Marriages between lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Australians are not legally recognised in Australia. The ruling Australian Labor Party has been making slow but significant strides towards upholding the marriage rights of LGBT people. The opposing Liberal Party of Australia continues to drag its feet in the face of much-needed legal reform. Today’s post provides some background on ‘same sex’ marriage around the world and the recent legal changes on same-sex civil unions in Australia. I focus more on Australian public opinion and political debates about LGBT marriage between the two major Australian parties. As a sociologist and as an Australian supportive of legal equality and the civic rights of all Australians, I am cautiously optimistic about the legal reforms being proposed by the Labor Party. Without backing by the Liberal Party, however, political change on LGBT marriage equality is likely to be impeded in Parliament.
Same-sex marriage around the world
Ten nations legally perform and recognise ‘same sex’ marriages: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden. Some parts of Mexico City and the United States also allow LGBT marriages. In addition, same-sex marriages from other countries are recognised in another four parts of the world. This includes Israel; the Caribbean nations of Aruba, Sint Maarten and Curaçao, which only recognise same-sex marriages from the Netherlands (these nations are part the Kingdom of Netherlands); the rest of Mexico recognises same-sex marriages only from Mexico City; and the states of California and Maryland conditionally recognise same-sex marriages from other parts of the United States. A further 21 countries recognise civil unions and registered partnerships between people of the same gender.
Same-sex unions in Australia
Australia currently has a population of 23.8 million people. The most comprehensive and nationally representative research on Australians’ sexual behaviour is the Sex in Australia Study. It was conducted between 2001 and 2002, when the nation’s population was 19.7 million. The study found that close to one third of Australians either identifies as gay or bisexual (5%), or else they are heterosexuals who have acted upon or who harbour some level of same-sex attraction (24%). (For more detail click on the text box above.)
Australia legally recognises same-sex de-facto relationships, but commitment ceremonies are not legally binding. Marriage is still legally defined as ‘…the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.’ Australian law therefore does not recognise marriage between LGBT couples, including those who have been legally married outside Australia. Under the landmark Re Kevin Family Court decision of 2003, post-operative transsexual Australians who have undergone gender reassignment surgery can marry under their reassigned gender, but they must meet the legal parameters set down in the Re Kevin case. (For further information, see Subsection 5(1) of the Marriage Act 1961, via the Attorney General’s Department.)
Two weeks a go, on the 1st of December, the State of Queensland passed a bill to recognise gay civil unions. Queensland is the fifth of Australia’s eight mainland states and territories to recognise gay civil unions. Queensland joins Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Victoria. (For more info on the latter four states, see the Australian Marriage Equality website).
The Courier Mail reports that during a conscience vote almost every Queensland Labor member voted in favour of the bill (with four exceptions), while all Liberal Party members voted against the bill. The bill was introduced by Queensland’s Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser, who said on ABC Radio:
Many Queenslanders will wake up this morning knowing that their human relationships, their loving and committed relationships, are now regarded as equally valid before the law… The fact many Queenslanders now feel dealt into the community, part of the community, in a way they haven’t before is the absolute goal of being able to be a member of parliament. (Via SBS News Australia.)
Queensland’s Opposition legal affairs spokesman Jarrod Bleijie said that ‘Civil partnerships is not on a priority list in the minds of Queenslanders‘. Such a statement suggests that LGBT Queenslanders are, by virtue of their sexuality, not actually Queenslanders. This view dismisses LGBT people as an invisible minority group that does not require their legal interests to be represented by Parliament and Australian law. Through his comment, Bleijie alienates (or ‘Others‘) the status of LGBT Australians and dismisses their contribution and status as constituents of the State of Queensland.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh disagrees with Bleijie’s position. She argues that because LGBT people live with daily discrimination under the law, marriage equality is very much on their minds as Queenslanders:
The fight against discrimination should be a priority of any government… This bill is fundamentally about the human rights of Queensland’s citizens, but it is much more than that, it is about the joyful business of love and that is why it has touched the hearts of so many Australians, why so many people believe that Australia should be dealing with this issue. (Via: The Courier Mail)
At a national level, the Labor Party has been making bolder moves towards legalising marriage for all LBGT Australians. Last weekend, on the 3rd of December, the Labor Party changed its official platform, which now supports LGBT marriage. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has previously stated that she is personally against ‘gay marriage’, but last week, she voted to allow her fellow Labor Party members to participate in a conscience vote on whether or not to allow LGBT people marry in Australia. The Australian newspaper reports that ‘right wing’ Labor supporters have threatened to lobby for Gillard’s removal from office if Labor policies officially recognise marriage for LGBT Australians.
Two Labor members, Andrew Barr, the Deputy Chief Minister for the Australian Capital Territory, and Penny Wong, the Finance Minister, are jointly set to introduce a private member’s bill to allow LGBT Australians to marry in 2012. During last weekend’s Labor conference, Barr said:
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians are part of our community… We’re not nameless, faceless people who live on the margins of society. We deserve the respect and the dignity afforded to others. We deserve equality. (Via SBS News Australia.)
A couple of days a go, on the 11th of December, ultra conservative leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, made a very public stance to toughen the Liberal Party’s official position against gay marriage. Over the years, Abbott has repeatedly said he believes marriage should only be between a ‘man and a woman’. Abbott has not made an official statement as to whether or not he will back a conscience vote on gay marriage for Liberal Party members. Nevertheless, things do not look promising. In response to the Labor Party’s steps towards marriage equality, Abbott has framed his unequivocal position against gay marriage with respect to election promises. During an interview with a Sky News program, Abbott said:
The very important consideration here is the fact that every single one of us went to the last election saying marriage is between a man and a woman… In the end the fundamental duty of every politician is to keep his or her commitments. (Via The Australian.)
Abbott’s latest comments are profoundly disappointing and yet utterly predictable. This is a politician who describes his Party as ‘the custodian of the conservative political tradition in this country’ (via The Australian). Despite Abbott’s comments about election commitments, it is actually the fundamental duty of every politician to protect the basic human rights of all of their fellow citizens. This means equality under the law for everyone, including when it comes to marriage. Placing LGBT marriage under the rubric of election promises is a tactic designed to criticise the Labor Party, which has been heavily criticised for breaking several election promises. This is one election platform I am more than happy to see being broken.
Not all Liberal members agree with Abbott’s antiquity view on LGBT marriage. Most notably, former Liberal leader Malcom Turnbull has been a vocal advocate for change. In April this year, Turnbull’s website published the results of a survey of 2,300 residents in his electorate (Wentworth, New South Wales). Three quarters of the people who were surveyed were supportive of same-sex marriage.
Yesterday, market research company Nielsen published the results of a weekend poll on 1,400 Australians (in partnership with the Melbourne newspaper The Age). Nielsen finds that around 60 percent of the people surveyed support gay marriage. This is slightly lower than a month a go (5% lower), but this figure is on par with previous Nielsen polls over the past year. Women are generally more supportive of gay marriage than men (65% of women surveyed versus 48% of men). Green voters (87%) and Labor voters (71%) are also more supportive of same-sex marriage than Liberals (43%). (For further detail, click on the table below.)
Market research polls are not always the best resource for valid and reliable scientific data. Such polls fluctuate wildly in response to daily breaking news stories and they do not necessarily reflect informed public opinion. Nevertheless, the Nielsen poll gives a broad indication that a steady segment of the Australian population supports gay marriage.
Yesterday The Canberra Times reported that Australia Marriage Equality national convenor Alex Greenwich is highly optimistic that same-sex marriage will be legalised within one year. Greenwich argues that there is widespread social support for gay marriage. The surveys I’ve discussed would seem to support this notion. Greenwich also thinks that the Australian public does not want to see Abbott push a long drawn-out political debate on gay marriage. I am cautiously optimistic that political change is coming sooner rather than later.
Time for change
Though only a minority of countries legally recognise LGBT marriages, LGBT experiences are part of the diverse fabric of Australian society. For a nation that is progressive on many levels, LGBT social justice issues are woefully lagging behind in Australian politics. By not recognising LGBT marriages, Australia is failing to live up to its liberal democratic promise to uphold the civil rights of all its citizens.
The choice on whether or not someone wants to get married is a personal one. LGBT people are denied this choice. Let’s hope that more Liberal and Labor politicians offer balanced and informed debate on LGBT marriage, and that more people speak up and vote for what is right and fair for all Australians.
Watch a gorgeous Australian ad campaign supporting gay marriage made by Get Up!
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