Words || Shannon Abberton
Throughout Australia’s history, various sections of the community have been discriminated against by the legal definition of marriage. Women, Indigenous Australians and the LGBTQIA+ community have all faced such discrimination at various points in time. It should be plain to see that, in the future, we will look back at the ongoing marriage equality debate with the same sense of outrage we have when looking at how women were widely treated as inferior to their husbands.
The legal definition of marriage has changed substantially since the concept was first introduced to Australia. Before 1901, upon marriage women were forced to give up the vast majority of their rights and possessions to their husband, since a woman was considered to be one entity with her husband: unito caro, ‘one flesh’. As a consequence, women lost their ability to legally own property and sue or be sued in their own name. Women were also unable to bring legal actions against their husbands.
“The opposition to marriage equality is a contemporary manifestation of the discrimination faced by Indigenous Australians and women not that long ago.”
As recently as the 20th century, women were required to vow to ‘obey’ their husbands. The archaic requirement has been removed from ceremonies since the 1970s. The 1970s also saw the introduction of no-fault divorce in legal proceedings, allowing women and men to divorce without needing to prove that one partner was ‘at fault’ for the breakdown of the marriage.
While white women were slowly being afforded a greater degree of equality within marriage, Indigenous Australians, particularly Indigenous women, were still facing huge setbacks. Indigenous women had no right to their ‘half-caste’ children, who were systematically stolen by the State. The State’s Protector of Aborigines also often refused to allow Indigenous Australians to marry white partners.
Indigenous lawyer and writer Tammy Williams can see a clear link between this treatment of Indigenous Australians and the ongoing debate about a marriage plebiscite. In a recent public forum, she said: ‘I couldn’t help but think about my family, when you talked about the right to choose your partner … In my family, it’s only one generation ago that we were prevented from choosing our chosen partner to marry – not because of sexual orientation, but simply because of our Aboriginality’.
There is a clear historical pattern of denying certain sections of the community the rights to be treated equally. Evidently, the opposition to marriage equality is a contemporary manifestation of the discrimination faced by Indigenous Australians and women not that long ago.
Jon Papadopoulo, GLBTIQ Coordinator at Macquarie University’s Equity and Diversity Unit, told Grapeshot: ‘It is clear the rhetoric and language used now to justify the denial of marriage equality to LGBTQIA+ people is almost word for word the same rhetoric that was used to justify preventing interracial marriage in Australia and the U.S’.
Former leader of Australian Marriage Equality Rodney Croome summed it up when he claimed, ‘Australian governments have a shameful history of manipulating who ordinary people marry in order to engineer broader visions of what Australian society should be’.
“If the outcome of the plebiscite is to be equal for everyone, the language in the amended Marriage Act needs to be neutral.”
The far-right members of Turnbull’s Government are determined to use the marriage plebiscite as a means to devalue the rights and lives of LGBTQIA+ people in Australia. The language used by MPs such as Cory Bernardi and George Christensen is already having a severe effect on the LGBTQIA+ community. According to a screenshot leaked from Lifeline, the national suicide hotline has not only been forced to add a category called ‘2016 marriage equality plebiscite’, but that category is also the first automated suggestion when Lifeline workers are required to select ‘reason for call’.
Papadopoulo questions why the Government is pursuing its election promise, despite widespread criticism and the existence of alternative ways to legalise marriage equality. ‘Turnbull is framing the plebiscite as the only vehicle for changing the Marriage Act, but it is not. Even if it passed with flying colours, the law would still remain as is until the government passes an Act in parliament to change the law – which could be done yesterday!’
Even if the plebiscite does go ahead, it is not legally binding and there is concern that the views of the Australian public will not be made law. If the Government does decide to implement marriage reform, Papadopoulo argues, ‘If the outcome of the plebiscite is to be equal for everyone, the language in the amended Marriage Act needs to be neutral. It needs to say ‘marriage is a union between two people’, not between the same or opposite sex/gender. That recognises the reality of sex and gender diversity in the LGBTQIA+ community’.
Beyond the plebiscite debate, there is no guarantee, or mention of, wider structural and cultural change within society when it comes to the inclusion, safety and mental health of LGBTQIA+ people. Once equality does prevail under the guise of marriage, other conversations must follow.
A rally for marriage equality is happening at Town Hall on 26 November, deets here. Be there or be square!