People discriminate, Love does not
Why holding out on same-sex marriage is no longer an option.
2011 What Matters? Competition WINNER
Madeleine Boxall – St. Catherine’s School, Waverley
Marriage laws intend to unite a couple in a mutual and binding promise of love and fidelity. Over history, however, marriage has divided more than it has united. In nineteenth century England, marriage was restricted to one’s own social sphere, reflecting a deeply embedded class divide. Until the 1960’s American and Indigenous civil rights movement, laws against interracial marriage revealed a pervading racial prejudice. In 2011 Australia, same-sex couples are deprived of their right to marriage, forced to settle for legally inferior de facto status or domestic registration. Marriage laws have become a litmus test to diagnose an ailing civil rights agenda. And Australia is in need of treatment.
The 2004 amendment to the 1961 Federal Marriage Act inserted six words into the definition of marriage that reflect Australia’s pervading, persistent homophobia – “[marriage] is a union between a man and a woman”. So why has Australia left marriage equality standing at the altar, so to speak?
The great questions of the same-sex marriage debate are: what does marriage mean in 2011? Why is marriage reserved only for heterosexual couples?
In our increasingly agnostic society, marriage is less focused on religion and more on the legal protection it affords. Marriage has become a state institution. Moreover, the increasing number of de facto and single parents indicates that marriage is no longer simply a precursor to a family, as it once was.
However, this assumption forms the centre of the argument against same-sex marriage; marriage is traditionally restricted to couples preparing for a family. Therefore, critics of same-sex marriage contend, same-sex couples do not apply. Same-sex couples cannot conceive naturally. Undeniable fact. However, adoption, surrogacy and in vitro fertilisation - all viable options - enable same-sex couples to create families. If couples that cannot naturally conceive should be deprived the right to marry, should we outlaw marriage for infertile or disabled couples?
Beyond conception, critics of same-sex marriage suggest that children must have both a mother figure and a father figure to look up to in their early years. But a high incidence of divorce – around forty per cent, according to Relationships Australia – means that a mother plus a father does not necessarily equal a happy family. No parenting structure is perfect. The best any parent can offer is love and devotion, qualities that are not restricted to heterosexual couples.
But even if all same-sex couples automatically made inferior parents, marriage cannot be granted or denied on a couple’s suitability as parents. This is because marriage unites two people in love. It does not require children or a church. It does not discriminate.
But holding out on same-sex marriage deepens a dangerous social divide between gay and heterosexual. In 2011, prejudice is quiet. And Australia’s silence on the issue of same-sex marriage speaks in volumes, sending an unmistakeable, redoubtable message; being gay makes you different, inferior and abnormal. This kind of silent marital segregation harks back to pre-civil rights movement America, as aptly put by Ellen DeGeneres, openly gay American talk show host, “Telling us we can’t get married, but can settle for a civil union is like a bus driver saying to a black schoolkid, ‘I’ll get you there if you insist, but you can sit at the back of the bus’.”
The fundamental dividing issue is whether same-sex and heterosexual couples are that different after all. The answer is surprising: no. Gay, lesbian and bisexual couples are neither dysfunctional nor inferior in working, learning, living and loving. Same-sex couples fulfil the only true criteria of a marriage: love. Australia must take this opportunity to say “I do” to same-sex marriage or we will never leave behind our quiet, entrenched prejudice.