10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #3: Because it makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience

Weddings are supposed to be joyous occasions, a celebration of two people coming together to express their love and commitment to each other in front of their family members and friends. If ever an event was meant to provoke happiness – pure, unambiguous happiness – surely a wedding would be it.

But, when I go to weddings I cannot help but find them to be bittersweet. The joy of the ceremony, and my happiness for the couple involved, is tempered by sadness at the knowledge that I, and the man who I love, currently cannot participate in the exact same ritual, solely because of our sexual orientation.

Obviously, the main source of this frustration is the legislative ban on marriage equality, introduced by the Howard Liberal-National Government in 2004 (an event which itself celebrates its ‘tin’ anniversary next week), and perpetuated by his successors including Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

However, this hurt and anger is compounded by the section of the wedding ceremony where the celebrant is compelled to read out the following:

“I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law. Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter.

Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” (emphasis added).

Talk about rubbing salt into the wound. Section 46(1) of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) makes it clear that these words must be read out by the celebrant (although, bizarrely enough, only by civil celebrants – ministers of religion for a recognised denomination are exempted from this requirement).

The Guidelines on the Marriage Act 1961 for Marriage Celebrants also confirm that, while there is some scope to make minor variations to the first two sentences above, there is no scope to change the third. Specifically:

• “do not replace ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with ‘people’ or ‘persons’. This could signify the marriage of two people of the same sex which is specifically excluded by the definition.

• do not change the first part of the sentence to read: “Marriage as most of us understand it is…” (from page 75 of the Guidelines).

It is appalling that there is this level of government interference into something so personal, on what is supposed to be a special, some might say unique, day for the couple involved (and especially galling that it is supported by Australian conservatives who like to proclaim their support for ‘small government’).

It is even more appalling that LGBTI Australians, and indeed all people who support equality irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, must sit through this recitation each and every time they simply wish to attend the wedding of their family members or friends.

I must admit that, at the last few weddings I have been to, this recitation, together with the fact that – more than four years into Steve and my engagement – there is still so little sign we will be able to marry in our own country any time soon, really got me down.

At one of these receptions, I recall looking up at my fiancé and, from the expression on his face, seeing that he felt exactly the same way at exactly the same moment. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse – to feel comfort in the fact that someone so close shares that burden with you, or to feel anger that the government makes the person who you care about most in the world experience pain. Actually, that’s not true, it’s definitely the latter.

And I’m sure that we’re not the only LGBTI-inclusive couple, or LGBTI individuals, who experience these emotions at weddings, who are hurt by the continuing rejection of our own love as equal, and who resent, bitterly at times, that the ban on marriage equality has transformed joyous occasions into bittersweet affairs.

This is not to say the ban doesn’t affect cisgender heterosexual people too, it does. It has become increasingly common for couples who are getting married and who value their LGBTI family members and friends, or who simply reject the discrimination against LGBTI relationships contained in the Marriage Act 1961, to either say themselves, or have their celebrant say, that they support the right of all couples to marry.

In fact, this ‘disclaimer’, usually read out before the abhorrent words of section 46(1), has become so commonplace that it has almost become modern wedding etiquette itself.

And it is truly lovely that so many people have chosen to do so. On a day that is marked by symbolism, expressing their disagreement with the prejudice of Australia’s marriage laws is an important symbolic gesture, and one that does make things that little bit easier (for this LGBTI Australian at least).

But, let’s face it, they shouldn’t have to. On their wedding day, cisgender heterosexual couples shouldn’t have to be making capital ‘P’ political statements, simply because successive Australian Governments have been homophobic in determining who can, and cannot, marry. After all, there is enough small ‘p’ politics at weddings – who is in the wedding party, who is invited/not invited, who sits where – already.

Of course, the only way to fix this is for Australia to finally catch up to the progressive world by introducing domestic marriage equality, thereby allowing couples like Steve and me to get married, and cisgender heterosexual couples to go back to arguing about what song should be the wedding waltz (come to think of it, with our music tastes I’m pretty sure Steve and I might ‘disagree’ about that too).

Until then, the fact that the ban on marriage equality makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience is definitely one of the things that I hate most about marriage inequality.

Denying Marriage Equality is Theft

Next week, the High Court will hear the Commonwealth’s application for the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws to be overturned. Arguments will focus primarily on whether the 2004 amendments to the Commonwealth Marriage Act ‘cover the field’ in terms of legislating under sub-section51(xxi) of the Constitution, or whether the amendments have instead left the door open for State and Territory Governments to establish a new category of marriage, namely same-sex marriage.

But perhaps the Court should also consider sub-section 51(xxxi), which gives the Commonwealth Parliament power for “the acquisition of property on just terms from any State or person for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has the power to make laws.” Maybe our High Court Justices should ask whether laws which take away the right of LGBTI couples to get married are tantamount to theft.

Allow me to explain. The most direct way in which the marriage equality ban takes money from LGBTI couples is that, currently, it forces couples overseas in order for their marriage to have any legal standing at the time of the ceremony. The couple obviously incurs significantly higher costs than for a domestic wedding. Even if the ACT laws are allowed to stand, for Australian couples who wish to have a ceremony with legal standing, however briefly, the vast majority will need to hold their wedding a long distance from home.

With recent estimates of the average cost of weddings being in the vicinity of $35,000, or even $54,000, it is grossly unjust to force some couples to pay even more, merely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Compounding this, a system which forces LGBTI couples to travel, either interstate or overseas, to get married reinforces a financial threshold on which couples can tie the knot, with only the well-off able to do so. Someone’s class should never determine whether they can access a legal institution like marriage.

The next theft comes when the couple returns home – at customs, they are summarily, and completely without justification, stripped of their state of being married. Something which means so much to the couple – enough for them to travel to undertake it – is confiscated, without any compensation. Surely an argument could be mounted that this amounts to “the acquisition of property on [un]just terms”?

Something else which is stolen from LGBTI couples is the ability to celebrate their wedding with their desired guests. This happens in two ways. For those who choose to travel to get married, many of their family and friends will be unable to attend the ceremony due to cost, or the need to take extended time off work. For other couples, like my fiancé Steve and myself, who instead choose to wait until they can legally wed in Australia, the passage of time will have the same effect.

In our case, we both have elderly grandmothers who we love dearly and who we would love to have at our nuptials. That would have been possible when we first got engaged, at the start of 2010, although, sadly, my grandmother is probably now too frail to travel to our wedding, even in Australia. By the time marriage equality is eventually passed, I fear the same will be the case for Steve’s grandmother – and he will be devastated by that.

The ability to celebrate our wedding with the people who matter most to us has been ripped from our grasp by the Commonwealth Parliament. We, and other couples like us, feel it acutely. As an aside, perhaps so-called ‘family values’ campaigners should consider how they would react to government intervention on their wedding guest list – because that is what has been imposed on us.

The theft which is a consequence of the ban on marriage equality will not even stop whenever a Bill is finally passed – it will keep on stealing from us into the future. Explaining this ‘future theft’ is what eventually helped my rural, LNP-voting conservative parents understand why I feel so passionately about this issue.

Earlier this year, they had their 40th wedding anniversary. Which is something worthy of celebration – and so they did. Because these things, anniversaries, matter. One day, Steve and I hope to do likewise. Except that, the longer the ban on our marriage lasts, the less likely we will both be alive in order to celebrate a 50th, or even 40th, wedding anniversary. Even after the ban is eventually lifted, it will still be lifting precious things from our pockets.

Of course, what is being stolen from us is likely too intangible to be considered by the High Court under sub-section51(xxxi). But this theft is exactly what should be reflected upon by any Parliamentarian who is considering voting against the right of LGBTI couples to get married.

What makes the current ban ever harder to stomach is that, everyone, from Tony Abbott down, knows that marriage equality is inevitable. Which makes the ongoing refusal of our MPs to pass it seem extremely petty. Especially when what they are stealing from us, both now and in the future, is something grand.