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A debate we should have had: Gay marriage has not had a fair go

By Belinda Edwards - posted Thursday, 23 September 2004

Psychologists say that a fair process matters more to people than the outcome.

The Shadow Attorney General, Nicola Roxon, has had a crash course in that lesson in the last few weeks. Roxon’s Canberra Times article (August 18, 2004) suggests she has been rocked by the wave of emotion that ran through thousands of gay households as the ALP supported the ban on gay marriage.

The response is not only to the legislation, but the way it was done. The marriage debate itself is complicated. Marriage means very different things to different people. For some people, marriage is a publicly celebrated union. It is about family, friends, and the community recognising and supporting your union.


For many gay Australians, not having their relationship supported and celebrated is deeply hurtful. For other Australians, marriage has a religious meaning. They want to protect a very specific religious meaning of the institution, which excludes gay people. For others, it is an intergenerational debate over gender issues and the meaning of marriage. For most young people these days marriage is two equal people committed to sharing their lives together. It is a world where both spouses work. Both do house work, and both have an active role in raising children.

The bulk of people under 35 don’t see the difference between a committed gay couple and a committed straight couple. They don’t see gay marriage as changing the institution. However, it is easy to forget that not long ago marriage had quite a different meaning. When John Howard got married, men were the head of the house and women provided domestic services and raised the children. Men were masters of their wives to the point there was no laws against rape in marriage.

For older people who see discrete gender roles as essential to their understanding of marriage, gay couples are different. Two people of the same sex are not the same as bringing together a man and a woman. Depending on what you understand marriage to mean, gay marriage is no big deal, or major change. As a result, the marriage debate is a question about who determines what marriage means. Is it young people or old people? Is it secular people or religious people? It is a debate we should have had.

It is not clear what the outcome of that debate would have been. There would have been gay people on all sides of the debate. There are older gay people who subscribe to old views of marriage and don’t think it reflects their relationships. Other gay people hold modern secular views and want marriage very much.

So if the gay community has mixed views on the issue - why has the response of gay people to the legislation been so immense?

As I went around Canberra the day after the legislation went through, gay Canberrans were despondent, shocked and enraged. Most of the people I spoke to had never expressed strong views to me about gay marriage in the past. One, who I know doesn’t seek gay marriage, said the only other time she had been so physically affected by a political decision was with the Whitlam dismissal.


The intensity of people’s feelings arose because of how the process was handled. In Australia, conservative politicians have put gay marriage on the political agenda. In a society that is increasingly accepting of gay people, conservatives have sought to create a backlash by pushing the most sensitive issue.

The ALP promised to send the proposed law to a Senate Committee to report after the election, so a public debate could occur without the cloud of pre-election wedge politics. This was a reasonable approach. As Roxon pointed out, there had been no major campaign to introduce gay marriage in Australia. There was also no pressing reason to entrench opposing it. It is a debate that hasn’t been had.

Then the ALP back-flipped. Apparently spooked by the power of a handful of fundamentalist churches in key marginal seats, they abandoned their commitment to a proper debate. They decided it was an electoral asset to play into homophobia rather than oppose it. It was this political fickleness that sent the gay communities into panic mode. Awareness that both major political parties would peddle homophobia if it were politically expedient sent people reeling with fear.

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About the Author

Dr Belinda M. Edwards is a researcher, author and regular public speaker based in Canberra, ACT.

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