The importance of same-sex marriage legalisation in Australia

The repeal of approximately 52 pieces of anti-discrimination legislation (some 100 areas of law) against same-sex attracted people* and couples was a long-overdue step in the right direction by the Rudd Government in 2007-8. Since then, both current governments have said they too support the removal of discrimination against same-sex attracted people but believe the Marriage Act will and should remain as being only between a man and woman.  WTF?

Prime Minister Gillard has also said that it is her personal view that marriage is between a man and a woman. She has been quoted as saying that she knows people would think she would be supportive of gay marriage but has said it is not her personal view and that because she comes from a conservative background she believes marriage is between a man and a woman and that is as much her personal view as it is party policy.

I find it ironic that PM Gillard states she is conservative yet bathes in the luxury of living in a de facto relationship. If Gillard is so conservative, why hasn’t she married? Because she has a choice. Gay and lesbian folk however, have no choice of how to define their love relationship with respect to law. We have de facto relationships or civil union or whichever different name and law has been passed in different states in the country.

It’s crazy to think that in the year 2011 lesbian and gay folk are still fighting for the right to marry. What is even more troubling is that gay and lesbian folk themselves, accept and I stress the word accept the discrimination that continues to exist against their own people by thinking that same-sex marriage is not a (‘big’) issue.

Some sections of the community believe that there are more important issues to address. Can you imagine any other group that has been discriminated against accepting their own marginalisation? Imagine women saying ‘no, actually in fact we don’t want to vote, I’ll just stay in the kitchen thanks’. Or Indigenous Australians not standing up for land rights. The fact is that until the Marriage Act is modified, changed or re-named to include same-sex attracted couples it is discrimination – pure and simple.

There is no exact comparison but one loose similarity is women and Indigenous Australians not having the right to vote based on their ‘difference’ or identity. And what emerged from these antiquated policies was sexism and racism. In turn, this increased awareness led to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to name just two pieces of legislative reform. Will we in future see a Same-Sex Discrimination Act?

Same-sex marriage discrimination continues to support the tolerance of homophobia in Australia. People who are by essence homophobic, mildly intolerant or uneducated about same-sex attraction and relationships feel vindicated by the government’s policy against gay marriage.

It sounds juvenile but I think it is true of some folk who don’t have access to make up their own minds or have been indoctrinated with homophobic attitudes. This in turn, can justify and perpetuate verbal or physical abuse or violence against same-sex attracted folk. Furthermore, it stagnates the growth and tolerance of our lifestyles within the broader community. It also means mainstream society will continue to judge lesbian and gay folk on outmoded stereotypes. Everyone accepts the ‘camp’ gay man identity but feminine lesbian or macho gay man seems to confuse people.

Sure a lot of people in the Australian community are supportive of same-sex relationships and this has been supported via recent voting in state and federal elections in inner-city urban areas in capital cities in Australia and other avenues of social feedback. However, the homophobia still continues.

The use of the ‘that’s so gay’ descriptor is still rampant with teenagers and some adults and can easily be seen on social networking sites. Allegedly, us lesbians and gays are not meant to ‘take it personally’ or are told ‘I don’t mean it to be offensive’. That is like saying that indigenous and migrant ethnic groups shouldn’t have been offended when racist slurs were rampant in the 70’s and 80’s in Australia.

In modern Australian society, very few folk would dare use racist or sexist slurs. In fact, professional sport makes an example of anti-social racist behaviour. My point is that, if Australian society has accepted same-sex attracted identity and lifestyle in Australia, why do we still hear homophobic slurs.

Homophobia and the silence of being gay, still exists at work. Homophobia or being afraid to be ‘out’ (which really means feeling comfortable to be yourself still) exists for many lesbian and gay folk. At the weekend a 27 year old lesbian friend told me she is not out at work and will not come out in her job as a primary school teacher because she doesn’t feel comfortable or that ‘it’s appropriate’. I understand she needs to protect herself but I would suggest that what isn’t appropriate is the fact that she is accommodating other people’s lack of tolerance and compromising who she is.

It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, love is a private and personal issue so why do her workmates need to know she prefers to date chicks. On the other hand, a fundamental part of my friend’s identity is her sexuality – she goes to lesbian bars, she kisses women, she enjoys lesbian culture, she enjoys other parts of life like everyone but her not feeling comfortable to openly talk about these issues is like turning off a part of her personality.

She is not alone in this experience and I suggest it differs from person to person, dependent on age, personality, workplace environment and possibly your age when you ‘come out’. However, not being open about who we are is a serious issue – its impacts on our health, can affect making honest friendships, stifles our creativity and is hiding away who we are.

Gay people should not have to own other people’s lack of acceptance or uncomfortability.

This continuing silence of queer people or their inability to comfortably talk about their culture or being secretive about our lives is evidence of insidious homophobia.  Talking openly about your lifestyle is something non-gay people take for granted.

It would be interesting for the tables to be turned in work environments and see how heterosexual folk cope with not being able to talk about their lifestyle and their partner. In fact, I don’t like the word partner. Its part of the silence of being out. I think it was invented for straight people to feel comfortable about a gay guy or girl naming their same-sex lover. It’s potentially a product of the 90’s and I think gay folk saying girlfriend and boyfriend is far more accepted and common – depending on the context.

Homophobia and the silence of gay culture still exists in the mass media – through the stereotyping and invisible representation of gay people, particularly lesbian women in TV advertising and programming. Often gay characters are the centre of intrigue, gay men are constructed as effeminate or comical and lesbians are often-short lived experimental love affairs or either de-sexualised or over-sexualised. To my knowledge, there is not one gay themed TV program on produced and aired on Australian TV.

Adults and more importantly kids and youth who may be wondering about same-sex attraction have no readily accessible role models or information about who they are or where they can find like-minded friends. If it wasn’t for the internet, lesbian and gay youth would have a lot less access to same-sex attracted issues and like-minded networks.

I digress but my point is that the introduction of the legal right for same-sex couples to marry is a critical step that will pave the way forward to progress not only equal rights for the lesbian and gay community, but also expand awareness of our culture. It will progress the growth of mainstream society’s awareness and acceptance of (non-typical) lesbian and gay identities, lifestyle, who are we are, the issues that we manage that are the same as straight people and those that are different (such as health, family, friendships).

All individuals, regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion, gender, age, intelligence, capability should be provided the right to choose to marry or not marry. Lesbian and gay folk should be afforded this same choice.

Due to proportionately reduced parenting responsibilities lesbian and gay folk as a group, work more labour hours in paid or volunteer work or carer’s responsibilities than their straight counterparts and often receive little or no employee or government rebate or recognition for this effort. This is definitely true of single childless gay people compared to straight parents – where either the mother of father will take up paid maternity or paternity leave and all other benefits of having kids.

We pay taxes, we contribute a lot to society and are often ignored or receive little or no incentives from the Government’s annual budget.  Yet we are still not afforded the basic human right of choice to marry or not marry who we love because we are same-sex attracted.

Same-sex attracted women and men, because we are just talking about men and women – are active, healthy contributing members of society. Yet in the year 2011, 11 years after The Netherlands legalised same-sex marriage, 4 years after South Africa legalised same-sex marriage, 5 years after ultra-conservative Catholic Spain legalised same-sex marriage, Australian same-sex attracted folk are still fighting for the right to marry.

Let’s be honest about this issue. Until the definition of the Marriage Act is amended or the Act renamed to legally allow same-sex couples in Australia the right to marry, the homophobia and marginalisation of highly talented, highly productive, (high)tax-paying and hard-working gay, lesbian and queer people will continue.

This is quite simply and unequivocally, unethical, unfair and a violation of our basic human rights.

©copyright Helen Stevens, 18/5/2011

*The term ‘same-sex attracted or gay and lesbian folk’, used throughout this blog, refers to all members of the GLBTQI community including transgender men and women who are affected by the fight for same-sex marriage equality. The absence of the term transgender is not an exclusion of this group and their role in the GLBTQI community, rather it is to keep the language simple and because transgender person’s identity may allow them to be identified as being part of a heterosexual couple who are in turn, legally allowed to marry.