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Democracy’s Worst Example: Australian Marriage Equality and the Fight for Same-Sex Marriage

For most parents, their natural inclination is to tell their children that they can grow up being anybody that they want to be, that the opportunities are limitless and that nothing can stand in their way. It’s a wonderful theory, but is there any truth in it?
If you grow up to be gay, then the idea that you’ll be able to live the life you have always dreamed of is as of today a sad fantasy in Australia. The quest for love, marriage and the white picket fence that is on practically everybody’s birth registry remains high on the to-do list for most people even after they reach the point where they are able to think for themselves. It’s a longing carved as much out of society as it is out of the core of individual yearning, sitting right up there with that fundamental right to happiness that everybody’s supposed to be entitled to when the umbilical chord is cut.

If you look at it as a human rights issue, the case against same-sex marriage is simply baffling. As Peter Furness, the national convener of Australian Marriage Equality (AME) puts it, the Australian Government claims that it doesn’t support discrimination – oh, except in the case of matrimony, of course.

“I first got involved with AME because I knew that as long as there were laws on the books that discriminated against gender and sex, we would continue to be perceived as second-rate citizens,” he says.

“It’s not about financial entitlements or any of that – it’s about being valued as human beings in our own country.”

Peter married his partner Theo Phillip in Vancouver in April of this year, but the union is not recognised in Australia. His story is part of a growing trend of Australian same-sex couples getting married both overseas and locally, despite the government’s refusal to acknowledge it.

“When I first got involved with AME, I didn’t particularly want to get married. We had evidence to prove our relationship, and that was fine,” he says.
“We then attended a wedding in Vancouver, and I expected it to be cheesy but I was instead moved by it, and I wanted the same for myself. I wanted to give my partner the status of my ‘spouse’.”

Evidently, that’s not his partner’s legal title in Australia, whose position on same-sex marriage is, as Peter puts it, glaringly notorious, not to mention embarrassing.

“Over in Canada people are happy for you to be in their city for that purpose, and it makes you feel special and appreciated,” says Peter.
“We had to recently go to the Australian Taxation Office to prove our relationship. We had our marriage certificate to show them, but the woman behind the counter said to me, ‘I don’t want to see something made up on your home computer.’ The sad thing is, the law is on her side.”

Peter and Theo signing their wedding papers in Vancouver

While the rest of the world is slowly starting to make reforms and increase activism on the matter, Australia is treading much further behind – and is at risk of losing its self-definition as ‘progressive’.

“People tend to think someone else will do the dirty work for them or that things will just happen, but it’s the people who make things happen,” says Peter.
“It’s frustrating because 20-30 years ago, people didn’t have what we have today, be it women’s voting or Aboriginal rights. They fought for it, and we owe it to those who sacrificed before us to stand up and do something.”

“After all, democracy is only effective if people make it effective.”

AME was established in 2004 when two same-sex couples had gotten married overseas and tried to establish their union back home. The government quickly redefined its classification of marriage, and same-sex couples were conspicuously left out of the law. So much so that this was the actual amendment:

Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.
Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.

Obviously, today the topic has gained considerable momentum due to the well-publicised efforts happening throughout the world – particularly in America, which news seems to have an ongoing love affair with. All of this has led to far greater public support, but as Peter argues, sometimes it’s the law that needs to guide people to the right thing and not visa-versa.

“Everybody’s talking about it and the Government can’t really speak out against it without sounding bigoted,” he says.
“The main reason it is giving for not supporting same-sex marriage is that it reflects the community’s sentiment, but we have found that this is not the case – in a recent Galaxy poll we had commissioned, 60 per cent of people were in favour of same-sex marriage.
“Besides, laws can change the community – it doesn’t always have to be the community that changes the law.”

“Sometimes, the law has to lead.”

At present, there is a senate enquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill, which is set to be tabled in November. More than 25,000 submissions have been received, 8,500 of which were submitted through the AME website.

“It’s a constant challenge to get people to do things, even to just write a letter to their local MP,” says Peter.
“But it has to be done. If you don’t get a good answer, then call. If they don’t return your message, call again.”

“Be difficult. We don’t need to cosy up with political groups and have them whisper sweet-nothings in our ear without any action.”

As AME prepares itself to campaign heavily in the lead-up to the next election, Peter wants every politician to know that it’s not just inner-city dwellers who are affected by this issue – gays, their families and their supporters live everywhere. And when they do get granted what they’re entitled to, Peter hopes the organisation can cease to exist.

“We want young people to be comfortable with themselves and with their sexuality, but that will never be achieved until laws are amended,” he says.
“It won’t change overnight, but it will happen.”

words: Seema Duggal


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