Same sex couples will soon be able to be married in Byron Shire.
And councillors supporting the move hope that it will send a positive signal to gays and lesbians growing up in our midst as well as those of marriageable age.
Although it won’t be legally binding, Byron Council’s vote to declare itself a supporter of marriage equality will surely be cause for optimism to those seeking equal rights.
The latest attempt to amend Australia’s marriage act last year received 276,437 responses, the largest response ever received by a committee of the House of Representatives. Of these, 177,663 respondents were in favour of changing the law, which was nevertheless voted down 98 votes to 42 in federal parliament in September.
Among the proposals nutted out at Thursday’s meeting, Byron Shire certificates of same sex marriage will become available and ceremonies will be encouraged within the shire.
Crs Chris Cubis, Rose Wanchap and Alan Hunter voted against.
Mayor Simon Richardson, who moved the motion, said, ‘While it may be symbolic, we have an opportunity to lead within Australia and it’s time to take a stance’.
But Thursday’s debate was certainly not a unanimous vote for gay marriage rights; Cr Hunter said while he appreciates the sentiment, ‘We need to consider what has happened in other places…’ He said Council needed to prioritise potholes and suggested that the idea should be put on public exhibition. ‘Is this a legal document? he asked. ‘Will they have any legal rights? This smacks of a political agenda; we haven’t got the money and we should fix the potholes.’
Cr Basil Cameron, however, took the opportunity to evoke the words of Thomas Jefferson to make his point that Byron should support gay rights. ‘The cornerstone of democracy is the pursuit of happiness and liberty,’ he said in his speech, which also referenced the Suffragettes and Rosa Parks.
But deputy mayor Di Woods shared Cr Hunter’s sentiments. ‘I am uncomfortable with this,’ she said. ‘However I fully support it; I have members in my family that have lived together as same sex couples.’
She said the issue was more about ‘rights to assets and bills [that] are left behind’, referring to when one of the couple dies. ‘It’s a federal and state responsibility, not ours,’ she said. She added she ‘felt abused’ by the proposal and that it amounted to ‘emotional blackmail’.
Cr Paul Spooner was more optimistic, saying that while it’s a symbolic gesture and not legally binding, it won’t cost Council much to implement. He also told the gallery that Council has a responsibility to look after the community. ‘One of the biggest risks to young people in regional communities is feelings of alienation that comes with being gay. These feelings can contribute to youth suicide,’ Cr Spooner said. ‘This is one small way in which we can support gay people and let them know they are embraced in our community.’
Cr Chris Cubis said he has reservations. ‘The motion would be better if it didn’t describe marriage, but a union. He says emails received on the matter questioned whether Council is being distracted from its core responsibilities, and agreed with Cr Woods that it needs to be tabled at a federal level. ‘I’m dead against the estrangement of parts of society… [so] why don’t we keep going and take up women’s rights, for example?’ At that, Cr Richardson quipped, ‘It’s coming, don’t worry…’
Cr Ibrahim talked about an email he received from someone outside the shire. ‘It was full of nonsense – it was wrong. We need to see gay couples being married. It needs to be on the news… there is nowhere better than Byron Bay to celebrate this. Eventually it will be no big deal.’
Cr Duncan Dey said a public exhibition was unnecessary, and cheekily invited Cr Cubis to join the Greens party, ‘Because we are the ones taking it to the federal government’.
As Mayor Richardson penned the motion, he was afforded the last word in the debate. ‘I’m sick of hearing the pothole issue like its something we can fix straight away. It’s not relevant to this. It’s more work for staff to put it on public exhibition. We need leadership now. Two-thirds of Australians support marriage equality… I have no doubt that this will be supported. Our residents are being discriminated against.’
Along with the marriage certificate, Council will also consider a ‘Love Garden’ whereby a tree is planted in a public space to record and celebrate a same sex marriage within Byron Shire. The mayor or another Council representative will present the marriage certificate at the ceremony if requested and if availability permits, say Council.
The costs for the registry and certificate will be paid for by the recipients.
The motion also includes lobbying all local government areas in Australia, to ‘invite them to co-sign the ‘Proclamation of Local Government Support for Marriage Equality’. The community will also be invited to contribute text for the proclamation and upon the completion of the co-signing it will be forwarded to the prime minister.
A ‘Mayors for Marriage Equality’ group will be established and all local government mayors in Australia will be invited to join the group.