The overwhelming vote for marriage equality in the UK House of Commons sends a clear message that it’s time for a change of direction in the Australian marriage equality debate.
Until now most Australian supporters of marriage equality have made their case entirely with reference to equality, human rights and discrimination. These remain valid reasons for reform but their purchase is limited to those who already understand the disadvantages faced by same-sex attracted people.
For most people, marriage isn’t about "discrimination". It is about cementing relationships through shared joy and mutual responsibility.
It is about reinforcing the bonds within and between families that define so much of who we are. It’s about "for better and for worse".
This is particularly so for those social conservatives and people of faith whose support for marriage quality is essential if the Coalition is to have a conscience vote and more individual Coalition MPs are to be convinced to support reform — both pre-conditions for the passage of any legislation.
To even begin a dialogue with these groups, marriage equality supporters must show we value marriage as well as equality.
This is exactly the approach of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. His consistent message, particularly to his own Conservative Party, has been that he supports marriage equality because he supports marriage:
"I’m a strong believer in marriage. It helps people commit to each other and I think it’s right that gay people should be able to get married too. This is about equality, but it’s also about making our society stronger."
The result was something inconceivable just a few years ago: almost half of all Tory MPs voted to allow same-sex couples to marry.
The same approach — emphasising the importance of marriage for same-sex couples — was the key to the unprecedented success of four state referenda on marriage equality in the US in November.
Research conducted after the failed referendum on the issue in California in 2008 found: "Many (gay people) assumed their friends, colleagues, and relatives accepted them as deserving of marriage the same way they accepted them as people, when in fact, the same friends often figured that since their gay friends never talked about marriage, it must not be important to them".
The upshot: "gay people needed to talk about marriage more". Advocates took this message to heart and as a result the US has turned the corner on marriage equality.
Of course, some opponents of marriage equality scoff when gay people talk about valuing marriage and family. It sounds insincere to them. They still stereotype us as "anti-family", or at least too sex-obsessed and frivolous to commit. They fear we’re muscling in on their "family values" turf.
But these aren’t values that same-sex couples have newly adopted. They’ve been with us all our lives. What is new is that these values are only now beginning to be publicly expressed.
In years past they were submerged by the vocabularies of liberationism and identity politics. Now, with growing tolerance of same-sex relationships across Australian society, it is possible for us to move out of our physical and mental ghettoes, and openly declare our aspiration for conventional family and married life.
An excellent example is Benjamin Norris, winner of the 2012 series of Big Brother. When he proposed to his fiancé on national TV, Norris didn’t make a declaration about equality. Instead, he highlighted how marriage binds families together: "This was a diamond that my great grandfather bought for my great grandmother and it was worn by my parents on their wedding day so it’s something that is a part of my family. Since I’ve met Ben all I have wanted is for him to be a part of my family."
Science backs up the experience of gay people like Benjamin who believe marriage matters.
A study of married same-sex couples in the US and Europe, conducted by Prof Lee Badgett of the Williams Institute at UCLA, found that over 70 per cent reported greater commitment to each other and more participation in their extended family after their marriage.
93 per cent of those couples with children said their children had a stronger sense of stability and validation.
As hard as it might be for left-of-centre marriage-sceptics to accept, it seems David Cameron is right when he says marriage is good for gays.
Australian marriage equality advocates have already begun responding to the political and human realities I have outlined by talking more about what marriage means.
Building on the immense success of a Get Up! TV ad tracking the developing relationship of two men, Australian Marriage Equality last year produced an ad focussing on the link between marriage and family. The ad featured two very different Australian families brought together by the love of two men.
There was a similar focus from the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group in the narrowly defeated bid for same-sex marriage in that state last year. The newspaper ads (pdf) in that campaign focussed on the intergenerational ties that marriage re-inforces, as well as the stability and security it brings to the children of same-sex couples.
But this is only a beginning. If Australia is to achieve marriage equality the national conversation must re-focus on the benefits marriage bestows on gay and straight citizens alike. In turn, this only will happen if the tens of thousands of individual conversations and personal testimonies which shape public life do the same.
In 2013 the Australian marriage equality debate is set to continue, with several states like to move forward on the issue and the federal election campaign focussing attention on Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard’s opposition to reform.
If it is not to be a repeat of years past — with advocates condemning discrimination and too many politicians ignoring them — we must shift the debate.
It’s time to focus on those things we can all value — commitment, family and abiding love — rather than the inequities and prejudices that divide us.
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