This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 25/3/2011
In April, a decade will have passed since the Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognise same-sex marriage. In the intervening period, nine other nations, including Canada, South Africa and Spain, have followed suit, and the subject is being seriously discussed at a parliamentary level in other jurisdictions.
This is happening for a reason. When no evidence exists of the alternative causing personal harm or societal damage, it is deeply problematic to maintain laws that limit human rights – particularly in secular, democratic societies, where tradition alone cannot be sufficient reason to perpetuate an oppressive status quo. And yet, in Australia, same-sex marriage remains prohibited; according to the Government, not even on the agenda.
Social change is a torturous process, and, if anything, the progress of LGBTI rights has been relatively swift. It was only in 1994 that sodomy ceased to be a legally punishable crime in Australia; 1984 that homosexuality ceased to be considered a disorder by the Australian Medical Association. Today, opinion polls generally show that 50-60% of Australia’s adult population supports same-sex marriage, a statistic that condemns the current Government’s position as not only outdated, but undemocratic.
Another, less reported fact is equally illuminating. The most recent Galaxy poll found that 80% of 18-24 year olds supported same-sex marriage, as opposed to only 46% of respondents over 50. This outcome should hardly be surprising. Young adults of today are far more familiar with homosexuality than their parents or grandparents were, and many will have openly gay acquaintances or friends. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. It is far harder to maintain ignorant and stereotypical beliefs about homosexuality when one is confronted by real, ordinary people on an everyday basis. As society breeds generations accustomed to (and thus comfortable with) the phenomenon of alternative sexuality, public opinion on issues like same-sex marriage will continue to shift. It is, more or less, an irreversible process.
If this gives same-sex marriage an aura of inevitability, it could prove counterproductive. One of the greatest challenges facing same-sex marriage is apathy, much of it coming from within the queer population. For some LGBTI people, the issue seems borderline irrelevant, whilst others seek to distance same-sex rights from what they see as an outdated, patriarchal institution. Such perspectives, much like those of Bible-waving fundamentalists, miss a crucial point: marriage is a relatively straightforward legal status that gives official recognition to couples and families. While civil partnerships can serve a similar function, they are an unsatisfactory goal. Offering civil unions as an alternative to marriage continues the insulting assumption that same-sex couples are different to heterosexual counterparts; inferior, somehow, and not quite ‘real’.
It’s an insidious implication, one that many queer people still face in everyday life. Same-sex marriage won’t put an end to homophobia, but it will strike a significant blow; after all, if same-sex relationships are granted official recognition and validity, homosexuality itself is granted further validity. This, more than anything, is what frightens the religious lobbies.
The catch-cry of those groups, that marriage must be between a man and a woman, has little logical basis. One need only look back a couple of centuries to see how radically understandings of marriage have changed in Western society. No longer is it dependent on the church or viewed as a primarily financial imperative, and nor are brides now considered chattel to be passed from father to husband. In the 21st century, marriage is a statement of love and commitment between two adults, as well as a legal status devoid of religious implication. Only sheer bloody-mindedness could deny same-sex couples that right.
Appeals to the well-being of children are similarly flawed. Whatever one may think of the necessity of male and female parent figures, the fact is that the law already grants single-parent families the right to exist, however unideal some may view that outcome to be. Given that this right is offered, it becomes rather absurd that two mothers or two fathers should be considered less viable. In any case, we live in an age of widely accessible information, flexible gender roles and ample support networks; and, as such, it’s actually quite tenuous to argue that same-sex parents would do a poorer job of raising children than heterosexuals.
Of course, these arguments merely provide further credence to an already widely supported viewpoint. The majority of Australians, it seems, are already in favour of same-sex marriage, and it is highly likely that support will continue to grow in the future. It remains up to the Government, then, to enact the will of the people and allow this important, long overdue liberty to be claimed.