Same-sex marriage is an idea whose time has come, writes London-based Australian gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.

It is the growing trend all over the world, from Canada to South Africa and Argentina, as well as Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. So why can’t there be marriage equality in Australia too?

Political support for ending the ban on gay civil marriage is growing rapidly.

Two state premiers, Queensland’s Anna Bligh and Tasmania’s David Bartlett, have come out in favour of allowing lesbian and gay couples to marry. So have senior members of both major parties, including Labor’s Mark Arbib and Doug Cameron, and the Liberals’ Simon Birmingham.

Public attitudes have also shifted strongly in favour of allowing same-sex marriage. An Essential Media poll found 53 percent of Australians support marriage equality while a Galaxy poll found it was backed by 62 percent. In both polls, only a third of Australians disagreed.

In response, some politicians say that UK-style civil partnerships are sufficient for Australian lesbian and gay couples.

This is hypocritical. These politicians would never accept a similar ban on black people getting married. They would never agree with a law that required black couples to register their relationships through a separate system called civil partnerships.

It would be racist to have separate laws for black and white couples. We’d call it apartheid, like what used to exist in South Africa. Well, black people are not banned from marriage but lesbian and gay couples are.

If a ban on black marriages would provoke an outcry, surely the ban on gay marriages should provoke similar outrage?

In Britain, lesbians and gays are fobbed off with a separate system called civil partnerships. This reinforces and perpetuates division and discrimination. Separate is not equal.

Under UK law, gay couples are banned from marriage and only allowed civil partnerships. Heterosexual partners can only marry and are barred from civil partnerships. These dual discriminations based on sexual orientation are injustices that Australia should not repeat.

Having separate institutions for gay people and straight people creates an artificial divide. It ignores the reality that love and commitment are universal and transcend sexual orientation.

Civil partnerships are, of course, an important advance for people who want relationship recognition but who don’t wish to marry.

However, for couples who do want to marry, civil partnerships are not adequate and not certainly equality. They are discrimination.

Marriage is the internationally recognised system of relationship recognition. It is the global language of love. When we were young, most of us dreamed of one day getting married. We didn’t dream about having a civil partnership.

In Australia, there are already civil partnerships in some states and strong protections for common law partners, including same-sex ones.

It makes no sense to add another layer of discrimination by enacting a national civil partnership scheme that would perpetuate the differential legal status of gay and straight couples. Such segregation in law would be a backward step. It would be a form of ‘sexual apartheid’ to have different laws for gay and heterosexual couples. In a democratic society, we should all be equal before the law.

Gay and lesbian people are expected to pay taxes, obey the law and, if necessary, defend their country, just like everyone else. In return, surely the state should accord its lesbian and gay citizens the same rights and responsibilities as every other citizen?

Personally, I don’t like marriage. I share the feminist critique of its history of sexism and patriarchy. I would not want to get married. But as a democrat and human rights defender, I support the right of others to marry, if they wish. Everyone should have a choice.

That’s why I believe that civil marriage should be open to everyone without discrimination.

It’s time for Australia, as a secular democracy, to legislate for marriage equality.

info: Peter Tatchell is an Australian-born human rights campaigner, based on London. He is coordinator of the Equal Love UK campaign, which is working to end Britain’s twin bans on gay civil marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships.

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