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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Love and commitment, to equality

Supporters of same sex marriage rally Adelaide as Julia Gillard delivers the annual Don Dunstan oration. (AFP)By Rodney Croome -

A new Galaxy poll shows 3 in 4 Australians (75%) believe it is inevitable same-sex couples will be allowed to marry.
Given Galaxy, Neilson and News polling all show about 60% of Australians support same-sex marriage, the latest result means almost half of people who oppose marriage equality are resigned to it happening anyway.
What's even more remarkable about this result is that ten years ago the issue of allowing same-sex marriages was virtually absent from public debate and very few Australians had thought about it.
So why the change? Why has the inevitability of marriage equality become so widely accepted so quickly?
One obvious answer is the remarkably high level of support among young people. In a 2010 Galaxy poll on the same-sex marriage, differences of opinion varied only a few points between women and men, white and blue collar workers, and city and country dwellers.
But the difference between younger and older Australians was a staggering 34%. Not even the difference between Green and Liberal voters was this pronounced. Whether you are for or against same-sex marriage it is obvious that as young people grow up and older people pass away, reform becomes more likely.
But age isn't in itself they key to understanding changing attitudes to what is rapidly becoming one of the nation's key justice issues.
It is simply a rough barometer of two, more directly-relevant trends in Australian society.
The first is changing attitudes to same-sex relationships. According to Roy Morgan polling the percentage of Australians who believe homosexuality is immoral has fallen from 36 to 27% in the last decade. The proportion who believe same-sex couples should be able to adopt has doubled from 24 to 48%. The change is largely due to young peoples' greater familiarity with, and acceptance of, gay people.
The second change is in attitudes to marriage.
Many Australians over a certain age still conceptualise marriage as it was when they were young: a compulsory and inescapable union of a dominant husband and his dependent wife entered into for the purpose of legitimising sex and children and solemnised in a church.
In my experience older gays are just as likely as older straights to see marriage this way, leading the former to reject the idea of marriage no less strongly than the latter reject the idea of them marrying.
But for younger Australians marriage is very different.
In the eyes of many Australians raised after 1975 - what I call the Family Law Act Generation – a marriage is ideally the union of two legally equal and financially independent partners whose own, personal choice it is to wed, have children, and, if they wish, divorce.
Religion has little or no part in such unions with almost 70% of today's marriages being conducted by civil celebrants. The ramifications of this are clear.
When heterosexual partners have the choice to marry, it seems unfair that same-sex couples are denied the same choice. When gender doesn't automatically determine rights or status within marriage, it makes no sense to stop partners of the same gender marrying. When heterosexual married partners believe it is fine not to have kids, it seems like a double-standard to deny same-sex couples the right to marry on the grounds of procreation. When the majority of marriages are not blessed by the church, the banning of same-sex marriages on religious grounds also looks like a double standard.
In short, allowing same-sex marriages is now considered inevitable because attitudes to same-sex relationships and to marriage have converged at the point where most people now understand both to be primarily about love and commitment.
The task that lies ahead for marriage equality advocates is to turn this pervasive sense of inevitability into political action.
One obvious way to do this is to remind decision-makers community debate over same-sex marriages has now largely been had and won, and the longer it is allowed to go on the more bitter and divisive it will become.
Recent regrettable clashes in Brisbane and Adelaide between gay marriage rallyers and protesting fundamentalists are a warning of what is ahead as the light of reasoned discussion is replaced by the heat of intractable differences.
Of course, getting this message through won't be easy. In contemporary Australian politics there is a strong current of childish denialism, as if shouting "no" will make the seas stop rising, the boats stop coming, and the gays stop wanting to be treated as equals. But there is also a pragmatic utilitarianism in Australia that allows good sense to override out-dated notions.
It is the same utilitarianism that gave an overwhelming "yes" to everything from female franchise and Aboriginal citizenship through to decimalisation and the wearing of seat belts and sunscreen.
It's this practical outlook that I'm relying on to not only accept I will one day be able to marry the man I love, but to decide to allow it now.

Rodney Croome is the Campaign Director of Australian Marriage Equality and the co-author of Why v Why: gay marriage

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