the rabid right-wing on this, a straight-forward question of inclusion versus discrimination – a clear-cut choice between granting human rights or actively denying them – it is difficult to see them standing up on anything.

 

If Moderate Liberals fail to ‘deliver the goods’ on marriage equality by the time the next election rolls around, it will be tempting for most Australians to reach the conclusion that they are ‘good-for-nothing’.

 

And, in my view at least, the public would be right – if Moderate Liberals cannot make progress on this issue before 2019, then they will have demonstrated that they have no place in contemporary Australian politics. It probably won’t be that much longer before they discover they have no place in Commonwealth Parliament either.

 

All of which means that, if they want LGBTI Australians to be able to walk down the aisle – and if they want to retain their seats on the ‘right’ side of the political aisle – it’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Irrespective of their actual factual alignment, for the purposes of this article this grouping includes the four out gay men in the Government: Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans and Senator Dean Smith.

[ii] The argument made by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith in declaring that he could not, in good conscience, support the plebiscite enabling legislation.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2016, The same-sex plebiscite is dead. So what happens now?