Gay marriage - which side of history is Labor on?
When the delegates at the ALP National Conference sat down on Saturday to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage, there’s one question that should have loomed large in their minds: “Which side of history do you want to be on?”
Despite the result, same sex marriage is inevitable in Australia - and a quick analysis of two factors makes this blindingly obvious. The first is the international situation. Seven countries have now introduced same-sex marriage, along will six states of the USA. Just like so many other waves of social reform before it (giving women the vote, decriminalizing homosexuality, etc.) same-sex marriage will spread throughout the western, liberal democracies eventually reaching Australia.
The second factor that makes same-sex marriage inevitable is the demographics.
A Galaxy poll in June showed that 60% of the Australian population now supports it. This figure increases to 71% of people under 35 and 74% of people under 25. With numbers like that, it doesn’t take a genius to see where we’re headed.
Of course, there might be some stepping stones along the way. A possible compromise position is national civil unions. This would be a parallel institution to civil marriage, set up to give same-sex couples all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage, but without using the “m” word.
Yet even if the ALP eventually decides to adopt such a policy, it will just be postponing the inevitable. The groups that protested for marriage equality throughout Australia on Saturday will be back next year and every subsequent year until they get it. The “m” word, that is. For them, the issue is one of simple equality. They want the same choice to marry that the rest of society has. Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont all introduced civil unions first, before moving on to full marriage. If Australia gets civil unions now, marriage will eventually follow.
Another reason why the same-sex marriage tide is unstoppable in Australia is that there is simply no rational argument against it. If two people of the same sex get married, that takes nothing away from anyone else. That couple is happy and no one else is affected in any way. It is, as they say, a “no-brainer”.
And that is really the clincher for most people; same-sex marriage poses no threat to anyone. Just take a look at what’s happened in countries that have had it for several years now. Between two and three per cent of all marriages every year are between people of the same sex. That’s it. Two to three per cent. And these are people who value the institution of marriage and enter into it freely and willingly and for all the same reasons as any opposite-sex couple would.
So where’s the threat? Obviously there is none.
To raise religious arguments against same-sex marriage misses the point. We’re talking about civil marriage here; the secular institution regulated by the federal Marriage Act. Religions also use the word “marriage” to describe their holy union, and most of the time the two ceremonies, civil and religious, take place together, which often causes a blurring of the two concepts in people’s minds. But civil marriage and religious marriage are two completely separate institutions.
Some faiths perform religious same-sex marriages. Some don’t. The argument by certain religious groups that allowing civil marriage will somehow interfere with their freedom to practice religion is completely unfounded. Civil same-sex marriage will have no effect at all on what religions are able to do.
Finally, to all those who think that allowing same-sex couples to marry somehow devalues the institution of marriage; it doesn’t. Marriage remains the same legal institution with all the same rights and responsibilities attached. Nothing changes except that a sector of the population that has traditionally been discriminated against is now allowed to marry.
If certain people find that that devalues their own marriages, that is only in their minds. And their subjective and irrational discomfort can hardly be a valid reason to deny a fundamental right to hundreds of thousands of people.
Society evolves. Social attitudes change. The issue of same-sex marriage is going to increasingly come to be seen as the “no-brainer” it is. To future generations the prohibition on same-sex marriage will seem as unfathomable as the prohibition on interracial marriage seems today.
Labor should recognise that the writing is on the wall and ask itself the question again - which side do you want to be on?
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