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Same-sex unions: there’s more than one choice

By John de Meyrick - posted Thursday, 9 July 2015

Unless the matter of same-sex unions is carefully determined in the rush of politicians falling over themselves to declare their support for its legal recognition in Australia, it is likely to end in something no one likes.

There is already a logjam of private members bills on the subject before the federal parliament with more to come. But so far the only choice on the table in all of them is to replace the “one man and one woman” definition of marriage in the Marriage Act 1961 with words to the effect of “any two people”.

But that is not the only approach to the recognition of same-sex unions in some other countries and even in the various attempts at recognition made in Australia by several states and territories. Nor is it a simple matter of changing a few words of the definition. There are implications for other sections and other acts where marriage is dealt with as husbands and wives and with children having mothers and fathers.


The situation internationally is changing, but on the last count sixteen countries have passed nation-wide laws recognising same-sex unions as marriage, with three others having proposals pending; whilst fourteen countries have civil unions and registered partnership laws, with ten more proposals pending, recognising same-sex unions as equal to, but different from, marriage.

In addition there are a number of states, territories, major cities and other sub-national entities throughout the world (including fourteen states of the USA) that have passed same-sex marriage or licensing provisions in a variety of de facto forms differing from marriage (some of which have since ceased or changed).

At the same time there are twenty-seven countries with four others pending and thirty-eight states which have reacted to the proposal by enacting laws expressly prohibiting the legalisation of same-sex unions. In some cases the proposal has been so vehemently opposed prohibition has been embedded in amendments to national and state constitutions. (Among this group are 35 states of the USA, whose amendments have now been found unconstitutional by a recent 5-4 ruling of the US Supreme Court.)

It is also worth noting that support for same-sex marriage is not shared by all those who promote gay rights. A less well organised international movement of Gays Against Gay Marriage opposes any such recognition, basically rejecting any affinity with the concept of marriage as being contrary to the rights and freedoms of gay people.

The question then is not just a Yes/No issue. If consensus favours the recognition of same-sex unions it really comes down to how best to do so in the most socially acceptable and legally appropriate way. That brings into question the wisdom and the artifice involved of attempting to alter the fundamental concept of marriage as it has endured over millennia from ancient tribal custom and belief and the religious faith of every culture on earth.

This element of the debate is critical for millions of people who are sympathetic with the proposal to recognise same-sex unions but who value and deeply respect the sanctity of marriage as intended in nature for the issue of children and the perpetuation of human kind, something no same-sex union can ever achieve.


To these people, including those who prefer a civil to a religious commitment, marriage means something far more profound than just the union of “any two people”.

A survey in 2014 of over 20,000 Australian adult men and women found that 96.5 percent of the entire sample identified as heterosexuals. Only 1.9 percent of males and 1.2 percent of females identified as homosexuals (the rest being bi-sexual).

It is not a simple matter therefore of changing the definition of marriage to accommodate same-sex unions but a very fundamental fabrication in the meaning of marriage as it applies to the vast majority of the population as well.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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