Why dragging out marriage equality is a slap in the face to us all

Eleanor Robertson remembers 2007 well: "I was in year 12, I was also in a torrid and ill-advised relationship with my ...

Eleanor Robertson remembers 2007 well: "I was in year 12, I was also in a torrid and ill-advised relationship with my high school girlfriend, and everyone was pretty sure marriage equality was just around the corner." Photo: Stocksy

Looking back on Australia's history with the concept of marriage equality, it's hard not to think of Bill Shorten's pledge to introduce a Private Member's Bill on Monday as being a bit, well, pissweak. A poll conducted in 2007 – eight years ago! – found that over half of respondents were chill with the idea of extending recognition, respect and outrageous wedding markups to same-sex couples.

I remember 2007 well: I was in year 12, I was also in a torrid and ill-advised relationship with my high school girlfriend, and everyone was pretty sure marriage equality was just around the corner. I don't even recall what my dad said to me when he figured out I was queer. I'm not sure he looked up from the crossword. When my sister came out as gay shortly afterwards, I think he might have mustered a "that's great, honey." In my neck of the woods, at least, not many people cared.

And here we are in 2015 taking our lead from Ireland, the most Catholic country in the world, so we don't look like Backward Bigot Kangaroo Land in front of the big kids. Instead of being a country where politicians listen to their constituents and enact timely reform, we're international laggards whose motivation for abolishing institutional inequality is cultural cringe so powerful we could use it as a source of renewable energy. This cringe remains the only force acting on Labor party policy that's stronger than the threatening scowl of Shoppies Union President Joe De Bruyn, a man whose opinions hold power inside the ALP because of his union's large membership. And because his face suggests he is a competent necromancer who may visit death upon those who thwart him.

But being tardy to the party isn't the first time Australia has taken the Pissweak Position on law reform for same-sex couples.

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A year after that initial poll found most Australians are actually fine with same sex marriage, Parliament passed the Same‑Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Act 2008, which removed the vast majority of legal discrimination against same-sex couples. It included tax, superannuation, child support, and a whole host of other measures that gave same-sex couples the same legal status as straight de facto couples. Technically its purpose was 'An Act to address discrimination against same‑sex couples and their children in Commonwealth laws, and for other purposes,' but it could just as easily have been 'An Act to get those rowdy gays off our backs without us actually having to legislate for marriage equality, and for related purposes'. Of course it was still a huge achievement, but as is typical for Australia on these matters it was the kind of victory that left a lot of people tapping their watches and going 'yeah, well, about time, isn't it' rather than leaping into the air in celebration.

Contrast this with the recent referendum result in Ireland, and the campaigns that agitated for a Yes vote from its citizens. The scenes of jubilation are overwhelming, and there is a real sense that ending discrimination is a natural step for the country that's worthy of celebration. In the lead-up to the vote a video of Brighid and Paddy Whyte, a couple in their 70s, went viral. In the clip the Whytes, sitting on their couch, read from a prepared back-and-forth script encouraging everyone, and older people in particular, to vote for marriage equality. Brighid commented to the New York Times that her gay son wasn't the only reason she made the video. "I must tell you," she said. "I have 11 beautiful grandchildren. So that's another reason, I want to make a better place for them."

In Australia the marriage equality movement is pervaded by the strange sense that we're in an alternate history novel. There's a rally on almost every weekend and people trudge out with their rainbow flags, but it's not to change public opinion: public opinion is already there. It's not really to lobby politicians, because as we've established, they give less of a rat's bum about what the public thinks than they do about one conservative union official.

This all sounds a bit Debbie Downer considering the circumstances, and I can't wait for the day queer Australians and their families get to celebrate full legal equality with straight couples. But the recent history of the same-sex marriage movement is a depressing microcosm of a lot of local politics. Endless hand-wringing occurs over why voters are apathetic and alienated from political processes, disengaged from civic participation. Mostly it's blamed on young people in onesies, or 'stupid bogans' who don't read the newspaper. My contention is that Australian political apathy is a sort of learned helplessness: if people try to effect change and their efforts are consistently thrown back in their faces despite the overwhelming support of the electorate, what do we expect but for them to lose faith in the process?

The delay in legislating marriage equality isn't just a slap in the face for queer and LGBTI Australians, it's also an up-yours to everyone who cares about democracy and civic participation.