In 2004 the Howard government amended the Marriage Act 1961 to define marriage as being a ‘union between a man and woman to the exclusion of all others’, thus resolving the ambiguity of the legal term. Today, the debate around gay marriage is contentious; as Jennifer Power noted in Arena Magazine no. 83, it is also a debate that is polarised in simplistic terms. It is a well-resourced and organised debate, and at times scary too. Some of the tactics used by the organised gay marriage lobbies include the skewing of facts; the use of manipulative arguments; the orchestration of workshops; and the silencing of rivals through ridicule and pathologisation. Tactics like these understandably earn them the nickname ‘pink-shirts’.
But you know what? I am queer, I am not religious, I am a lefty, I live in Adam Bandt’s electorate and I am against gay marriage. So in light of all the crude stereotypes I contradict, I would like to address some of the myths and distortions pertaining to the gay marriage debate.
Gay lobbies like Australian Marriage Equality (AME) purport that Australians support gay marriage. The claim of majority support is based on surveys, most recently a 2010 poll conducted by Galaxy Research, which found 62 per cent in support. The poll, which was paid for and designed with the gay lobbies AME and P-FLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), is skewed.
Firstly, the sample size was small (only 1052 respondents). Secondly, respondents from different states were counted together and not distinguished (Victoria with Tasmania, and NSW with the ACT), while the Northern Territory was not surveyed at all. Respondents from the eastern states dominated the survey. As a result, respondents were more likely to be supporters of parties like the Greens and the ALP. Thirdly, the questionnaire did not provide respondents with a ‘neither’ or ‘against all forms of marriage’ option; instead respondents were categorised as ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘disagree’, ‘strongly disagree’ or ‘don’t know’. If there had been other answers available, respondents might have used them instead of the ‘don’t know’ option (5 per cent of respondents). Finally, the wording of the question was biased: ‘A number of countries allow same-sex couples to marry. These include Argentina, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa and Spain, as well as parts of the United States and Mexico. Do you agree or disagree that same-sex couples in Australia should be able to marry?’ Worded this way, respondents may have been swayed by nationalist sentiment and fashion, if not the ‘cringe factor’ of Australia’s ‘unworldliness’. It is unlikely that a professional ethics committee would have approved the survey in the form conducted. With many of the surveys cited by AME containing similar shortcomings, it would be wise for the lobbies, and indeed the ALP, not to be guided in public policy by such opinion polls.
In 1993 sociologist and professor Stanley Cohen accurately observed that ‘with the … death of the old meta-narratives of marxism, liberalism and the cold war, human rights will become the normative political language of the future’. This is evidenced in the claim made by gay marriage activists that the limitation on marrying is comparable to the historical oppression faced by blacks under apartheid or women denied the right to vote. But biological facts like a person’s sex or the colour of their skin are not the same as how one may choose to express their sexuality.
Gay marriage campaigners allege that it is a ‘right’ to get married. Marriage is a cultural tradition, not a right. While I agree with Cohen that the discourse on human rights ‘is very dense, complex and contradictory’, I suggest that rights should be restricted to those that relate to the populations most vulnerable in our society to government oppression. A right to marriage is not something you are born with inherently by virtue of being human. We can live without marriage; it does not secure our life or survival. Successive governments since federation in Australia have denied rights that ensure human life and survival. Given that we have not even secured a Bill of Rights, it is premature to be asserting new rights, especially those associated with consumerist industries and religious traditions. Dennis Altman wrote in the Australian Literary Review in February this year, ‘the marriage debate has opened up a strange generational gap, where a few aging liberationists are uneasy with what a younger generation of activists, often irrespective of their own sexuality, see as a matter of basic human rights. We used to worry about being beaten up … Young queers now worry about the cost of wedding receptions’. Although he did not argue against gay marriage, the contrast is clear.
One of the most persuasive arguments for gay marriage is the demand for equality. This has very little to do with the righteous claim of ‘equality for all’. Rather, I propose that a significant part of the campaign for gay marriage comes from an embarrassing place: envy. Understandably, it is also comes from anxieties in those who are in relationships—particularly those of older generations—in matters relating to health, adoption and the division of property. However, if the gay marriage campaign was really about equality then it would be consistent and demand that people in polygamous relationships be permitted to marry also. It should be admitted that this is about politics, not what is right or just.
In sum, gay marriage lobbyists misguidedly claim they have majority support; that marriage is a right; and that gay marriage is about equality. Their demand for gay marriage is anything but radical or progressive, but rather conservative: it is about politics and conformity. It relies on the presumption that marriage is virtuous: a standard to which we all should aspire, a respectable status symbol and thus a desirable thing. The real question that should be debated is not whether gay marriage should be allowed, but rather, is marriage really something we need anymore? Perhaps we ought to celebrate difference, rather than conformity.
David Vakalis is a former gay marriage activist, and has been involved in the social justice movement for a number of years. He is currently a research assistant and is completing his masters at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry.