If ever there was a moment when gay and lesbian activists needed to stand up and be counted, it was during the recent world-wide media furore over gay marriage. Gay and lesbian issues don’t get any more top-of-the-agenda than that. We had the pope, George Bush, John Howard and every newspaper columnist worth their column inches weighing in on the issue.
So I was bemused and disappointed when I saw gay and lesbian activists trying to cover over the issue with wet blanket comments.
Rob McGrory and Somali Cerise, co-convenors of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, recently presented a more considered case for why marriage is not a priority for the Lobby (SSOÂ 677). Their assumptions -“ that there are many other priorities for lobbying, that marriage is an impossible dream and that, traditionally, Australia’s gay community hasn’t wanted marriage anyway -“ are probably true, but they miss one important point.
The various GBLT lobby groups do not control the agenda of either media or government.
Sure they can suggest, cajole, lobby and apply pressure but, in general, their effectiveness relies on supportive attorneys-general, premiers and prime ministers and, perhaps more importantly, on media willing to run with minority issues.
So when a media opportunity presents itself, like the prime minister or the pope coming out against gay marriage, our lobby groups should grab the opportunity presented and milk it for all it’s worth.
Publicly stating that marriage is not a priority only damages our credibility in the light of subsequent media and political debate.
There are certain pivotal issues that grab the attention and the headlines, and marriage is one of them. For all its importance, superannuation reform (for example) just doesn’t do it for most people.
So our lobby groups should use debates over marriage and other pivotal issues (such as age of consent, parenting, adoption) to further our campaign for full equality.
Of course, the fight for same-sex marriage is really about federal recognition of our relationships, and should be used to further the recognition of all significant relationships, same-sex or otherwise, conjugal or otherwise. Whether you call it a marriage, a de facto partnership or a civil union shouldn’t matter -“ the rights and responsibilities should be the same.
But it is campaigning for marriage that will capture the media’s imagination and give us the seat at the table to work for that comprehensive reform.
Some people may wonder why same-sex couples want to be part of what many consider to be an outdated and flawed institution, anyway. However, while we are denied such access, we are not truly equal citizens and even with comprehensive de facto recognition, we will not be equal under the law while we cannot get married.
Of course, many churches will continue to discriminate against us in access to their rites, but that is their prerogative. There are many other churches that welcome us with open arms. My thesis is solely about the legal institution of marriage, not the religious rite.
The movement towards acceptance of same-sex marriage rights is taking shape all over the world. While the Scandinavian countries and the US state of Vermont led the way with civil unions, these separate but equal laws, while laudable in their own right, are still not true equality.
Hawaii came close to winning access to marriage in their state Supreme Court, but lost at the last minute after a bitter campaign by church and right-wing groups to change their state constitution.
The Netherlands and Belgium were the first countries to give same-sex couples access to marriage, and the Ontario Court of Appeals has done the same in Toronto, with the Canadian federal government promising to make this consistent throughout Canada. And just last week, the European parliament issued a report stating that member states should allow gays and lesbians to legally marry.
On a personal note, my partner Graham Douglas and I are intending to have a small commitment ceremony in our home town of Perth early next year, and then head to Toronto to wed legally under Canadian law.
On our return, we will have to see how the Australian government and its agencies respond. No doubt, we will need to fight through the courts for our marriage to be recognised here.
But Australia’s signing of The Hague Convention On Celebration And Recognition Of The Validity Of Marriages, which states that foreign marriages should be recognised by default unless such recognition is manifestly incompatible with its public policy, puts the onus onto the government to prove that our marriage is not valid here rather than us to prove that it is.
I do hope that lobby groups around the country -“ and any new national lobby group, if one gets off the ground -“ take an interest in the debate that this fight will generate and work with us in the legal battles.
And let’s hope the lobbies use the ensuing media circus around same-sex marriage in the best way possible, as a platform for pushing coherent, cogent and comprehensive legal recognition of relationships at a federal level.
And that that will include marriage.