Opposition and conservative ALP members unsurprisingly joined forces last week to vote down proposed federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
That this vote is based on simple homophobia is clear — witness the disgraceful comments by former parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi equating homosexuality to bestiality or Liberal National Senator Ron Boswell about the need for children to have a mother and father. That the parliamentary defeat is just a temporary setback to the forces of marriage equality is also clear, as the public relations battle has been won and the clear majority of Australians are on their side.
While this much is obvious, it does not tell the whole story.
The obsessive focus on marriage by groups like Australian Marriage Equality and their allies in the Greens and elsewhere has overlooked the real and deep concerns that many people have about the campaign. It also ignores, or in some cases actively downplays, practical alternatives that exist. These alternatives are important in that they have the potential to continue the historical expansion of recognition of the diverse relationships that exist in human experience and the ways in which society may recognise them.
Greens deputy leader and Melbourne MP Adam Bandt bought into this when he argued last week against a compromise proposed by Liberal MP Warren Entsch to introduce civil unions at the federal level. Models of relationship recognition such as these already operate in several states and territories and multiple overseas jurisdictions. However, Bandt argued that this would entrench "two-tiers of love."
I am less concerned by the defeat of the marriage bill than I am by the reliance by progressive people like Bandt on a one-size fits all model of relationship recognition and by the implication that people not in marriages love at some kind of lower level. In this he is no different from conservatives, who value (straight) marriage over all other relationships.
The reality is that queer people (like straight people) live in a range of different relationship structures — from happily single to polyamorously complex. Some of these people want recognition by religious institutions, and continue to debate with those institutions, as they should. Some require state or societal recognition to access benefits and institutions that many others do not even stop to think about, like the capacity to cross a border with a loved one.
To use my relationship as an example, I was recently appointed to an academic job at a British university after many years of study. I wanted to move to England with my partner of seven years. However, because we had a patchy history of cohabitation and did not own assets together, it was unclear whether we would qualify under rules that recognise de facto relationships. However there was an alternative — the Victorian state-backed domestic partnership scheme, which the UK government readily recognised. Unfortunately those alternatives wouldn’t have been available if we had lived in many other parts of Australia.
According to Bandt and the pro-marriage campaign, however, I should feel dissatisfied with my current relationship and the models of recognition that were open to us. Apparently this was a "second-tier" relationship, not quite as good as the gold standard of marriage.
Marriage is an institution with a long and complicated history that for some queer people (and again, many straight people) is simply anathema. While a bare majority of adult Australians were in marriages in 2009-10 (53 per cent), about 11 per cent were in de facto relationships and the remainder were in neither. That’s about half of all Australian adults who are, for whatever reason, not currently married.
Even if marriage was an option for us, we would not have wanted it. I was brought up in a culturally restrictive and religiously oppressive environment in churches that vehemently, and at times violently, denied my sexuality. Marriage is the key tool used by these institutions to control and limit sexual expression — pre-marital sex is wrong; extra-marital sex is wrong; non-heterosexual sex is wrong — the list goes on. After breaking away from that institution, I have no desire for my relationships to be brought back under it, even in a secularised form.
Along with many others, I have avoided involvement in the "equal marriage" campaign, not because I think that politicians should get away with their homophobia, but because the campaign has things in common with the conservatives it criticises. It creates models whereby some people’s relationship structures are more valued than others, and seeks to provide social validity and access to institutional benefits only to those that it deems appropriate.
My message to the Cory Bernardis and the Adam Bandts of this world is simple and the same — my relationship does not exist on a different tier than yours. Stop arguing that it does and stop holding up marriage as the best, or only, option for relationship recognition.