“Wait and see”: What does Australia want?

At the end of June the United States was a rainbow light-show of joy. In Australia we watched on, the majority of us envious and somewhat embarrassed we couldn’t join in.

A while back I got the chance to speak with a couple of people about marriage equality in Australia. It had been less than a week since the Irish referendum, which had pushed the Australian government into an uncomfortable spotlight.

I wanted to know what the citizens of Australia would vote if given the chance, but Bill Shorten completely stole my thunder. While I was busy compiling a list of people to talk to, Shorten announced his plan to introduce a same-sex marriage bill to parliament.

It was great news for Australia, regardless of whatever political agenda it potentially served. It was a huge step, and one we needed to take. Only the announcement, which soon became headline news, made my entire list of contacts useless. The people I had planned to interview suddenly became too busy to talk to Channel 7, let alone a student journo.

Deadline a week away, my wild goose chase ensued. Somehow the extra panic-fuelled phone calls payed off. I got the interviews I wanted, and the conversations I needed. So, I guess I should thank Bill Shorten for that one. Thanks.

I spoke with a local Pastor, someone from the Queer department at Curtin University, and an equality advocate. I asked them what they thought the future looked like for same-sex marriage in Australia.

Using the words ‘future’ and ‘Australia’ in the same sentence worried me. I worried I was too optimistic, or too pessimistic. I worried about the decisions of politicians, and the unruffled nature of the public. That is why, initially, I didn’t trust the government alone to come to a decision. I wanted to ask what the public thought about same-sex marriage. Then I got even more nervous, because I wasn’t sure I trusted the public either.

Turns out, I have trust issues.

According to masses of surveys and polls over the past half a decade, the Australian public would vote yes. The most recent survey suggested seventy-two per cent of the public support legalisation of same-sex marriage. So that’s that, right? Let’s make like the Irish, do a referendum, and get this show on the road.

Well, not exactly.

I spoke to Damian Douglas-Meyer, an equality advocate and someone who knows firsthand what it’s like living under Australia’s current marriage laws. He married his husband in Toronto, Canada in 2004 – the same year John Howard changed the marriage act to explicitly exclude same-sex couples.

Damian told me a referendum would be unsuitable and costly.

“We don’t have any constitutional issues with same-sex marriage,” he said.

“All it needs is an act of parliament.”

An act of parliament over seventy per cent of Australians have been waiting for… according to independent surveys – in reality, it could be less or it could be more. However chances are it would still be a majority.

“There’s been a real ground swell in both the LGBTI community, but also in the general public, basically saying that same-sex marriages time has come,” Mr Douglas-Meyer said.

“So the parliament, in that respect, is actually lagging behind public opinion.”

Pastor Steve Izett of South Perth Baptist Church agreed the public were more accepting of same-sex marriage than the government.

“Public opinion is certainly way ahead and much more pro-equality of marriage,” he said.

“I happen to hold a view, personally, that I don’t think it’s worth fighting.”

Pastor Izett, by the way, was clear in expressing to me that his views were his own, and not necessarily a reflection of the church.

“Any group of people has a set of beliefs, and within that there is a range,” he said.

“I live to try and take care of people.”

He said the church would continue to fulfil the supportive role it played in the community, regardless of individual opinion.

I think the Australian government could learn from this example.

The government’s role within the community is to represent the public, yes? However it seems individual beliefs are getting in the way.

In the House of Representatives sixty-five seats are in support of marriage equality, while eighty-five are either in opposition or undecided. The undecided seats, funnily enough, will decide the majority.

This means only about forty-three per cent of those in the House of Representatives are so far in support of same-sex marriage. Compare that to the apparent seventy-two per cent support from the public, and the name ‘House of Representatives’ starts to sound a little ironic.

But this isn’t simply a political issue.

According to Beyond Blue LGBTQI people have the highest rates of mental health issues in Australia. While there are many factors contributing to these statistics, it’s important to acknowledge the effect an inability to legally marry may have.

When I spoke to Ray Jabenero, Queer Department officer at Curtin University, he told me the importance of acknowledging LGBTQI issues, and how they can be exacerbated by marriage inequality.

“It’s not going to change inequality,” he said.

“Those issues won’t go away, but at the same time it’s a step further to improving LGBTQI individual’s status in the community.

“It’s important to individuals because it shows LGBTQI people that everyone is accepted, their partnerships and their bonds are existing and relevant.”

The move towards legalising same-sex marriage is not just a politically driven one. It has been a very real, very emotional battle for many, and one that is unfortunately not over for a lot of Australians.

The Supreme Court said it best:

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfilment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Damian Douglas-Meyer and his partner have been married for over a decade, yet Australia does not legally acknowledge their union.

I asked Damian whether he believed there was a possibility same-sex marriage could be legalised within the year.

“It would be nice to actually have a bit of a Christmas present and have our marriage recognised by the end of the year…But we shall wait and see,” he said.

The importance of marriage equality to the LGBTQI community is huge, and though legalisation isn’t the magic remedy to prejudice, it’s essential to proving we as a country won’t stand for it.

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