Marriage equality in Australia: freedom and fear

7 November 2017 | Holly Porteous

Resolution:Possible’s intern Holly Porteous has a background in Political History and is interested in public advocacy and effective government. She moved to Melbourne in September 2017 and has been following the events of the same-sex marriage referendum and how it is being received by wider society.

‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’

YES          NO

A decade after polls suggested majority support for same-sex unions, 7th November 2017 will be the last day for Australians to voice their opinions on whether marriage equality should become law, with results being released the following week.

The race has been long, complex and wide-ranging. Alongside a wealth of Hollywood names- Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Hugh Jackman, Kylie Minogue and Margot Robbie to name a few, both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten support a change in marriage legislation. Former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott, John Howard and the Australian Conservative party are opposed.

It was 16 years ago that the first gay marriage was celebrated in Amsterdam, and since then, 24 countries around the world have followed in recognising same-sex marriage under law.

As a Londoner who recently moved to Melbourne, the expectation to be able to marry who you love seems almost part and parcel to life in a modern Western democracy. The fairytale wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton formally cracked the strict notion of celibacy before marriage, and couples now live together for long periods before tying the knot. Although opposed to same-sex unions, even Pope Francis has proposed the establishment of an ‘internal forum’ to allow divorcees to be re-accepted in the Catholic church and receive communion. In short, Western marriage is changing.

The debate about Gay and Lesbian marriage therefore seems strangely out of place in the land of surfers, smashed avocado and $5 cappuccinos. Australia has the second highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the world and the highest minimum wage. Yet this is the only country within the top 10 for HDI that sees marriage as strictly between a man and woman.

Sure, polls suggest a victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign. But why has Australia, a nation historically based on the ideal of freedom, been so hesitant to extend equal marriage rights to all of its citizens? What is the nature of the discussion underway?

Religious Freedom

Key figures of the No campaign have raised the issue of religious freedom as the reason for their opposition to same-sex marriage. The National Catholic Education Commission claimed they were unsure if catholic schools could continue teaching a catholic view of marriage if same-sex marriage was legalised.

Former Prime Minister John Howard equally requested that the government explicitly detail religious freedom provisions to be included in the legislation. At present, religious institutions have the right not to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Although some religious organisations support same-sex marriage, in general, the majority are opposed.

Freedom of Speech

Remember the EU referendum? Remember Macron vs Le Pen? Remember Hillary vs Trump? Remember almost any public debate ever? It got personal.

The No campaign are not just concerned that religious freedoms are at stake, but that they themselves will be branded as haters, backward, or intolerant if they express their views.

Opposed to same-sex marriage, the Australian Conservatives’ campaign website ‘It’s O.K. to Vote No’ highlights what they see as an attempt at personal denigration from liberals of the Yes campaign. “Tens of thousands of principled Australians who value freedom of speech and traditional marriage are proudly announcing they are voting No in the upcoming postal survey” they assure (from the ‘It’s O.K. to vote No’ website by the Australian Conservatives). In emphasising the “principled” nature of Australians opposed to legislative change, they are objecting not only the political division opened up by the debate, but the defamation of political right by the political Left (think Hillary’s ‘basket of deplorables’ comment).

In this way, an interesting aspect of the debate has opened up, removed from the issue of same-sex marriage itself. As majority public opinion has largely turned in favour of marriage equality over the years, this is an issue of tradition and change, tolerance and intolerance – with the line between tolerance and intolerance in the political right and left often difficult to pin down.

Freedom from Indoctrination

A further undercurrent to the No campaign has been concern about the teaching of radical gender theory in school curriculums. The Safe Schools agenda – an optional commitment for schools to ‘create an inclusive and safe environment for their community’ through the teaching of ‘evidence-based and age-appropriate material’ -claims merely to support LGBTI staff, students and their families and prevent bully arising from homophobia and transphobia.

Yet advertisements released by the Coalition for Marriage feature the ‘Gender Fairy’, which calls on children to question their own sexuality. The Australian Conservatives equally fear the development of sex education classes teaching gay sex, claiming that 4-year olds are taught about gay sex in Canada, where same-sex marriage is legal.

What if this is actually a ‘radical Marxist-inspired LBGTQI agenda’? According to Dr Kevin Donnelly of the Australian Catholic University, this “brave new world [where] anyone can identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex”, same-sex marriage will “restrict and punish those who believe gender is binary”, warning that anyone “committed to the traditional view of marriage is especially at risk”. 

campaign video by the Australian Conservatives similarly transforms the question of marriage equality into one of an ‘LGBTQI agenda’. In it, the narrator cites a total of two non- Australian cases where gay and lesbian activists called for ‘indoctrination’ of children.

As is evident from the full transcripts, the context of the quotes is a little more revealing:

Daniel Villarreal: “We want educators to teach future generations of children to accept queer sexuality. In fact, our very future depends on it.”

S.Ber Bergman: “I have been on a consistent campaign of trying to change people’s minds about us. I want to make them like us. That is absolutely my goal.”

Clearly this is not a case of encouraging children to question their sex, nor is it an underground coup of homosexuals complicit on indoctrinating those of Bondi beach or the Australian outback. The question is one of support or non-support for homosexual marriage, a simple yes or no.

There is much to learn from the Australian same-sex marriage referendum. As the case closes, my abiding thought is the importance of basing your opinion on the facts, not fears or future potential realties. But even more- valuing, not judging, people’s opinions.

If you have an opinion, you’ve probably done some thinking to get there. 

Obama recently told a group of supporters in Richmond, Virginia, “If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you’re not going to be able to govern them. You won’t be able to unite them later if that’s how you start”. The same is true for the liberal-conservative debate in Australia. When public discussions slip into being about the voters, not the issue at hand, the door is open for campaigns to be about any manner of fears others than the question at hand.

It may be clear that I am a supporter of marriage equality. But the time has passed. The boxes have been ticked and the surveys are in. I myself am confident that gay and lesbian Australians will join the 760 million people around the world living in countries where homosexual unions are recognised alongside heterosexual unions, enjoying the same freedoms that they enjoy at home in Britain, or indeed in France or Portugal or Taiwan or South Africa.

As PM Malcolm Turnbull admitted, the postal survey is a ‘big leap into what I think is the dark’. But history judges well leaps into the dark. Let’s hope that when results are released next Wednesday, Australia becomes a society of more freedom, confidence and unity and matures from the hurdles individuals and organisations will have before them.

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