Why Can't We Be Married?


"Why?" — that’s the question thousands of same-sex partners ask whenever they hear one of our national leaders declare that marriage is, by definition, a union between a man and a woman.

Malcolm Turnbull is the most recent to enter the debate. Echoing Kevin Rudd almost word for word, Turnbull recently declared on a Sydney radio station, "I believe marriage is a permanent union between a man and a woman…That doesn’t mean [a same-sex]relationship is second class, it just isn’t marriage. I think that marriage is a special institution, I think it’s fundamental and I think it’s a permanent union between a man and a woman. [It] has a special status in our society and our culture and it is between a man and a woman."

But why?

Turnbull and Rudd would never consider gender a qualification for entry into any other "fundamental institution".

They would never judge (or admit to judging) the quality of a relationship on the basis of whether children can be naturally born to it, or whether it conforms to Biblical proscriptions.

Sometimes they say marriage is exclusively heterosexual because this is how the institution is understood traditionally, or by a majority of people. But they would never cite such reasons to justify other forms of discrimination.

If we rightly put gender, children, the Bible and tradition to one side, why is a committed same-sex relationship not a marriage? It can be in Holland, Belgium, Canada, South Africa and Spain. Is marriage in Australia so exceptional that it is an intrinsically different institution?

The answer to these questions is, of course, entirely political.

Australia’s conservative Christian lobbyists have convinced both major parties that same-sex marriage is the evangelical line in the sand and neither can win government if they cross that line.

With the aid of graphs, charts and exit-polling from the most recent federal election, these lobbyists have tried to make the case that mega-churches are so deeply interwoven in the social and economic fabric of key marginal seats that to alienate their pastors and congregations is to lose these marginal seats and hence government. At the same time, they refer to past church-based letter-writing campaigns to show that nothing antagonises conservative church goers more than the sin of homosexuality linked to the holy sacrament of matrimony.

This analysis is selective and incorrect, because it fails to take into account the impact of a shift of gay and lesbian people to key suburban and regional marginal seats, a shift which more than counteracts the voting impact of evangelical churches in the same places.

Across the western world demographers have documented dramatically increasing numbers of same-sex couples moving to, or staying in outer suburban, regional and rural areas.

In Australia we can see evidence for this in a massive increase in gay social groups in such areas, in the decline of inner-city gay institutions like the Sydney Mardi Gras, and most startlingly of all in the Census. It reveals that the most dramatic growth in the number of same-sex couples is not in Darlinghurst or Prahan but Tasmania, rural Victoria, north Queensland and south west WA.

What’s more, we’re seeing the rapid and deep integration of same-sex couples into suburban and regional life, as employers, as community leaders, or simply as friends and neighbours. This integration is driving an equally profound shift in attitudes, including much more support for the legal recognition of same-sex relationships than existed only a few years ago.

Signs of this change can be found in the fact that traditionally conservative political parties like the WA Nationals or the Tasmanian Liberals have led the way in supporting same-sex civil unions. But what’s most telling are polls showing young evangelicals do not share their elders’ views. While younger Christian conservatives remain strongly opposed to, say, abortion, the recognition of same-sex unions poses much less of a problem for them, chiefly because they know gay couples personally.

In short, the graphs and charts of the Christian lobby are little more than conjuring tricks designed to camouflage social reality. But, sadly, it is currently these tricks which determine major-party policy on same-sex marriage.

So, with perceived electoral death stalking them on one side, and outmoded prejudices waiting to tarnish their image on the other, what is a mainstream politician to do?

The simple answer, as Turnbull and Rudd have shown, is to oppose change but never to explain why.

The equally simple response of the media and the general public should be to demand either a satisfactory explanation, or an end to groundless opposition.

Frustratingly, this is something which rarely if ever occurs in Australia, either because journalists aren’t sufficiently versed in the issue to systematically dismantle the defences of political leaders, or because they simply don’t believe same-sex marriage is important enough to waste time on.

In fairness, proponents of reform have a duty to explain themselves too. It is necessary — but not sufficient — to justify change on the basis of "equal treatment".

We must also explain how discrimination stigmatises same-sex couples and their children, and how it distorts the hopes and expectations of young gays and lesbians and their parents.

On top of this, we need to make the case that marriage will benefit from change by being made more socially relevant, and having its core values reinforced by an influx of couples who cherish those values.

Why do Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd oppose equal marriage, and why do same-sex couples want it? Only when the nation begins seriously asking and answering these two key questions, will the Australian same-sex marriage debate truly begin in earnest.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.