Let's Keep Changing Marriage


Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday reiterated her opposition to same-sex marriage in the opinion pages of The Age: "My position flows from my strong conviction that the institution of marriage has come to have a particular meaning and standing in our culture and nation and that should continue unchanged."

Her continued intransigence on the issue of marriage equality has sparked considerable ire among progressive voters in her own party. Polls conducted by Australian Marriage Equality have noted that support for change within the Labor Party is over 70 per cent.

It is odd that a Prime Minister, who expresses no personal interest in marriage, relies on a disingenuous claim that marriage has a "particular meaning" — and an apparently unchanging meaning — to Australians.

What remains unclear, however, is what this particular meaning is?

Marriage has never had a fixed or static meaning under Australian law. We only need to reflect on history to hear the narratives of women who were once considered proprietary objects. Rape was condoned in conjugal contexts. Exemptions to marital rape remained until the mid-1980s, effectively denying women the right to refuse sexual intercourse with their husbands.

Nature once proscribed interracial marriage on the basis that miscegenation, or the "threat" of producing mixed-blood offspring, would be a violation of the so-called "natural order".

Despite the shifting meanings of marriage, the Prime Minister continues to make a nostalgic claim about a universal definition of marriage.

Despite the tendency to talk about marriage in general terms, we must take care not to confuse religious and civil marriages. What marriage equality reform will ensure is the right for same-sex couples to have civil equality. Importantly, this reform will not encroach upon the freedom of religious bodies to choose who they marry.

Couples wishing to formalise their relationships can opt for civil marriages performed by the state. The ABS data indicates that in 2009, 67 per cent of marriages were performed by a civil celebrant rather than a religious minister.

In response to attempts to characterise the push for equality as a fringe or minority issue, celebrants like Randall Berger argue:

"The Australian Marriage Act is 50 years old. It is a very good document that separates church and State with regards to marriage. Amendments have allowed Australians to be able to create a fulfilling and meaningful marriage ceremony that is about them."

Berger’s comments are supported by the majority of Australians. A Roy Morgan poll released last month showed that 68 per cent of Australians support amendments. If the Government acts on marriage reform, these results indicate that it will not incur electoral damage. The politicians are lagging behind the public on this issue.

Legally, even though de facto recognition means that same-sex and heterosexual couples have the same rights, entitlements and responsibilities under federal law, there are still administrative and practical differences that privilege those who are married. For example, for the purposes of immigration, de facto partners have much longer waiting periods than spouses.

In the "All Love is Equal … Isn’t It" consultation conducted by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in 2007, a respondent expressed the desire to marry in these terms:

"For me, same-sex marriage is a human rights issue. I believe being treated differently causes psychological damage — to treat one section of the community differently from the rest of the community sends a clear message that same-sex couples are inferior."

What is effectively being debated is amending six words in the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961. This should not be an issue of conscience — it is a matter of fairness and civil rights.

In a secular democracy, where the law accords marriage no religious or reproductive significance, why should such reforms be put to a conscience vote? Human rights norms relating to marriage have already begun to change around the world. Countries such as Canada, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, Argentina, South Africa and some states in the USA already permit same-sex couples to marry.

Civil unions are not an adequate substitute. Different mechanisms for recognising relationships effectively sends out the message that same-sex relationships are not as valued as heterosexual ones. In other words, marriage equality will finally let all Australians exercise the same democratic choices.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.