Same-sex marriage: a tale of two countries

14 November 2017

By turning same-sex marriage over to a postal survey, the Australian government has done significant harm both to the LGBQTI community and to wider Australian society, writes Dr Maxine Lewis

On the 17th of April 2013, my partner and I watched New Zealand’s Parliament open up the institution of marriage. After three passes through Parliament, and multiple opportunities for public submission, New Zealand officially adopted the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013. It states that marriage “is between two people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity”. As a same-sex couple watching the process unfold on live television, we were delighted. We didn’t personally plan to marry, but knowing that our relationship could be considered equal to a heterosexual marriage, if we chose to take that step, and knowing that we were legally and socially recognised as equal, gave powerful validation to our sense of belonging in New Zealand.

I was struck in the following months and years by how the new law changed things for me, personally, socially, and psychologically. As a migrant to Auckland and as an out lesbian woman, after the marriage bill passed in 2013 I felt welcomed and accepted in Aotearoa New Zealand as I never had in my home country. I’m not naïve about queer lives in Aotearoa New Zealand; being able to get married simply doesn’t solve everything. As a volunteer with a local LGBTQI organisation, OutLine, I’ve learned about the different hardships that LGBTQI people still face. People still encounter homophobia and transphobia, especially younger people and people living in isolated areas with little of the queer community around them. Yet the civil process and aftermath of the Marriage Amendment Act 2013 sticks with me and when I doubt, it reminds me; things are getting better, here.

What a difference a ditch makes.

This year, I have watched as my native country, Australia, has taken a very different approach to deciding the rights of people in the LGBTQI community. Rather than taking the matter through the Federal parliament, the Australian coalition government decided to hold a non-binding plebiscite (at a $122 million cost to taxpayers). Eligible voters received a piece of paper asking them to answer one question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” The campaign has run since August 11. Come Wednesday morning at 10am, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will announce the results. Will people in same-sex relationships now be able to marry their partners? Or will the definition of marriage remain restricted to that outlined in 2004 by the Howard Government: that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman? The answer does matter, and I hope for a ‘Yes’ vote, but in some ways no matter what the answer is, we have gone backwards. By turning the issue over to a postal survey, the Australian government has done significant harm both to the LGBQTI community and to wider Australian society.

During the recent plebiscite campaign, I was exposed to more claims about the “dangers” and “costs” of gay marriage than I’ve seen before in my whole life – including the time I spent living in New Zealand when this country was debating whether to adopt marriage equality. On Australian social media I have seen “No” campaign material that is outright defamatory; material claiming gay people abuse children, that gay marriage leads to rape against women, and that gay marriage will change the education system. I’ve seen pictures of gay pride flags that friends had hung out on their porches, only to wake in the morning to see that they had been burned overnight. I’ve seen Facebook posts where “No” voters claim that they have stolen other peoples’ ballots.

In the mainstream media, the official “No” campaign focused on the supposed damage that gay parents do to their children by being gay (despite recent studies showing children of LGBTQI parents in fact have comparable outcomes to other children). They turned the question from one of legal rights (protecting minorities from discrimination) into a debate about families: what they look like, and what some people think they should look like. As part of this angle, the commercial and public media alike gave many religious officials a platform to expound their religious views on how gay marriage might affect the wellbeing of children. Neither the priests writing the opinion pieces nor the editors sponsoring them commented on the irony, that officials from institutions famous for covering up systemic child abuse were being treated as authorities on how to protect children and families.

The campaign has been as divisive as many people feared, and presents a stark contrast to the New Zealand experience. It is not simply that homophobia is worse in Australia (though it may be). It is that New Zealand used its parliamentary process to debate, discuss and take submissions on the proposed law. In that process, it set clear limits around what was acceptable public speech. The committee that received submissions gave people a space in which they could express their views, but with a limit placed by civility of discourse: six were returned by the Government Administration Committee because of “inappropriate comment”. In comparison, in Australia the Government turned over its responsibility to “the people”, and placed no real limits on what the people could say about one another. This catapulted unfounded, defamatory, hate-based claims into the mainstream media and the national consciousness. It is no surprise that many of Australia’s LGBTQI mental health services have reported spikes in requests for their services; knowing that people mistakenly associate you with child abusers and rapists and that your government is happy for them to publicly say so, is highly distressing.

The Australian government just gave a free pass for people to air their homophobia and transphobia in public. Do they think these views will go back in the closet now that the ballot box has closed? And what can it do to ease this situation and make LGBTQI people comfortable in their communities?

It could start by doing what it didn’t do in 2016, when Malcolm Turnbull proposed a plebiscite and LGBTQI organisations immediately registered their concerns: The government could listen to the community about how prejudice and discrimination affect us, and hear us when we tell them what change we want to see.

Dr Maxine Lewis is a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Arts.

Used with permission from NewsroomSame-sex marriage: a tale of two countries published on Tuesday 14 November 2017.