Quit Playing Games

With marriage equality set to be debated in Commonwealth Parliament during the next fortnight, I have written the below letter to all MPs and Senators, calling on them to legislate for genuine marriage equality, not a Bill (or amendments) that entrenches our second-class status. To send your own message that #equalmeansequal, click here.

 

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Dear MP/Senator

 

I met my fiancé Steven two weeks after my 30th birthday.

 

Within a few months it was clear this relationship was something special. Just 17 months after we met, in January 2010, we did what most couples who are in love do: we got engaged.

 

That means we have been engaged, waiting for the right to marry, for almost eight years.

 

Obviously, a lot of ‘life’ can happen in eight years. We’ve moved cities, changed jobs – almost as many times as the country has changed Prime Ministers – and even bought a home together (well, the small fraction that isn’t owned by the bank).

 

But, nearing the end of 2017, we still can’t plan our wedding day. I want to draw your attention to one of the consequences of our extended, involuntary wait.

 

My grandmother, who is now in the second half of her 90s, would have been able to attend our wedding had we held it when most couples do, within a year or two of our engagement.

 

Instead, with her health declining and having recently moved into assisted living, she won’t be there when Steven and I tie the knot.

 

The delay in passing marriage equality, due to the intolerance, and intransigence, of too many politicians over too many years, has stolen that moment of celebration from us all.

 

Steven’s situation is only slightly better. With a Portuguese background, family is even more important to him. He would love nothing more than to be able to wed in front of his grandmother.

 

But, in her late 80s and having recently had a pacemaker installed, we cannot ignore the possibility his dream may not come true, especially if marriage equality is delayed any further.

 

I think I will be even more upset for him if that moment is stolen, too.

 

Of course, the failure to lead on this issue by Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull among others, has taken much, much more from other couples, including Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal who, after 50 years together, will forever be denied the ability to marry each other.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to end the interminable wait for marriage equality, a wait that has already proven too long for too many.

 

Quit playing games with our relationships. Pass marriage equality now.

 

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I met my fiancé Steven one week after my brother’s wedding. Two years earlier I attended my sister’s wedding.

 

I look forward to being able to invite both of my siblings, and their respective spouses, to Steven and my nuptials.

 

When we finally say ‘I do’, though, there is a real chance our marriage will be subject to different terms and conditions than theirs. Because the legislation that will give us the right to marry will likely take away our rights in other areas.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, introduced by Liberal Senator Dean Smith, is already deeply flawed, allowing existing civil celebrants to simply declare themselves ‘religious marriage celebrants’ in order to turn away same-sex couples, and unnecessarily duplicating religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act.

 

Yet, there are many MPs and Senators who seem intent on making this unsatisfactory legislation even worse.

 

From Attorney-General George Brandis, who wants to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate against couples on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs, even though their role is entirely secular in nature.

 

And to add a ‘religious freedom’ declaration to the Act that will almost inevitably be used by the Australian Christian Lobby-created Human Rights Law Alliance to litigate to establish new ways of discriminating against LGBTI couples.

 

To Treasurer Scott Morrison, who apparently thinks school students need to be protected from learning about couples like Steven and me, and wants to legislate an unprecedented power for parents to withdraw their children from any class that even mentions the fact same-sex marriages exist.

 

Then there’s Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who has already circulated amendments that would allow commercial businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on their wedding day. And, if they hold one, at their engagement party. Oh, and on all of their wedding anniversaries too.

 

None of these so-called ‘freedoms to discriminate’ operate currently with respect to inter-faith marriages, or to divorced couples remarrying. The fact they are being proposed now is homophobic.

 

Nor are any of these new religious exceptions necessary.

 

All that is required to introduce marriage equality is to amend the definition in the Marriage Act to be the union of two people, and to recognise the foreign marriages of same-sex couples that already exist. Nothing more.

 

After all, when Steven and I do eventually marry, there is absolutely no reason why we should be treated any differently to, or worse than, my brother or my sister were.

 

Quit playing games with our rights. Pass genuine marriage equality.

 

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I met my fiancé Steven four days before the 4th anniversary of John Howard’s ban on marriage equality.

 

His Government’s discriminatory Bill was rushed through the Parliament, and passed by the Senate on Friday 13 August, 2004.

 

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have spent more than 13 years trying to undo his changes, and for a better, fairer, and more-inclusive Marriage Act to be adopted in its place.

 

The process for doing so should have been the same one employed by the then-Liberal Prime Minister: a parliamentary vote.

 

Instead, our two more-recent Liberal Prime Ministers have both argued that LGBTI Australians should have to overcome hurdles that have not been placed in front of other groups.

 

First, it was the proposed plebiscite – a national, non-binding vote that has only been used three times in the 117 years since Federation, but not once to decide on the human rights of a minority, and not once in my lifetime.

 

Then, when that process was firmly rejected by the Senate – at the request of the LGBTI community itself – the Turnbull Government decided to invent a ‘postal survey’ run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a 3-month, $100 million farce that confirmed what every opinion poll of the last decade had already found, while also stirring up homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the community.

 

Let’s be clear: the postal survey should never have been held. And it must never, ever be imposed on any other group.

 

Now, having jumped through those extra hoops, and with marriage equality set to be debated by Commonwealth Parliament, the rules have apparently changed once more.

 

Instead of respecting the outcome of the process they chose, which overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, some MPs and Senators are spending more time creating additional restrictions to ensure our relationships are considered lesser than the marriages of cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

They are trying to change the rules of the game, right when LGBTI couples finally get the chance to take our rightful place on the field. Or at the altar. Or wherever we decide to marry.

 

That simply isn’t good enough.

 

Quit playing games with our community. Pass marriage equality, and stop creating new ways to discriminate against us.

 

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I met my fiancé Steven at a time when I had started to genuinely wonder whether I would ever find someone to spend my days with, let alone share a wedding day.

 

As an LGBTI advocate, the ability to marry felt like an abstract, or even hypothetical, right – important, yes, but not something I thought I would exercise myself.

 

Fortunately, falling in love made the hypothetical real, and today, more than nine years into our relationship, our desire to get married is more real than ever.

 

Unfortunately, public discussion over the past few weeks has at times felt ‘un-real’, as some MPs and Senators have debated the abstract ability of people to discriminate against LGBTI couples, rather than the practical rights of those couples to marry.

 

They have focused on hypothetical homophobic bakers, florists, and wedding-venue providers, and lost sight of the fact marriage equality should be about removing discrimination, not adding to it.

 

Once this parliamentary debate is over, if any of their amendments are passed, the rights of people to discriminate against us will sadly be very real.

 

The message that parliament would send – that our marriages are second-class – would be very real too. And LGBTI Australians would be reminded of that fact every time we are turned away by civil celebrants, or other wedding-related businesses, for years or even decades into the future.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to decide what kind of legacy you want to leave. A better, fairer, and more-inclusive Australia. Or a country that chose something else, something lesser.

 

I started this letter by noting that Steven and I met two weeks after my 30th birthday. As much as I might try to deny it that means next year we will celebrate two major milestones: my 40th birthday and, much more significantly, our 10th anniversary.

 

As verbose as I am, I don’t actually have the words to express how much it would mean to me to finally be able to marry the man I love after all this time.

 

And so, I make this final plea to you:

 

Quit playing games. Pass marriage equality now. But, when you do, make sure it treats all couples equally. Because we are. Equal.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants

The issue of marriage equality will be decided by Commonwealth Parliament in the next fortnight, first in the Senate (from Monday 27 November) and then, assuming it clears the upper house, in the House of Representatives (from Monday 4 December).

 

The ‘starting point’, problematic though it may be, is Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Although what this legislation looks like by the end of this process remains unpredictable.

 

That’s because a wide variety of Coalition MPs are likely to put forward an even more diverse range of amendments. In this post I will discuss just one, already foreshadowed by Senator George Brandis: to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.[i]

 

I do so because, at this stage, this amendment seems to have a better chance of being successful – in part because of who is proposing it (the Attorney-General, a supposed ‘moderate’ within the Government) and also because it is marginally less extreme than some of the other changes flagged by people like James Paterson, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

 

I don’t, however, support Senator Brandis’ amendment, for the following reasons:

 

  1. Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious. Indeed they were explicitly created as an alternative to religious ceremonies – and are now a very popular alternative, accounting for 3-in-4 weddings in Australia in 2015. If the wedding itself is not religious, surely the religious beliefs of the person officiating it are irrelevant.

 

  1. The ability to discriminate does not currently exist. There are a wide range of religious beliefs around marriage, including people who don’t support marriages between people of different faiths, while others don’t believe in divorce and remarriage. And yet, civil celebrants do not enjoy a special privilege to discriminate for these reasons. That it is being contemplated now, when LGBTI Australians might finally be able to wed, reveals that such an amendment is fundamentally homophobic.

 

  1. Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state. Only people who are formally registered are given the legal authority to officiate marriage ceremonies – their role is regulated by, and delegated by, the Commonwealth Government. If the Government is not able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then nor should people who are fulfilling a secular function on its behalf.

 

Some people do not accept this characterisation, instead asserting civil celebrants are more akin to small business owners. But even on this theoretical foundation, there is absolutely no basis to provide them with special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples (or any other couples for that matter):

 

  1. Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious beliefs. They cannot be allowed to hang signs in their windows – real, or online – saying ‘no gays allowed’. In 2017, it feels strange to actually have to put that down in black and white, but it is the inevitable consequence of Senator Brandis’ proposal. And others within the Turnbull Government would go even further (with Kevin Andrews arguing Jewish bakers should be able to refuse Muslim customers, and vice versa).

 

  1. If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses. While some claim civil celebrants play such a central role in weddings they alone should be able to discriminate, philosophically it is hard to distinguish their position from others closely involved in the same ceremonies (including photographers, wedding venue-providers and even florists). If the former is permitted to reject couples on the basis of personal prejudice, why not the latter? By opening the door to civil celebrants, we may end up inadvertently allowing plenty of others to walk through – when all should be kept outside.

 

  1. Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia. Currently, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, and most state and territory anti-discrimination laws, only permit religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people. They do not provide the same special privileges to individuals. The Australian Christian Lobby desperately wants an individual ‘freedom to discriminate’ against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. By granting this ability to civil celebrants in the Marriage Act, a change that may seem small to many, we would actually be handing Lyle Shelton a large victory, and an invaluable tool in his ongoing campaign against LGBTI equality.

 

For all of these reasons, I think that anyone who supports genuine marriage equality – including the LGBTI community, our families, friends and allies, and the 61.6% of the population who voted Yes – should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

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It would, however, be remiss of me not to address an argument that is commonly used to support such special privileges, one that is advanced even by some within the LGBTI community itself. That is the view that ‘why would couples want to be married by someone who disagrees with their relationship?’

 

The answer, of course, is that the vast majority of couples do not (although some, especially in rural and regional areas, may have few other options).

 

But, with all due respect to the people making this case, so what? That response doesn’t actually deal with the substantive issue at hand, and completely misunderstands the essential role of anti-discrimination law.

 

To see why, let’s apply the same question to other scenarios: Why would anyone want the florist for their wedding to be prejudiced against LGBTI people? The (now clichéd) baker? The wedding venue-provider?

 

Why would an LGBTI couple want to spend their honeymoon at a hotel where the proprietor disagrees with their relationship? Or to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant whose owner is homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic?

 

Why would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex employee want to work for an anti-LGBTI employer?

 

The answer, again, is that most LGBTI people do not want to find themselves in any of these circumstances. But, for a variety of reasons (including the impact of historical discrimination, ongoing homophobic attitudes in society-at-large, and differences in power and privilege) plenty of people do – and that is the reason we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place.

 

The Sex Discrimination Act, and its state and territory equivalents, operate to protect vulnerable groups against adverse treatment, wherever it occurs: the provision of goods and services, education, employment and other areas of public life. That obviously covers civil celebrants offering their services to the public, too.

 

In amending the Marriage Act, we should not support anything that undermines these vital anti-discrimination protections. By conceding that discrimination by civil celebrants should be allowed, by effectively ‘picking and choosing’ when anti-LGBTI prejudice is made lawful, we would be doing exactly that.

 

Once this broader principle of anti-discrimination has been sacrificed, our opponents will stake their claims for ever-widening ‘freedoms to discriminate’. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already circulated amendments to the Smith Bill that would make it entirely legal to discriminate against LGBTI couples in providing goods, services or facilities in relation to:

“(a) the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage Act 1961; or

(b) the preparation for, or celebration of, such a marriage; or

(c) the preparation for, or celebration of, events associated with such a marriage, including:

(i) an event announcing or celebrating the engagement of the parties to be married; and

(ii) an event celebrating the anniversary of the marriage.”

 

No doubt other conservative MPs and Senators will move their own amendments in the course of parliamentary debate, some perhaps more expansive, and even worse, than these.

 

They must, of course, be rejected – for exactly the same reasons that we must reject Senator Brandis’ amendment concerning civil celebrants. Because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should not be discriminated against in any area of public life. No exceptions.

 

If you agree, please take two minutes to write to Commonwealth MPs and Senators to let them know that #equalmeansequal, and that there should be ‘No compromise on equality’ (click here).

 

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One final point before I conclude. By now, I have hopefully convinced you to say ‘I don’t’ to Senator Brandis’ amendment to create religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

If that is the case, then logically you should also say ‘I don’t’ to the Smith Bill itself – because all of the above arguments can also be made against sub-section 39DD(2), which would allow existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.

 

That’s why I and others have argued passionately that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as it currently stands, does not offer genuine marriage equality. And why we should be pressuring Labor, the Greens and anyone else who claims to support LGBTI equality to amend that legislation to remove such discriminatory provisions.

 

I guess we’ll all find out in the coming fortnight how real their commitment to equality actually is.

 

George Brandis 25

Attorney-General George Brandis, who is proposing religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Interestingly, Senator Brandis is doing so even though civil celebrants themselves do no support such an amendment. As reported this week in the Sydney Morning Herald , Dorothy Harrison, the chair of the Coalition of Celebrant Associations, said: “We don’t approve of exemptions. We feel that if that’s the law of the country, then that’s what you do. We have discrimination laws and we have to live by them.”