A Brief History of Same Sex Marriage in Australia

People...I’m not a fan of marriage. I don’t believe in marriage. If you love someone, love them. If you want a party, throw a party. If you want to change your name, fill out a form. As far as I’m concerned, marriage serves no purpose other than to provide a legal framework for some very specific financial situations. I think that the legal protections that marriage provides creates a hierarchy that excludes many individuals who might be aromantic, asexual, polyamorous, or just determinedly single. I feel that it’s an elitist institution that penalises those who don’t socially subscribe to it by denying them legal rights while at the same time reinforcing a social idea of what a relationship ‘should’ look like that people then feel obliged to subscribe to.

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Having said all of that though, I also recognise that my view is the minority. I understand that the majority of people view marriage as the ultimate act of commitment between two people. For most people, marriage is declaring to the world that you love a person so much you’re willing to bet half your stuff that you’ll be with them until one of you dies. Therefore, despite being opposed to it on a personal level, I do support marriage equality. I support the right of any two consenting adults to show how much they love each other and to receive adequate legal protections.

But as people around the country take time to celebrate the anniversary of the marriage equality act, I just can’t find myself feeling joyful about it. Not because of my personal feelings about the institution, but because...honestly, getting here was fucking horrible.

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Marriage equality has been the debate that played out against the backdrop of my early adulthood. It has helped me formulate my idea of how my identity is perceived by the general public. In the same way that representation in movies, TV shows and video games helps to shape straight, white men’s ideas of themselves as ultimate rulers of the universe - the marriage equality debate shaped my identity as a member of the queer community.

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In Australia we have two major political parties - Utter Bastards and Mostly Bastards. In the early 2000s, places that are more progressive than Australia started to legalise same sex marriage. This resulted in a few same sex couples travelling to these countries to get married, and then returning to Australia and applying to have their marriages recognised (basically the same way my parents did after their Vegas wedding in the 80s). However, when faced with this, the leader of the Utter Bastards (Mr Eyebrows) decided to make one very specific change to the constitution so that these marriages couldn’t be recognised - he changed the wording to specify that marriage was the "union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others." Confirming once and for all why he was the Supreme Leader of the Utter Bastards party.

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By the late 2000s, the Mostly Bastards party were in power. The Australian Human Rights Commission came to their leader (Mr Shouty) and said “You fuckers aren’t super down with the homos...get good.” So the leader of the Mostly Bastards party went “You know what I reckon homos would love? Equality. Let’s get ‘em some.” So his party introduced a whole heap of laws to ensure that people couldn’t discriminate against same sex couples and their kids. None of this gave them the right to marry (cos we all know that’s how you get bestiality, right?), but it did mean that they had the right to not to be discriminated against.

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All of this meant that not only same-sex couples, but also de-facto couples would be treated more-or-less like ‘real’ relationships in the eyes of the law (except that de-facto couples still don’t have the same rights as married couples).

When the next election came up, they had a new leader (Mr Good-God-It’s-A-Lady). Mr Lady was a woman (gasp), who wasn’t married (good god) and was also an atheist (heavens above)! Apparently feeling like she was already representing enough minorities, and knowing she was facing an uphill battle while courting the powerful God-Botherers lobby group, she declared that if re-elected, the Mostly Bastards would categorically not support same sex marriage. Mr Lady was a woman with no kids, no ring, and no belief in a lord above, and I’d never felt so represented until that moment when she said she didn’t personally support same-sex marriage.

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However, since they’re only Mostly Bastards, the party members said “Oi, Mr Lady you can fuck right off, most of us support that shit.” And so she sponsored a motion within her own party to allow Green House and Red House people to vote as to whether to change the party platform. It passed, so they introduced two bills for same sex marriage the next year.

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Unsurprisingly, sticking to their pre-election promise, the Utter Bastards helped to ensure that these bills failed in both the Green House and the Red House. Meanwhile, Mr Shouty (who had been deposed by Mr Lady) decided he wanted back in on the leadership of the Mostly Bastards party. He started to mention his own personal support for same-sex marriage and promised that if his party won the next election, they would totes make it happen.

They did not win the next election.

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The Utter Bastards got back in power, being led by their Grand Wizard, Mr Budgie-Smugglers. Mr BS said that while he was super no-homo, he might possibly entertain the idea of a free vote on the issue of same-sex marriage. This became more relevant when other countries more progressive than Australia continued legalising same-sex marriage, ensuring that the topic was top of mind for members of parliament. People in both the Green and the Red house started talking about the free vote and how people were a lot more woke now than they were like 18 months ago and would totes support the gays if they got a second chance.

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Mr BS managed to weasel his way out of delivering on his free vote promise and suggested that instead the matter should be put to either a plebiscite or a referendum. Both of those are big words, so I looked them up. Wikipedia tells us that “Referendums are polls held in Australia to approve parliament-proposed changes to the Constitution or to the constitutions of states and territories. Polls conducted on non-constitutional issues are plebiscites.”

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The result of Mr BS’s weaseling, and the fact that he was generally considered an unpolished turd of a human being, resulted in him being replaced as leader of the Utter Bastards. Their new leader, Mr Moneybags, was an open supporter of same-sex marriage. However, since he had seen several of his predecessors get deposed for not being conservative enough, he toed the party line and continued to be a proponent for the plebiscite.

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At this point a couple of committees in both the Red and the Green house started having opinions. The vast majority basically said “Uh, hold up, having a referendum/plebiscite is a fucking terrible idea for like a whole heap of reasons.” Unsurprisingly, they were shouted down by groups consisting exclusively of Utter Bastard members. Mr Moneybags made it even clearer that they were correct by clarifying that regardless of the outcome, MPs would be free to vote however the fuck they wanted.

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In a nutshell, the entire country would be asked their opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage, and as a result the politicians could ignore the results and continue to do exactly whatever the fuck they wanted because apparently they were abandoning all semblance of being elected by the people to represent the people’s interests. After this, Her Royal Majesty’s Colonial Relic released a statement that the plebiscite was totes going to happen IF the Utter Bastards won the next election.

They won the next fucking election.

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The plebiscite was announced, and several members of the Utter Bastards party took time out of their busy schedule of locking children in cages on tropical islands to clarify that if the plebiscite results were not in favour of same sex marriage, then no one was allowed to mention it for another 3 years.

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Because of democracy, the Utter Bastards had to get permission from both the Green House and the Red House to run their plebiscite. They introduced a bill that stated that “Australian voters would be required to write either "yes" or "no" in answer to the question "Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?" Additionally, $15 million of taxpayer funding will be equally distributed to the official "yes" and "no" campaigns.”

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At this point, pretty much everyone except the Utter Bastards thought this was a fucking stupid idea, for a variety of different reasons. The conservatives were opposed to spending that much money on any kind of ‘human rights’ issue, and the less conservatives were opposed to it because why couldn’t we just do what we normally do and vote on it like politicians.

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A whole lot of fucking around ensued. 20 of Australia’s most powerful CEOs wrote a strongly worded letter suggesting that maybe the government could not be monsters and treat gay people with respect. The Utter Bastards called this ‘bullying’ and failed to see any irony in the situation. Long story short, the plebiscite got shut down - hard. So then Mr Moneybags said, “Fine, we won’t have a plebiscite...we’ll have a totally voluntary, postal survey. Because we don’t need a law for that.” And then the Utter Bastards sent a letter to the Australian Numbers Nerds and said “You fuckers - do the maths shit and make this thing happen.” And the Numbers Nerds were presumably just startled that anyone remembered they existed outside of census dates.

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So the survey went out. And predictably, shit got really nasty. Because several years of people discussing whether or not queer people were allowed to legally be in love (or whether they were just allowed to be common-law in love) wasn’t tough enough. Watching predominantly straight, white, cis men in suits, discussing whether or not ‘the gays’ could have this arbitrary human right or not was easy by comparison.

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Knowing that the (notoriously fiscally conservative) government was willing to throw millions of dollars at a not-in-any-way-binding postal survey just so they could hedge their bets on not having to say ‘yes’ to same sex marriage, was galling. Having MPs openly state that if the postal survey said ‘no’ we wouldn’t get it for another 3 years at least, but having them say that if it said ‘yes’ that also didn’t mean shit was more than demoralising.

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Comparisons were made to the 1967 referendum on the personhood of Aboriginal peoples. I’m not going to draw that comparison, because unlike Aboriginal people, gay people weren’t classified as “Flora and Fauna” before that referendum. But I will say that I could relate to the idea that my personhood was being discussed by a whole lot of people that it wasn’t relevant to.

In my mind a referendum or plebiscite is about consent - if we’re making changes to the constitution, generally speaking it’s because it’s something that affects the majority of people. For instance the referendum on whether or not to become a republic was something that would have impacted the national identity and day-to-day lives of all Australians. Therefore it’s important to gain consent from each person beforehand.

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But whether or not I can marry a girl really doesn’t affect anyone aside from me and the person whose finger I put a ring on. And the fact that the people who run the country felt that it was an issue that required the solicitation of the opinions of people who actively hate that I exist...it felt like we were being punished (and not in the fun way).

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It felt like the Utter Bastards had realised the direction the world was heading in, and that eventually they would have to capitulate and share their precious marriage laws with everyone, but damned if they wouldn’t go down swinging. People were beaten. Children of same-sex parents were harassed and told that they were bastards, that their parents were [homophobic slurs]. People were harassed and followed home. People had their property destroyed. Straight people were told that if they didn’t vote ‘no’, their marriages would be considered null and void as soon as same sex marriage passed. The usual diatribes about bestiality and incest were trotted out.

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While straight allies were campaigning hard, it was members of the LGBTIQA+ community that were exposed to the hateful, vitriolic name calling for daring to ask for the same rights as everyone else. You know those websites where you can submit photos of yourself and anonymous strangers from all over can weigh in and say whether you’re hot or not? Imagine that, but it’s everyone in your country and instead of saying whether they’d bang you, it’s whether or not you’re entitled to have a legal protection that’s socially inextricable from the concept of loving someone. Basically it costs them nothing to give it to you, won’t affect their personal happiness, or their day-to-day lives and yet they still feel the need to remind each other that “it’s okay to say no.” My future was being decided by people who didn’t know me, who had never experienced life through my eyes, and who had actively expressed the desire not to - but who felt qualified to pass judgement on it.

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*When previous surveys had been run to determine what percentage of Australians supported same sex marriage, the results usually indicated somewhere upwards of 80% of people were in favour of it. When the ABS released the results of the postal survey the ‘yes’ vote won with 61.6%.

I remember sitting in the office lounge with a large number of straight co-workers who started shouting in celebration as it was announced. But I felt devastated. To be able to put a definitive number on how many people thought I should be permitted to marry someone I love...it was gut wrenching. We barely got past halfway. And for what? The coalition had made it clear that they wouldn’t consider the result binding. People had been emotionally and physically abused, had to justify their existence to the entire country all so that we could get 60%. It felt like a Pyrrhic victory.

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What followed was even more debate and diatribe about the issue. Most of it revolving around religious people trying to make sure they wouldn’t have to be involved with all of this gay nonsense. As though if someone refused to bake me a wedding cake I would still fucking want one from them? But apparently enshrining their bigotry in protective legislation was pretty crucial, since it was the platform that most of the MPs used to try and stop the bill from going through in its final days. Sometimes I feel like if we actually had a gay agenda, we’d be better off registering it as a religion since that would give us way more protection.

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Long story short, same sex marriage was passed. A lot of people celebrated. But a lot of people didn’t. But I did notice that it was predominantly our allies that were overjoyed by our ‘victory’ whereas many of my fellow queers were noticeably quiet and a few were quite obviously traumatised. Members of the asexual, aromantic and polyamorous communities felt obliged to be happy on other people’s behalves knowing that they weren’t included and probably wouldn’t be any time soon.

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In my mind, same-sex marriage in Australia was not a success, or something we should be proud of. The whole experience was a fucking horrific exercise in punitive bureaucracy. Being forced to ask a population (whom it won’t affect), for permission to do a thing that the majority of them are already permitted to do, is a reminder of where you really sit on the hierarchy of ‘who gets to be people’.

So this year as we commemorate the anniversary of it passing, I’m taking it as a reminder that we have a fucking long way to go before we’re considered “equal” in the eyes of the people of this country.

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That is all.

You may go now.