The last few weeks have seen a tipping point for same-sex couples in Europe and the United States. Sweden became the fifth European country to legalise same-sex marriage. And Iowa and Vermont become the third and fourth US states respectively to do the same, after Massachusetts and Connecticut led the way.
These were no ordinary developments. Sweden came to realise that civil unions aren’t "equality". Vermont became the first US state where change was driven by the legislature. Iowa was the first mid-western state to achieve marriage equality. It was only in 2004 that 13 American states voted to make same-sex marriage constitutionally impossible. Life back then seemed bleak for supporters of equality, but how quickly things change.
The Rudd Government’s reforms regarding the treatment of same-sex couples under federal law are now becoming old. And they are by no means comprehensive, because of the one glaring omission: marriage.
Governments can grant financial equality in taxation, superannuation, Medicare, etc, as much as they like. And that’s a good thing. But state-sanctioned prejudice simmers perniciously while the dominant institution in society recognising the value and importance of relationships declares same-sex couples unworthy.
The obstacle to reform is no longer the hysterical anti-gay arguments of the past opposing equality, which have little credence now. Today’s problem is lethargy and inaction from politicians seeking an easy ride in office.
It has been said that gays and lesbians have other priorities to focus on, from anti-gay violence, rising HIV/AIDS rates and oppression abroad. Indeed, they are top priorities. But that argument neglects one thing: that the subordinate social and legal status of same-sex relationships is intricately connected to them all. The equal marriage campaign is about more than frocks and white-picket fences.
In 2007 the respected pollster, Galaxy, found that 57 per cent of Australians would allow same-sex couples to marry. Since that time, Victoria and the ACT have introduced their versions of civil unions — clearly out of frustration at the inaction of their federal counterparts. Tasmania pioneered such measures in 2003. The sky did not fall in. Given how quickly state civil unions were embraced, it seems that support for equal marriage is only likely to grow.
Despite this support, the Rudd Government remains stuck in its opposition to the idea. When challenged, their response is to spruik their past reforms, and to reaffirm their conception of marriage as being "between a man and a woman". Only three federal Labor MPs have had the guts to publicly endorse full equality.
Given this opposition, where can same-sex couples turn to for signs that their relationships will one day be recognised? Like all social change in democracies, change will come from the people. And that mood for change will become more apparent in the coming months.
What, then, is holding the Rudd Government back? Two things: a belief that not enough people support equal rights, and that those who do don’t support it strongly enough. Two implications flow from this: that those who believe in equality need to come out, so to speak, and those who already have voiced their convictions need to ensure that they are not quietly brushed aside.
Federal ministers have claimed (somewhat circularly) that they oppose same-sex marriage because it is Labor’s policy to do so. No justifications are given. Given this arrogant refusal to engage with the public, the focus then becomes the Labor policy-making process. That is, the triennial ALP National Conference, which opens on 30 July this year.
The conference is the forum where policies are put on the table and debated. It is the chance for their members to rethink same-sex marriage. And it is the public’s chance to raise matters of concern. That’s why gays, lesbians and their supporters are marking it in their diaries.
On Saturday 1 August, the fifth "national day of action" for marriage equality will commemorate the point in 2004 that same-sex marriage was explicitly ruled out by both major parties. This year, that sad anniversary will conveniently coincide with the ALP National Conference.
Organisers of this year’s event are planning to stage the largest illegal gay wedding in the world. It is designed to create discussion and reflection in the broader community. And with any luck, it will challenge equality-supporters in the ALP to finally take a stand to overturn their outdated marriage policy at the National Conference.
Australians are ready to embrace their friends and family members in same-sex relationships. It’s time we ensured the law does too.
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