There is perhaps no issue in the developed world as contentious as same sex marriage. It divides political parties, families, friends and colleagues. The notion of marriage as being a union between a man and woman has changed dramatically in the past ten years or so. Countries like Holland and Canada and more recently the U.K. have passed same sex marriage laws and couples the world over have been flocking there to legalize their relationships. However, countries like the U.S. and Australia are less supportive of the issue. Gay rights advocates the world over have been working diligently to try and encourage their countries to pass same sex marriage laws. The fight continues in Australia.
A website in Australia has been set up in order to present Australians with the facts about same sex marriage. The site, australianmarriageequality.com states the following as their position: “Allowing same-sex marriage is about extending the privileges already enjoyed by the majority to an excluded minority who differ simply in terms of the sex of the person with whom they are in a committed relationship” (Australian Coalition for Equality). It is clear therefore that the proponents for same sex marriage see this as a human rights issue and are advocating for it on those ground.
Those who advocate for same sex marriage find themselves fighting long established notions not only about what marriage is but also about the very foundations of society itself. People who oppose same sex marriage often do so, on religious grounds. They state that religious texts are clear when they indicate that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Some in Australia feel the country is moving forward while others disagree.
In Australia, the ACT is expected to legislate for civil unions this year while in Tasmania same-sex couples can register their relationships and access a legal framework of protections But Rod Swift, of the Australian Coalition for Equality, said Australia was moving in the opposite direction to Britain and New Zealand – which recognised same-sex civil unions early last year. (O’Dwyer 2006, p. 1).
In 2004, the Parliament in New South Wales passed the Marriage Amendment Act which essentially modified the original Marriage Act of 1961. The amendment stated that “…marriage is ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life’…” (Anthony & Drabsch 2006, p. 7). Many see this as a ban against same sex marriage. One of the reasons for the 2004 amendment was because same sex Australian couples were marrying in places like Canada and seeking to have their unions recognized in Australia. In May 2006 the ACT Legislative Assembly passed the Civil Unions Act which allows same sex couples to participate in a civil union, something with the Federal government opposed. The Federal government has continued to exhibit its displeasure with this act by announcing it will override this act. The premise for their action is to make it clear they do not see a civil union as being equal to marriage (Anthony & Drabsch 2006).
Although most of Australia has some provisions for recognizing same sex relationships in some manner, the issue of marriage is yet to be resolved. Most of the states in Australia recognize same sex relations in some form or another but do not want to cross the line and say that it is a ‘marriage’. In doing so, Australia keeps gay and lesbian couples on the fringe of recognition but never fully accords them the right of saying ‘this is a marriage’.
Much of the opposition to same sex marriage goes back a long way to cultural ideas of the family, love, sex and marriage. Love and marriage have been idealized over the years (despite rising divorce rates) as being a union between a man and a woman. One need only think of poetry, books and films which have depicted love and marriage in various scenarios. In only rare circumstances and most recently has the notion of a gay or lesbian wedding been part of mainstream thought and acceptance. Therefore, in some ways it is not surprising that Australia still grapples with this issue. Many other countries do as well, most notably the U.S.
Although same sex couples in Australia can ‘register’ as a couple, this is not the same thing as a civil union, or a marriage. John Howard, the former Prime Minster was staunchly against same sex marriage. His successor, Prime Minster Rudd, feels exactly the same way. “Prime Minister Rudd made an explicit pre-election commitment to the Australian Christian Lobby that no such ceremonies would occur on his watch. Both say they prefer a Tasmanian-style registry because it doesn’t provide for an official wedding-like ceremony” (Croome 2008). While those who fight against same sex marriage often do so, on religious grounds, they often cite moral reasons as well. The argument is that by legalizing same sex marriage, the notions of family that have been honored since human society began will become degraded. It is honestly difficult to follow that line of reasoning, yet it is often stated by those who object to the notion.
For those gay and lesbian couples who seek to be married, the lack of the ability to do so is often perceived as a slap in the face. They feel that their relationships should be perceived of and honored in the same way. Their argument is that they exist as a couple in exactly the same ways; they live together, share financial commitments, share a strong emotional bond and want to share their lives with each other. To deny them the right to marry feels discriminatory and wrong. “The nation’s leaders are effectively saying the love and commitment between such partners is not worthy of the kind of affirmation available to their heterosexual counterparts” (Croome 2008).
A great deal of the debate centers on the difference between registering as a couple and having a civil union. In Tasmania couples sign a certificate which is then registered and validated. The ACT law is similar except that couples must also state their intentions and sign a certificate. “It is on these legally insignificant but politically explosive points of difference that the entire federal/territory dispute, and indeed Australia’s current relationships debate, pivots” (2008). Some gay rights advocates believe that strides have been and are continuing to be made. According to O’Dwyer: “In NSW same-sex couples have won virtually the same rights as de facto couples. But gay rights activists want equality in areas such as federal workers’ compensation, immigration, welfare payments and adoption” (2008). However, for many other gay rights advocates this is not enough.
One of the staunchest advocates against same sex couples has been the Attorney General of Australia, Philip Ruddock. According to Beard Mr. Ruddock stated the following: “The Government believes marriage is a central and fundamental institution in our society and provides the best environment for the raising of children” (2005, p. 3). Remarks such as these stem from those ‘old notions’ of what constitutes a marriage and who should be raising children. Beard goes on to state that by denying same sex couples the right to legally marry, Australia denies them a long list of other rights. These include employment benefits, victim compensation schemes, adoption rights, employment visas and many others (2005, p. 4).
Another part of the argument that proponents make is the contribution that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered make to Australian (and any) society. They work at the same jobs, pay taxes, buy homes, purchase consumer goods, hold political office and serve in the military. Travis Worl makes the argument for recognition of same sex marriage based on economic equality. “They contribute an estimated $100 million in Australian dollars annually to the economy here just through the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, which is also the largest annual celebration of any sort in Australia” (2004 p.1). His argument goes on to say that those politicians who defend marriage as a ‘heterosexual union’ do so because they believe they’re protecting the institution of marriage. The question is whether or not same sex marriage is changing the institution of marriage or whether it is simply re-defining marriage in a broader context.
An unfortunate reality in Australia is that even though the Labour Party does not oppose same sex marriage, they do not fight for it either. Therefore gay rights advocates continue to have a long way to go. “Labor Party Leader Mark Latham does not support gay marriage, although he has said he doesn’t see a difference between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships” (Worl 2004, p. 1).
Anthony and Drabsch state that almost all of the changes in legislation for same sex couples have occurred at the state or territory level, not at the federal level. The authors note that this is an issue which continues to divide the Australian people. “The community remains divided in what it believes is the best approach to same-sex couples and the issues of marriage, adoption and parenting. Debates on these topics frequently elicit strong responses, and can cause tension between the various governments…” (2006 p. 70).