what’s happened to the australian same-sex marriage debate?

We've held out on gay marriage for a long time now, and the recent US decision is making Australia the lame duck of the western world.

by Alan Weedon
01 July 2015, 2:15am

The stats are clear. 75 percent of Australians believe gay marriage is inevitable. There's a new political party advocating for same-sex marriage. Even political commentators walked the government through how little this would cost.

So why are we still having this conversation?

"Quite simply we have quite a lack of political leadership over the issue. The key decision makers in our country have strong religious beliefs, and on both sides of politics religious organisations are very influential with their lobbying," says Jason Tuazon-McCheyne, a founding member of Australian Marriage Equality.

It's important to keep in mind that Australia hasn't always been the first to jump the gun when it comes to adopting social change, especially when you contrast Australia with countries that have been wedded to religion for centuries. Spain—a country where you still can donate 0.7 percent of personal income tax to the Catholic Church—passed same-sex marriage in 2005. Since then, a whole number of countries have followed suit, with Ireland—another fervently Catholic nation—passing the law for the first time by popular vote earlier this year. And over the weekend, it'd be hard to miss Facebook erupting in a sea of #pride solidarity as the US Supreme Court deemed banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

"The countries that have passed it have a head of state who were willing to lead on marriage equality. Over half of them belong to conservative governments. We have a leader here who is not willing to lead the change, even though the population wants it and so do the majority of his front bench. On the other side of politics, they're not being truly left or progressive by having a conscience vote in the first place—because that implies that their party accepts that there's something wrong with having an LGBTIQ person marry their partner," Jason told i-D.

Across all western democracies, the seemingly obvious choice to reverse decades of injustice isn't as simple as it first seems. In Australia, nobody's under any illusion this debate isn't going to get bogged down in a myriad of political and wider moral critiques—a natural by-product of our democratic system. If people are entitled to express their range of views in Australia, that means people can air their seriously deluded views on homosexuality—like linking same-sex marriage to bestiality in parliament.

Australia seems to define itself against the extremities of arch American conservatism, like gun control for example, but when it comes to passing same-sex marriage, our proudly secular society seems to get its wires crossed when advocating against inevitable change.

Nowhere was this more apparent than under Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership. While it's predictable for a straight white male politician to speak against same-sex marriage in a bid to play to "family values', the secular Gillard—one who belongs to the left of her party—espoused the "traditional definition of the union".

"Julia, for whatever reason, relied on her belief system as a reason to not let it pass. In Australia, it's ridiculous that the leader's personal belief systems seem to affect a lot of things. Because she wasn't prepared to drive it, we didn't get marriage equality back then, " says Jason.

There have been short-lived moments where it feels like we're getting somewhere. In October 2013, the ACT passed the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act, marking the first successful attempt to pass same-sex marriage through an Australian state or territory legislature. People happily began getting married in December but after five short days, the Australian High Court unanimously struck down the law rendering those unions null and void.

"Polling consistently shows us that the Australian community isn't as bigoted as our parliament," says Jason.

But while the Australian same-sex marriage debate seems to be revelling in its inevitably, it's also important to keep in mind that not all queer people see this as the end-game for their relationships. Dion Kagan is a writer, researcher, and lecturer in gender and sexuality at the University of Melbourne. He told i-D that one of the primary reasons for this is because it's taken the lion's share of debate away from issues in the LGBTIQ community that are far more pressing.

"Gay marriage is one of those social equality issues that doesn't really necessitate anyone to make any material sacrifice—nobody's going to give away any of their front lawn when this gets passed," Dion told i-D.

He explained that there's much more pressing and demanding issues of marginalisation and social injustice among LGBTIQ communities—particularly when the Australian government is actively turning refugees away who might be fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation. And in a country that's quietly prosperous, Dion is quick to remind us of the privilege of our debate.

"In the US, same sex marriage has a different reception, because you have no health insurance if your same-sex relationship isn't recognised. In Australia that's not the case, so we have this debate in an extremely luxurious context, and it speaks in some ways to how affluent we are," he said.

Engaged couple James Vivian and Ben Esakoff share this sentiment. They're soon to be married in Palm Springs in California. While they don't actively campaign for change, they're grateful for how tolerant mainstream Australian society has become.

"I don't get upset about the wait for us to get married in Australia.. Ok sure, Ben and I can't get married here, but we can live openly as a gay couple: We're not having to go to jail for it, and we're not threatened with chemical castration. So what if we can't get married now?," he said.

For people like Jason Tuazon-McCheyne, and a litany of activists who are tirelessly pushing for legislative change, they too recognise the fact that gay marriage isn't going to be the LGBTIQ community's silver bullet—but that shouldn't mean that our queer peers should be denied the option.

"As the Australian Equality Party leader we went and spent a year and a half finding out everything that needs to happen for LGBTIQ people in Australian society, and there's 30 pages of policy on our site… marriage is only one paragraph. If same-sex marriage was passed, we'd simply be able to talk about LGBTIQ issues that are far more important," says Jason.


Text Alan Weedon

Gay Pride
gender equality
same-sex marriage
gay marriage