Marriage Equality In Australia Shouldn’t Be Put To A Public Vote

"Australia has taken a rather circuitous road to LGBT equality," says Merryn Johns, "and we’re still not there yet."

When my American friends hear about Australia’s struggle to legalize same-sex marriage they invariably say, “I can’t believe you don’t have it yet.” Neither can I.

Australia is, after all, the country that gave the world some big gay exports: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with its immortal line, “That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock.” There’s also The Boy From Oz, a musical about Peter Allen played by Hugh Jackman on Broadway. And even Russell Crowe played gay in the movie The Sum of Us, way back in 1994.

More recently, high profile figures like Portia de Rossi, Sia and Ruby Rose have given LGBT Australians validation and visibility.

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But for all the country’s progressive figures in the arts, it’s still a struggle for Australian athletes to come out: Australia’s greatest Olympian, Ian Thorpe, denied his sexuality for 15 years and felt pressure to lie in his 2012 autobiography, This Is Me, writing, “For the record, I’m not gay and all my sexual experiences have been with women.” (He came out just two years later, after battling crippling depression and suicidal behavior.)

While the zeitgeist embraces gayness periodically—and at one time Australia had more LGBT publications per capita than any other country—the reality is that it took until 1997 for Australia’s colonial-era, sodomy laws to be full repealed. Even though gay rights had been on the national agenda at least since the Sydney Mardi Gras 1978 march, which turned into a Stonewall-like police attack.

Today the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade attracts crowds of up to 500,000 and is televised nationwide.

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Australia has taken a rather circuitous road to LGBT equality, and we’re still not there yet. Civil unions and domestic partnerships are available in most states and territories, and same-sex relationships are recognized to some extent legally. But full marriage is still out of reach—explicitly since a 2004 amendment to the Marriage Act defined marriage as between one man and one woman. (Sound familiar?)

Was that amendment in response to Tasmania recognizing same-sex unions that same year—or Canada and Spain’s introduction of equal marriage? Who knows? But it’s thwarted all efforts since, including 21 same-sex-marriage bills introduced in parliament.

In December 2013, same-sex marriage legislation passed in the Australian Capital Territory, but it was quickly overturned by the High Court as unconstitutional. Because it was.

Since marriage equality came to U.S., Australian activists have redoubled their efforts, but to little effect. The current conservative coalition government under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed a plebiscite on same-sex marriage—but that effort was rejected (twice) by the Australian Senate.

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This month, the government commuted the plebiscite idea to a voluntary postal survey, to be conducted from September through November. The politicians say a postal ballot puts the matter in the hands of the people. But many—myself included—see this as an abdication of responsibility by leaders who were elected to govern all Australians.

It’s obvious that Turnbull is dodging responsibility, for fear of alienating his conservative base.

If marriage equality really is in the hands of the Australian people, how might it turn out? Depending on which poll you believe, 62% to 68% of Australians believe in same-sex marriage, and have for several years. A majority of states already allow same-sex adoption. Surely we can afford to offer LGBT individuals marriage so that if, nothing else, their children are brought up in a family structure that protects them.

But such decisions should not be in the hands of an anonymous majority. As we saw with Brexit, what people vote for in private, fueled by their own fears and anxieties, doesn’t always reflect the greater good. And the results of a postal survey are non-binding.

Australians live in a parliamentary democracy. They elect representatives to make laws for everyone—not for everyone except LGBT citizens. Not only do Australians deserve full equality, they deserve a leadership that actually leads. Maybe after the postal vote, Aussies will vote for better leadership.

Merryn Johns is the editor in chief of Curve magazine. She was formerly the editor of LOTL, Australia's magazine for lesbians. She's from Sydney but now calls New York home.