How marriage equality will unlock a better future for Australia
You would think after a two month postal survey there is nothing left to say about marriage equality. But in my view we haven’t even begun to talk about what it will really mean for Australia to allow same-sex couples to marry. The imperative of winning a popular vote meant the national Yes campaign avoided challenging old prejudices or triggering controversy of any kind. In the face of dire predictions from the No camp about the end of civilisation as we know it, the Yes campaign made marriage equality the smallest possible target, asserting that nothing will change except that same-sex couples will be able to marry. I was never comfortable with this approach and now I feel free to say why.
The grain of truth at the centre of the No campaign’s many myths and distortions is that marriage equality will profoundly transform Australia. But that transformation will be for the better. The marriage equality debate is thirteen years old, and has been shaped by successive governments, most major national institutions and the contributions of millions of Australians who support and oppose the reform. As a result, marriage equality has acquired a meaning greater than itself.
It is no longer just about allowing same-sex couples to walk down the aisle, as important as that is. It has become the stage upon which the nation is playing out all its tensions, frustrations and divisions. It has become a metaphor for an Australia that is more open to the world, more inclusive of those who are different and more equal in the opportunities it allows its citizens.
Allowing same-sex couples to marry will confirm once and for all that marriage is now something very different, more democratic and much better.
Future generations will look back on the current postal survey in the same way we look back on the referendum on Indigenous rights in 1967. Although the question was a narrow one about whether Aborigines should be counted in the Census, we think of it as a pivot upon which Australian history swung. The achievement of marriage equality will be the same. Let me give you some concrete examples of what I believe will be the wider ramifications of marriage equality.
Marriage equality will renovate and restore the institution of marriage.
Since the twentieth century battles over contraception, no fault divorce, rape in marriage, and rights for de facto couples, marriage has been a cultural battle field. Some people want to return marriage to a mythical time when, according to God’s ordinance, husbands and fathers ruled over their households, married women put their families before their own fulfilment, and divorce was unacceptable because marriage wasn’t about love, it was about respectability, property and procreation. Allowing same-sex couples to marry will confirm once and for all that marriage is now something very different, more democratic and much better. It will be the union of two people who are equals, who freely of their own volition choose if, when and how to marry, who define for themselves what their marriage means, and who publicly commit to each other for no greater reason, because there is no greater reason, than they love one another. Like most Australians, especially younger ones, I believe love, commitment and willing self-sacrifice are what make a marriage. I believe what I have with my partner is more a marriage than the compulsory, loveless, sexist, cultural straightjacket No campaigners call marriage. Marriage equality will finally and conclusively confirm this, thereby giving the institution a renewed lease of life and greater relevance to coming generations.
Another very specific impact of marriage equality will be to give the movement for a charter of human rights greater urgency and purchase. Australia’s lateness to marriage equality is due in large part to the fact we are the only western country without national protections for human rights including the right to equality. Such protections have been crucial to achieving marriage equality from Canada and the US, through Mexico and Brasil, to South Africa and Taiwan. Adding to the argument for a human rights charter is Parliament’s decision to abdicate its responsibility by having a public vote on marriage equality.
The postal survey is an admission by Parliament that it’s not up to the job of making hard decisions about intractable human rights issues, that it isn’t supreme and that a superior adjudicator is sometimes required. Obviously, the postal survey with its many flaws is not the answer to Parliament’s self-confessed failure. That answer is a charter of human rights that gives courts the power to rule on human rights abuses. The postal survey also highlights the need for human rights protections in another, quite unexpected way.
The No case has lost the argument against same-sex couples marrying so it has tried to stir up fears about marriage equality infringing freedom of religion and freedom of speech, even though this is no evidence of this from overseas. The shard of truth in this otherwise baseless fear campaign is that freedom and religion and speech are not properly protected in Australia. As the recent High Court decision against Tasmania’s draconian protest laws reminded us, free speech is at best ‘implied’ in the Constitution. The No campaign has failed to mount an effective case against marriage equality, but it has run a strong case for a national charter of rights.
Now let’s turn to the way Australia is governed and what influence we as ordinary citizens have over it. Successive Australian prime ministers have failed miserably in dealing with marriage equality. They have been wildly out of touch with popular opinion, they have shown no leadership, they have been in hock to the minority religious and authoritarian caucuses in their respective parties. Again, this contrasts with those countries that have achieved marriage equality through legislation where leadership by heads of government, on the left and right, has been critical.
Achieving marriage equality will improve how we are governed in several ways. The campaign has already exposed how out of touch our politicians are, and how self-referential they have become. Our national Parliament is the Palace of Versailles without the fancy chandeliers. In response, millions of Australians have chosen to engage with the marriage equality campaign, through letter writing, lobbying, marching and finally voting.
We did this in order to prod our politicians into action. Our collective message is, if you won’t do what’s right, we will force you to. When this grassroots, from-the-ground-up campaign, achieves its goal it will send the clearest signal possible that politicians cannot evade their responsibility to the community. Marriage equality will demonstrate to everyday Australians that positive change is possible and that we can be instrumental in creating that change. It will be a much-needed reminder that our destiny as a nation is in the hands of its people, not its politicians.
No less important, when we achieve marriage equality it will be because we have successfully challenged the disproportionate power of religious dogmatists and anti-democratic authoritarians in our political system. Here I’m talking about people who have concocted a life and death culture war out of marriage equality. In their eyes the idea that our gender doesn’t determine our rights or identity is some kind of radical global left wing conspiracy against western civilisation. For them the postal survey is not the 1967 Aboriginal referendum but the 1951 referendum about banning the Communist Party.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe a healthy democracy should represent all views. But those who have a sentimental attachment to an Australia that never was control the levers of power to a far greater extent than their support in the electorate warrants. Achieving marriage equality will expose their Henny Penny fear campaigns as just so much hot air. It will affirm that what lies in our heart is more important than what is between our legs. It will say the future is not something to run from. It will confirm that moral improvement and social progress are possible and desirable, not just on LGBTI issues but on every issue. It will be an antidote to the poisonous pessimism of our age.
the lgbti community
Given how long marriage equality has taken, few Australians have more reason for pessimism than LGBTI people. But my message is to take hope. Marriage equality promises a profound transformation in our lives. The very worst stereotypes of LGBTI people take refuge in the Marriage Act as it stands. When LGBTI people are explicitly excluded from an institution that defines love, commitment and family, the message is that we not only can never experience these things, but that we are somehow a threat to them. You cannot under-estimate the profound damage this causes, and in equal measure the healing that will come from marriage equality.
More than this, I believe marriage equality will help dig out the deeply-rooted historical weeds of fear, loathing and violence towards LGBTI people. In The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes argued that the rhetoric of the nineteenth century movement against convict transportation – rhetoric that focused obsessively on the link between convictism and unnatural vice – infected Australian national identity with homophobia. I believe this to be true because of my experience in Tasmania where the struggles for gay equality and against the shadow of convictism have lasted longest, been most difficult, and have been linked by the same deep anxiety about losing our veneer of respectability. In Tasmania the cure for all these old fears, phobias and anxieties was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1997. That reform and the debate that led up to it did more than anything else to help our island come to terms with its anti-gay history and move on from hate. Marriage equality will do the same for the nation as a whole.
It is no longer just about equality or inclusion, as important as they are. It is also now about belonging. Belonging is a very radical idea.
After so many heartfelt personal conversations, so much support from community and business leaders, after so many rainbow flags hoisted high, how could Australia be anything but a much better place. My prediction is that, like Tasmania before it, the nation will quickly go from worst to best on LGBTI equality. The rubber band of public policy has been stretched so far in one direction, it will soon shoot all the way in the other. Marriage equality will be what releases it. As well as changing how LGBTI people are viewed by others, marriage equality will change how we see ourselves.
Over the last few years I have noticed a small but profound change in the way LGBTI people talk about marriage equality. It is no longer just about equality or inclusion, as important as they are. It is also now about belonging. Belonging is a very radical idea. While equality can be recognised and inclusion can be granted, belonging can only ever be negotiated between those who feel they own an identity and those who feel dispossessed of that identity. That negotiation is almost always difficult and painful, and it changes everyone involved in unpredictable ways, but if it succeeds we become truly, fully the people we were meant to be. Just as marriage equality is a metaphor for positive political and social change across the community, so it has become a metaphor in the eyes of many LGBTI people for our desire to truly belong in the families, faiths, communities of place and communities of interest that have shaped who we are. The cruel god called Prejudice has cast LGBTI people far from where we belong, and now, with marriage equality lighting our way, we are finally walking the long road home
turning power into love
In all the long years I have advocated for marriage equality I have shared the stage with many people who have talked about its benefits. But in all these millions or words, one sentence stands out. It was spoken, and you may not expect this, by an Anglican minister in Toowoomba. It says everything I have been trying to say this evening:
When we have marriage equality, it will be one more healing release from clinging to privileges, one more letting go of prejudices, one more turning of power into love.
But this noble idea, this turning of power into love, will only occur if marriage equality is true equality. Already, opponents of marriage equality are erecting the next hurdle to it.
As Australia votes Yes, they intend to punch holes in Australia’s anti-discrimination laws that will allow married same-sex partners to be discriminated against, to be refused service by businesses, to be sacked from their jobs, to have their marital status ignored, to be openly vilified. Following their counterparts in the United States, Australia’s radical right will seek to dignify their campaign to perpetuate discrimination by saying they are protecting religious freedom and freedom of speech. But what they are really about is maintaining privilege, their own legal privilege to judge the worthy from the unworthy. I have not given over a decade of my life to marriage equality to see it compromised in this way.
If surveys in the LGBTI community are anything to go by, LGBTI Australians overwhelmingly agree. We will resist any caveats and carve outs that perpetuate discrimination, even if that means we have to wait a little longer for the reform we hold dear. I’m heartened to see polls released just this week show an emphatic majority of Australians agree any amendment to the Marriage Act should treat all couples equally. If marriage equality is to transform our nation for the better, in the ways I have described tonight, be assured many Australians gay and straight will fight as hard as ever to ensure it is true marriage equality, and not some nasty travesty. Those who come after us deserve nothing less of us.
Rodney Croome AM wrote this contribution for his 2017 Sally Duncanson Memorial Lecture at the University of Tasmania, which he delivered in November 2017. Rodney Croome is a long-time advocate for the equal rights of LGBTI people. In particular he led the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania and has been at the forefront of the marriage equality debate. He has been honoured for his work by being named as a Member of the Order of Australia and Tasmanian Australian of the Year in 2015.