Attended the LGBTI Equality Roadshow at the Council offices yesterday. Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality Rowena Allen visited Greater Shepparton to take us through best practice in inclusive policy. Pleased to hear the Minister for Local Government is set to release a new ‘Roads, Rates, Rubbish and Rainbows’ strategy. To me, that means Councils can no longer refuse to tackle issues, such as marriage equality, due to them not being LG issues – they clearly are!
Included below is my recent sociology essay on social factors that shaped the marriage equality debate in contemporary Australia:
The traditional definition of marriage is defined by the Marriage Act 1961 as a union between a man and woman (Cwlth). However, increasing numbers of Australians are questioning the rigidity of this definition and advocate for ‘marriage equality’ – that is, for the institution of marriage to include same-sex attracted couples. Marriage was formed and has been protected by dominant religious ideology, which has a vested interest in regulating relationships (Macedo 2015). However, contemporary Australia no longer relies on strict binary rules to begin a family. Economic strength, better quality of life and emerging new technology, offer the individual a degree of choice around whether to get married, and to whom (Beck-Gernsheim 2012). Marriage is still currently maintained as a bastion of self-identification and social standing, but the societal context around what constitutes a family in Australia has changed (Cherlin 2004). Unfortunately Australian policy has not kept up with this change. ‘Family values’ is kicked around like a political football and some politicians refuse to discuss marriage equality altogether (Waitt 2015). Meanwhile, a broader public discussion is writing new informal rules around alternative relationships, creating new behavioural norms and mutual obligations (Beck-Gernsheim 2012). Legalising marriage equality will allow same-sex attracted Australian citizens a legislative way forward, even though they may not fit the heteronormative nuclear family ideal.
Support for marriage equality suggests Australia has deviated significantly from what is often labelled ‘the traditional definition of marriage’. Prior to the late 20th Century, married couples had clearly defined gender roles that were unquestionably entrenched in societal norms (Cherlin 2004; Dempsy 2002; Beck-Gernsheim 2002). The husband was the breadwinner for his family and – where possible – worked full-time, as his father and grandfather did before him, whilst the wife stayed home. Marriage ensured the family was a lasting commitment; it gave financial security to the wife, who in return raised children with links to the husband’s status and inheritance (Cherlin 2004). Marriage bound together society with a sense of moral functionality and produced children, as commodities, to replace the next generation of labourers (Cherlin 2004). In the early to mid-20th century, the two world wars forced women out of the kitchen and into the workforce, meaning men were not necessarily required for a family’s financial stability (Holmes 2006). The division of labour is still very much decided by gender in contemporary Australia, however the shift toward equality is significant and has caused equally significant changes to social and economic issues (Dempsy 2002).
Modern day Australians are fortunate enough to live in the most prosperous time of history, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, which offers us an array of choice. This self-determination is referred to by Chambers as ‘Individualism’ (2012). Since there is no longer an economic need for lineage to pass down to children through the traditional family structure, new family structures are forming based on individual needs rather than necessity (Beck-Gernsheim 2002; Cherlin 2004). Technology such as in-vitro fertilisation, removed the requirement for a man to impregnate a woman, which made parenting largely accessible for all, including same-sex couples. Sperm donors, surrogate mothers, post-divorce relationships, step families and single parents are some examples of the myriad of new families that were virtually unheard of prior to the 1960’s (Beck-Gernsheim 2002; Cherlin 2004). Yet amongst all this social change, the institution of marriage has not become redundant. Instead, Australians are increasingly in support of marriage equality as a strong and important cause for thousands of citizens.
Proponents of marriage equality advocate for the same level of meaning and legal privilege that has traditionally only been afforded to heterosexual couples. Cherlin argues marriage has evolved into a symbol of status and maturity, akin to a coming-of-age (2004). That is, marriage is something one works up to and the ceremony itself is a chance to broadcast a new social standing and prestige in society (Cherlin 2004). Beck-Gernsheim argues alternative families have been living alongside this heteronormative, nuclear family ideal for decades (2002). She says traditional marriage has not diminished in importance, but more people are choosing to engage in relationships that fall outside the prescriptive norm. These alternative relationships are fluid and open to negotiation as people write new rules to suit their individual circumstances. However, a drawback is the absence of stereotypical norms to fall back on when negotiations cannot be made (Beck-Gernsheim 2002). Legalising same sex marriage will assist couples trying to navigate new relationship territory by regulating and standardising a broader definition of ‘family’ (Beck-Gernsheim 2002).
The legalisation of marriage equality will legitimise the changing nature of relationships. People began questioning, and rejecting, the binary nature of the nuclear family during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. However, as late as 2004, the Howard government tightened the Marriage Act in 2004 to include a definition of marriage as a “union between a man and a woman” (Cwlth). Some interpret this decision as a calculated and direct affront to the global marriage equality movement (Waitt 2015). Yet, politicians such as Tony Abbott try to claim marriage equality is ‘unimportant’ and “…not a high order issue”. This is despite the government’s economic and social responsibility to address high rates of depression and suicide for same-sex attracted people. This is also despite a body of research that suggests flexibility within relationships can only benefit society as a whole (Beck-Gernsheim 2004; Chambers 2012; Cherlin 2004; Waitt 2015; Halse 2015; Patterson 2006).
Democratic change towards marriage equality is impeded by the politicisation of family values. Chambers describes the nuclear family as the moral cornerstone of society – “a powerful icon of tradition and stability … still often perceived as an antidote to today’s social problems” (2012, p.2). The catch cry ‘family values’ is a political aphrodisiac and popular euphemism during times of disruption and social upheaval (Chambers 2012; Razavi & Jenichen 2010; Waitt 2015). As it stands, relationships that fall outside the heteronormative definition are at risk of being stereotyped as ‘deviant’ or ‘debauched’, with some questioning whether marriage reform will lead to an alarming moral slippery-slope (Macedo 2015). For instance, conservative politicians such as Cory Bernardi argue marriage equality will result in polygamy and adult incest (Halse 2012). However, Halse argues marriage equality is entirely conservative, as the very nature of conservatism is not to gamble with uncertain outcomes (2012). The outcome on marriage equality is resoundingly positive, both for same sex attracted couples and the majority of the rest of Australian society that support their right to marry (Beck-Gernsheim 2004; Chambers 2012; Cherlin 2004; Gordon 2015; Halse 2015; Patterson 2006).
Australians are arguably slow to embrace change, but acceptance of marriage equality has had a sharp increase in the last decade, which can be confronting for some pockets of the population. Chambers draws on a theory by Carol Smart that family comes under ‘personal life’ (2012). That is, it holds a place somewhere between the private and public realms which often goes unnoticed. Therefore, it can be somewhat shocking to see just how diverse these families have become over time, which can produce a negative reaction. Some in opposition even question who will look after children and the elderly (Beck-Gernsheim 2002)? Fortunately, evidence suggests that those who partake in non-traditional relationships still hold a strong desire for kinship-ties, commitment and community (Beck-Gernsheim 2002; Chambers 2012; Cherlin 2004). Evidence also suggests societal stigma towards alternative families is far more damaging to children, than growing up with two parents of the same gender (Patterson 2006). Legalising marriage equality would go some way towards combatting this stigma, which will result in better outcomes for children. As Beck-Gernsheim said, “’What comes next after the family?’…the family!” (2004, p. 8).
Marriage equality in Australia is fighting an uphill battle against religious institutions. Razavi and Jenichen examine the cross-over of religion into the public sphere of politics and law (2010). They question whether the separation of religion and the State ever existed by arguing secular societies have always had background religious and moral pressures. There seems to be a pervading inclination to accept religious doctrine as the only model of morality, so long as it adheres to regulations under the law. Yet, Macedo describes criminal charges for “same-sex sodomy in the privacy of the home” in Bowers vs Hardwick in 1986. This was not seen to have been a private matter, but instead was described by the magistrate as an “infamous crime against nature”. In this case, religion and State were inherently linked, but Australia is gradually moving away from religious influence (Goosen 2010).
To conclude, marriage equality is a public issue that is being stymied due to Australian politicians’ reluctance to face change. The traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman is outdated, but government policy has not kept up. Even though the institution of marriage is no longer required to raise a family, the process itself is no less significant as a form of personal identity and social standing. Marriage equality will allow same sex attracted couples guidance in navigating their relationship, yet some conservative politicians prefer to fall back on traditional family values instead of addressing new norms. Very little evidence suggests children and older people would be any worse off under a different family structure. Indeed, new relationship structures are occurring alongside traditional marriage anyway. It’s time the Australian nation shook off its stubborn fixation with the traditional definition of marriage and looked towards the greater good of the individual.