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Byron Shire
April 22, 2021

Marriage equality debate exposes politicians’ ugly underbellies

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If marriage equality advocates were really the extremist elements their opponents paint them as, there would have been riots on the streets yesterday and placards demanding the beheading of Cory Bernardi. Because, make no mistake, his comments in parliament and on radio linking homosexuality with bestiality are as offensive and insulting to gay people as any satire on any religion might be to its adherents.

That the gay community’s reaction was so restrained speaks volumes about who is showing the tolerance in this debate.

As repulsive as Bernardi’s comments were to any reasonable person, his reaction was in some degree to be expected. Anyone who would link himself to the anti-Muslim views of controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders is at least wearing his prejudice openly.

But as the overwhelming House of Reps vote showed yesterday, Bernardi is just the ugly tip of a large, homophobic iceberg. The incident has had the effect of overshadowing the knee-jerk rebuttal of a reasonable piece of legislation, similar to those that have found favour in many other countries we like to consider ourselves on a par with.

In accepting Bernardi’s ‘resignation’ yesterday, opposition leader Tony Abbott did himself no favours, calling him merely ‘ill-disciplined’. On further questioning Abbott admitted they were ‘views that I think many people would find repugnant’.

Repugnant is not the half of it. Extremist, inflammatory, bigoted, fanatical are a few of the adjectives that spring to mind. Sacking Bernardi from the front bench is not a suitable response. For all that the Liberals carry on about being a ‘broad church’, there should be no room for such views in any mainstream political party.

But most gays and lesbians (including no doubt his own sister) realise they have no political ally in Tony Abbott.

It really fell to marriage equality supporter and leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull to spell it out. ‘That proposition is so absurd, so bizarre, so deeply offensive… Senator Bernardi is not speaking for the Liberal Party or mainstream Australian society. What undermines traditional marriage is neglect, cruelty, indifference, adultery.’

No such bon mots emerged from the mouth of our prime minister, who for the first and possibly last time in her political career shared the same side of the House as her opponent.

Even a decade ago, Gillard’s status – choosing to live with a partner outside marriage – would have been thought remarkable by the electorate and may well have been enough to rule her out of the top job. That this is no longer the case shows how much such social changes have been accepted by Australians as a whole.

So it is doubly ironic that she argues gays and lesbians should not have the same rights that she enjoys. There is clearly no religious or even moral argument here. As one who evidently doesn’t see the value of marriage herself, why would she possibly deny it to someone who does?

One can only assume that her objection is purely political. She sees it has a vote loser. Which is amusing considering how few votes she has left to lose. In fact, if she had the courage to support the bill she would almost certainly gain more votes than she lost.

I have been living in a gay relationship for almost 20 years. I do not have the same right as Julia to ‘choose’ not to marry. A 19-year-old heterosexual couple who decide to tie the knot have instantly more rights than my partner and I have fought for our entire lives.

So let’s be very clear what this argument is about – and what it is not about.

It is not about walking down the aisle, who wears the dress or the desire to ‘emulate’ heterosexual relationships.

As for most heterosexual couples, marriage represents legitimacy and security. The legitimacy of having one’s family and friends acknowledge and honour our relationship. Validation of this kind is incredibly important. The security of knowing that my partner has committed to be there for me – and vice versa – literally for richer or for poorer cannot be underestimated.

No-one is suggesting that gay marriages won’t break down, although given the success rate of heterosexual marriages these days we could hardly do worse.

But when marriages break down they can be settled through the Family Court, which is set up to do just that.

When gay relationships break down there is no such security. It relies on the goodwill of both parties (often something that is sorely missing in a time of crisis). Any legal resolution must be fought through the civil courts, meaning lawyers are the only ones to benefit.

Yes there have been a multitude of legal changes over the years that have benefitted gay couples but a piece of paper stating a simple truth remains a powerful legal document as well as an important confirmation of commitment.

Finally, gay people simply want equality. And this is where the arguments for a special ‘gay relationship’ bill collapse. What this would do is etch in stone our second-class status. There may well be a role for a specially registered partnership agreement – one that covers both gays and straights who don’t wish to marry (even Julia, perhaps) – but it is not a substitute.

The endless resorting to ‘traditional’ marriage as some kind of backstop argument is simply not grounded in historical fact. Over the centuries marriage has ‘traditionally’ been a form of ownership. Arranged marriages, which are banned in the West, are still ‘traditional’ in many countries. And the marriage of blacks and whites was illegal in South Africa just decades ago. (Ironically that country legalised gay marriage six years back.)

The world won’t end and the institution of marriage won’t collapse when our politicians finally discover some backbone and legislate marriage equality. All that will happen is that the 68 per cent of Australians who overwhelmingly support it will breathe a great, collective sigh of relief.

– Chris Dobney, Editor


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