As public support for same-sex marriage grows, politicians are being pushed to keep up, writes Michael Short.
ONE of the most insidious and silly parts of the opposition to marriage equality is that it would be ‘‘ allowing’ ’ samesex couples to have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Human rights are human rights, irrespective of sexuality; they exist, they are not bestowed. It is absurd and shameful that an entire segment of our community is blocked from marrying the person they love.
Arguments against same-sex marriage are based on anything but logic, decency and justice. They are emotive, prejudiced and steeped in fear, sometimes even hatred, as were arguments against universal suffrage or for slavery and, locally, for the White Australia policy, which for decades institutionalised racism.
Our legislators’ failure to sweep away this discrimination reflects poorly on a nation that prides itself on the unimpeach able notion of a fair go for everyone.
Same-sex marriage is a change that is long overdue and must surely come soon, at which point people will look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. While there is growing recognition the situation ought to be remedied, some of the lingering prejudice is profound.
In recent days, Queensland federal parliamentarian Bob Katter has occupied the gutter. His fledgling party’s disingenuous , dog-whistle television advertisement attacking the Queensland Opposition Leader’s support for same-sex marriage was so gormless that it probably inadvertently fuelled support for the cause he was seeking to undermine.
Today’s guest in The Zone has spent decades fighting homophobia here and in his native England. Doug Pollard has been a broadcaster for the past 10 years on the world’s first full-time gay and lesbian radio station, Melbourne’s Joy 94.9 (FM).
During our interview, the full transcript of which is at theage.com.au/opinion/thezone , as is a short video summarising his view, he calmly, gracefully sets out the compelling case for change. Its cornerstone , he says, is respect. ‘‘ We are no different to anybody else and we should have the same rights as everybody else. I don’t go for the notion of civil unions or anything like that or any kind of two-tiered kind of relationship recognition system; that seems to continue discrimination, rather than remove it.
‘‘[ Marriage] gives equal respect to our relationships, it allows us to celebrate that milestone in our life in the same way that anybody else does.
‘‘ My rights are being denied me by the state of the law at the moment. I do see it as a fundamental human right to be treated equally with everyone else. That is the bedrock of the case. It’s not that we want anything special or anything different or anything more than anybody else. But we do demand to be treated with equal respect and dignity.’’
These points seem so self-evident , yet resistance persists. One of the biggest barriers to justice is religion, particularly the Catholic clergy, who one might have thought would be advocating for decency and justice in line with the values of a man crucified for fighting the sort of iniquity against which Doug Pollard has struggled for so long.
That struggle is succeeding. Religious resistance is declining. ‘‘ The churches are divided on the issue; the hierarchies tend to be against, the laity tends to be in favour by a small majority … Whereas the hierarchy is probably the single biggest campaigner against gay marriage across the whole world. It’s the same with the Jewish faith. The smaller Orthodox Jewish sects are vehemently against homosexuality , but progressive Judaism already conducts same-sex weddings in their synagogues …
‘‘ The congregations actually know gay people and of course that’s been a function of the fact that over the last 20 years, more and more and more gay people have come out.’’
After the Katter advertisement, Pollard sent a letter to the editor of The Age suggesting a way of having marriage equality that does not force churches to be involved. He wrote: ‘‘ Let’s make it crystal clear that this has nothing to do with sacramental marriage and adopt the French solution. Separate state-sanctioned legal marriage completely from its religious counterpart. That way, you’d get your civil, legally recognised marriage at the registry office, with a religious wedding as an optional add-on at the institution of your choice.’’
It is almost axiomatic that politicians follow rather than lead, so susceptible are they to the often fatuous and fickle nature of opinion polls. Given rising support for same-sex marriage, this is cause for optimism , although neither of the two bills at present before the Federal Parliament looks likely to get through unless the Coalition matches the government in giving its members a conscience vote. Pollard says there is growing demand within the Coalition for this to happen.
Whether or not the change comes with these bills, Pollard sees same-sex marriage as inevitable. Indeed, he reckons it could well happen within a year.
There is ample precedent. ‘‘ Holland was the first and then Belgium moved shortly afterwards. What happened was that initially they talked in terms of civil unions and then they moved on to a limited form of marriage, which didn’t include adoption rights and parenting rights and things like that.’’
Pollard does not support civil union; he sees that as just another form of discrimination .
The Netherlands and Belgium moved to full marriage equality, and when people saw that society did not collapse, Spain just went ahead and instituted the change in one go. In Canada, the mechanism was a bill of rights; it was proved in court that blocking same-sex couples from marrying contravened the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
Pollard says our politicians are getting the message — and many of them agree with it. ‘‘ If you talk to them individually, quite often they will say that they themselves have no objections ‘but it’s the voters out there’ .’’
Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, chairman of national depression initiative beyondblue, came out in support of marriage equality in a radio interview recently, as well as moving away from earlier controversial and disappointing comments that questioned the suitability of same-sex couples to be parents.
In an interview with Fairfax Radio’s Neil Mitchell, Kennett said: ‘‘ I feel as though I’ve learnt a lot … The most important thing in a person’s life is to enjoy life. As long as you don’t break a law against me, why should I allow sexuality to prevent you from living your life as you want to. I am in favour of it [same-sex marriage].’’
Pollard is encouraged by the increasing number of high-profile advocates. ‘‘ The momentum is there. Public support is there. More and more celebrities are supporting it, which is very important in persuading people.’’
That momentum received a boost recently from respected comedian and actor Magda Szubanski. ‘‘ More and more gay people have felt able to say who they are to their employers, to their relatives, to their friends. So that when you deny rights to somebody who is gay, in the past it was just this little gay minority saying we want our rights, but now whenever you say that there’s a whole phalanx of people standing with us. One of the most effective campaigners we have, for example, is PFLAG — Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — because they stand up for their gay sons and daughters.’’
The AIDS epidemic, too, has helped people better understand rights and realities , Pollard says. ‘‘ AIDS was a kind of forced coming out for a lot of people. A lot of people had to tell their parents, tell their families, and as a result a lot of families got to know other gay people who came in and helped and nursed and stood by people.’’
Doug Pollard came out in 1967, when he was 17. He has fought for equality for gays and lesbians across a range of areas, but sees same-sex marriage as a pivotal issue. He says the logic and fairness of the case for same-sex marriage will triumph. It is time to get it done, and we should all demand it of our federal representatives in any we can. Pollard says change has been resisted primarily by people who feel they are somehow better or superior. ‘‘ It’s prejudice, pure and simple.’’
Copyright © 2012 Fairfax Media