I have been giving a great deal of thought to the forthcoming postal survey – not to the pros and cons of the survey itself but to the question the survey is asking. Should Australian law be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry? For me this question is both universal and personal: to deny same-sex couples the legal rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples offends my sense of justice, but also, a couple of years ago, one of my children came out. Unfortunately it seems that a polite exchange of views between the opposing parties is no longer possible. It saddens me that there appears to be nothing that my LGBTI friends or I could say that would make a difference, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Much has made been made of religious objections to same-sex marriage, but like most things, it isn’t black and white. While some Church leaders and the Christian lobby have come out strongly against allowing same-sex marriage in defence of religious freedom, opinion amongst people of faith is as diverse as the community itself. I have Christian friends who support same-sex marriage, or who don’t support same-sex marriage but would not dream of imposing their will on others.  Then there is the still significant number of people of faith who believe that same-sex marriage supporters should not seek to impose their will on those who genuinely object on religious grounds, and yet others that feel too intimidated by the institutional hierarchy to question established doctrine. Of course, the point is that religious freedoms are currently protected through exemptions within the Sex Discrimination Act, and there appears to be no overwhelming desire or will within the broader Australian community to change this.

Social conservatives and religious groups have sought to claim marriage as an institution purely for themselves, subject to all the usual caveats of its being between a man and a woman. Yet data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that civil celebrants have overseen the majority of marriages since 1999. Indeed, in 2015 the proportion of marriage ceremonies conducted by a civil celebrant increased to three-quarters of all marriages[1]. So marriage is arguably no longer a peculiarly religious institution, although it still holds a central place in religious doctrine. The concerns of those objecting to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, however, could be accommodated easily enough by allowing ministers of religion and religious marriage celebrants the discretion to choose not to marry same-sex couples. I understand that a Senate Select Committee has already investigated this as a possible solution and observed considerable consensus among stakeholders for such an exemption.[2]

Another objection put forward by opponents of marriage equality is that legalising same-sex marriage will infringe the rights of children by denying them a mother and a father. This argument ignores the fact that same-sex couples are already permitted to have children, whether those children are from previous relationships or born to LGBT parents. Changing the marriage law will have no effect on the numbers of children raised in same-sex families. Furthermore, statements that children are better off with a mother and a father are not supported by evidence. A 2013 Australian study which reviewed Australian and international literature on same-sex parented families, found that “Children in such families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers from heterosexual couple families.”[3]

History is littered with examples of child welfare arguments being used to denigrate non-traditional family structures. When I was born, for instance, single mothers were frowned upon by the broader community, and many unwed mothers had their children forcibly adopted under the guise of protecting the rights of the child.  A 2012 Senate inquiry into forced adoptions reported that societal attitudes during the 1950s and 1960s towards adoptions indicated a general intolerance of individuals and families (especially young single mothers and impoverished families) who did not fit the idealised family unit. This family unit was often defined as having two white parents – male and female – with a secure income and the wherewithal to take on the role of father and mother.[4]

During the 1960s most children made available for adoption were the children of unmarried mothers. A harshly punitive atmosphere surrounded her, in contrast to the social approval adoptive parents were more likely to gain. They were generally seen to be acting in an altruistic or charitable way in taking on a child often seen as flawed in some intrinsic way by the ‘irregular’ nature of its conception and birth.”[5]

In contrast, when my mother was born, institutionalisation of vulnerable children was the preferred approach to protecting children and the community. Forced institutionalisation was particularly common for disabled or mixed-race indigenous children, even though they may have been born into loving extended families. Those children were often incarcerated in facilities run by various religious, charitable and state-based organisations. Rather than receiving protection, however, many children were subjected to institutional abuse and neglect, which has caused significant inter-generational trauma.

The post war period was an era in which the institutionalisation of children in orphanages, foster care and adopted families was believed to benefit both the children and the community in which they lived…Should a mother fall outside of the norm because of poverty, skin colour or single parenthood, then society saw her as unfit and her children as neglected. She was not helped to keep them [her children] nor indeed was it believed that the members of her extended family were appropriate carers.”[6]

In the 1940s, without a social safety net, choices were limited for a disabled woman such as my grandmother who fled an abusive marriage and wanted desperately to keep her children. The solution for such women was often to find another, equally unacceptable, male provider. It is very difficult to see how ‘traditional values’ benefit a child in that situation. The current no case argument for same-sex marriage seems eerily familiar. What rational and caring person would object to protecting the rights of the child? But what the LGBTI community hears is this: unnatural, perverted, inferior and therefore unfit to be parents. It is bigotry and prejudice dressed up as altruism.

Another prominent argument for the no case is that allowing same-sex marriage will open the door for the marriage law to be amended further in the future to include other non-traditional relationships. For example, polygamous relationships are very much in the news. It is conceivable that sometime in the future, there may be calls by some sections of the community to amend the marriage law to allow polygamous marriage. After all, it is not an offence for a person to be involved in multiple de facto relationships at the same time.[7] However, as with all legislative change, any proposal for unofficial (de facto) polygamous marriages to be recognised would need to be considered by the Australian Parliament, with all that entails. As for deviance, I don’t think anyone on the no campaign is seriously suggesting that allowing same-sex couples to marry would lead to calls for sexual relationships involving children or animals to be legalised and legitimised through marriage. Sexual relationships involving animals and children are criminal offences under Australian law. If anyone is making such absurd claims – it sounds like something you might hear from an extreme homophobe on talkback radio – it is purely to scare more gullible sections of the population who are already unsure about the possible change.

Usually I wouldn’t bat an eye if someone outside my family announced that he or she was gay or lesbian, but when my child came out, I confess I had very mixed feelings. After all, it wasn’t so long ago in this country that poofter bashing was a national pastime, both metaphorically and literally. I suppose, too, that I wondered whether my child’s sexual orientation somehow reflected badly on my own sexuality, even though I felt ashamed that such a thought had crossed my mind, however fleetingly. When I was a girl, ‘poof’, ‘fag’, lezzo’, ‘dyke’, as well as a grab bag of other taunts directed at people’s race, physical appearance and mental capacity, were common in the playground. School is all about fitting in. The schoolyard is still a pretty tough place for kids who identify as LGBTI. Whether it’s homophobia or just plain bullying, such taunts very often leave a lasting scar on the psyche, and not just of LGBTI people. I quickly consigned my initial reaction to the don’t-be-an idiot basket. I’ve reached an age where I don’t care what others think of me but I do care that people in the LGBTI community should not be discriminated against. That is what I truly believe. To say that supporters of the yes case are just being politically correct is insulting to me and the majority of Australians who share my view.

Nevertheless, about 35% of the Australian population thinks same-sex relationships are immoral, although they may not actively discriminate against people in the LGBTI community[8]. We are a country made up of many tribes. If you live in a rural area, are from a lower socio-economic background, lack a tertiary education, are over 50 years old or are religious, then you are more likely to be homophobic or to socialise with people who are homophobic. Men are also likely to be far more homophobic than women within each of those categories. Analysis of a 2004 Roy Morgan research survey by the Australia Institute found that about 25% of men with no religion perceived same-sex relationships to be immoral compared to just over 10 per cent of women[9]. The same research indicates that the highest rates (over 60%) of people who consider homosexuality to be immoral are found in the Baptist and other evangelical churches and in men over 65 years of age. Surprisingly, of all the religions, Catholics (despite Church rhetoric) were the least likely to consider homosexuality immoral. So these objections are more than just issues of religious sensibilities or even traditional values.

Ultimately, only the Australian Parliament can change the marriage law. No one likes to be abused, and abuse wins no arguments. So when the vote comes to the Parliament, as inevitably it will, let us hope and pray that the debate will be conducted with respect, equanimity and compassion, and that it will be carried in favour of the marriage law being amended to allow marriage equality. It is estimated that at least 10 per cent of the Australian population make up the LGBTI community.[10]  Let us no longer treat these ordinary Australians as second-class citizens. That is not political correctness; it’s justice. Provided that genuine objections on religious grounds can be accommodated (and they certainly can be), should not all Australian citizens be equal under the law?

Sometimes in history one oppressed group comes to the aid of another. The lesson of the success of the same-sex marriage campaign in Ireland is that it was women who were instrumental in influencing and winning the marriage equality campaign. And so too will they be in Australia. Research on same-sex relationships unequivocally shows that Australian women are more tolerant of same-sex couples than men. My quick dip into the history of conscience votes in the Australian federal parliament indicates that women are far less socially conservative than their male counterparts across all parties, although women from more reactionary parties such as the Nationals are more conservative than their female counterparts in more progressive parties.[11]  It is a shame that women make up only 32% of our parliament. So if you support same-sex marriage, get out there and lobby parliamentarians, especially the women.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3310.0 – Marriage and Divorces in Australia 2015, issued November 2016

[2] Report on the Exposure Draft of the Commonwealth Government’s Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, 15 February 2017

[3] Deborah Dempsey, Same-sex parented families in Australia, Child Family Community Australia, Paper No. 18, December 2013

[4] [4]Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices, 29 February 2012

[5] K. Inglis, Living Mistakes: Mothers Who Consented to Adoption, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, p. 4

[6] C. Jones, ‘Adoption—a study of post-war child removal in New South Wales’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 86, No. 1, 2000, p. 5.

[7] Michael Klapdor, Polygamy, multiple relationships and welfare, Parliamentary Library Flagpost, 2016

[8] Michael Flood and Clive Hamilton, Mapping Homophobia in Australia, Australia Institute Webpaper, 2005

[9] Ibid.

[10] Department of Health, National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, Australian Government, 2012, p 4.

[11] Deidre McKeown and Rob Lundie, Conscience votes during the Howard Government 1996-2007, Research Paper No. 20, Politics and Public Administration Section, Parliamentary Library, 2009.

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