The debate in Australia on same-sex marriage is starting to open up. For example, Senator Guy Barnett (Liberal, Tasmania) recently wrote to the Prime Minister recommending amendments to federal legislation to effectively exclude same-sex couples from getting married. As it stands, the Marriage Act 1961 does not clearly define marriage the way social conservatives like Barnett and Howard would like. It may be open to challenge from the members of the gay community here or from couples marrying in places where same-sex marriage is recognised such as in certain Canadian provinces.
Why do people like the 30 federal Coalition MPs who signed Barnett’s letter want to so desperately exclude gay men and lesbians from marrying their loved ones? Defenders of marriage continually point out the benefits of marriage for children and for the couples who enter in to it. Why do they want to be so mean-minded as to leave out a sizeable minority of the Australian population?
It needs to be pointed out that marriage offers real benefits to those who enter into it. It entails a package of rights to couples that permeates Commonwealth and state legislation regarding taxation, social security, property, immigration, adoption and child welfare. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. Members of married couples are not required to testify against the other in court. But gay male or lesbian couples are treated by the legal system as strangers in this regard. Married couples can use the Family Court in the case of marriage break up. Same-sex couples must use the more expensive Supreme Court. And married couples may adopt as couples. In a same-sex relationship only one member can adopt a child leaving the non-adoptive individual legally vulnerable regarding custody if his/her partner dies.
Marriage also has obligations. When two people marry they are publicly stating that they will care for each other and for any offspring – in sickness and in health, as they say. It is assumed that they will pool their resources (the Age Pension for members of a couple is less for each than for singles. However, the total sum is larger than for singles). They will look after each other’s emotional needs to the best of their abilities. Many same-sex couples are trying to do the same in face of societal disapproval. And now Australia’s anti-gay lobby is attempting to permanently legislate the second-class status of gay couples.
Will same-sex marriage weaken an embattled institution as conservatives assert? Such an assertion can only be verified using a longitudinal study comparing marriage and divorce rates after same-sex marriage was legislated. This is not possible at the moment. Same-sex marriage has only been introduced very recently in a handful of mainly European countries. There hasn’t been enough time to study the effects on marriage per se.
Barnett states in his article in the 27 April The Australian: “[marriage] has endured for thousands of years across cultures and religions.” He didn’t mention that during this time it has undergone considerable changes. Polygamy is no longer allowed as a legal form of marriage in many countries including Australia. Adults are no longer allowed to marry children – a practice formerly popular with royal and noble families. Interracial couples are now legally recognised in countries such as the US where, not so long ago, they violated “miscegenation” laws. And yet the institution of marriage still survives. In fact, I’d argue that it has been strengthened by some of these changes I’ve listed.
To suggest same-sex marriage would lead to an inevitable decline of opposite-sex marriage presupposes people get married only because certain categories of people are excluded from marriage. Sadly, it is only human to dislike certain people and hold certain prejudices towards various groups of people. However, just because the targets of our prejudices are legally able to marry does not stop the rest of us. Australians of European origin are sometimes quite racist towards Indigenous Australians but they don’t refuse to marry simply because Aboriginal people are also allowed to do so.
It is actually people like Barnett who are more likely to weaken marriage. They argue that homosexuals are not excluded from marrying as such. It is their choice of partner which presents the problem. Marriage must be between a man and a woman. In other words, social conservatives would rather see an unhappy and inevitably disastrous marriage between a lesbian or a gay man and a heterosexual than a happy, healthy same-sex marriage. In Australia in less enlightened times there were many of these sorts of marriages. Indeed, there probably still are because we still live in a society that still falls short of gay-acceptance. These marriages of convenience for closeted gay men and lesbians often destroy the lives of everyone concerned – including the heterosexual partner and any children. Is this what the conservative wing of the Liberal Party wants? One gets the impression they hate the gay community more than they care about marriage.
Whether or not Howard wants to make same-sex marriage a “wedge” issue to divide the ALP, as Rodney Croome argues, this proposed legislation must be opposed. Whether or not gay men and lesbians want marriage for themselves it is important that the choice is not taken from them. And most importantly, the Australian government should not be allowed to legally cement a second-class place for the relationships of a number of it citizens.
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