d) Family, relationships and marriage
From Prisoners to Princes: affirming love and commitment through marriage
This address was given by Rodney Croome at a forum on marriage equality organised by Andrew Wilkie MHR at the University of Tasmania on 29.4.11
As part of their punishment, prison inmates are deprived of their basic rights, even the right to vote.
But there is one right so fundamental to who we are as human beings that convicted felons are allowed to keep it.
Rapists, drug-dealers, murderers; no matter their crime, they have the right to marry the person they love.
Why, then, don’t I?
Despite being in a loving, committed and enduring relationship the law tells me I cannot marry the person I love because it seems I have done something far worse than the people I’ve mentioned, I am in love with another man.
The reason the right to marry is so fundamental is that marriage is a key legal and cultural institution, a “bedrock institution” some say.
In a legal sense, it provides partners with immediate and unchallenged access to spousal entitlements.
In a cultural sense, it affirms the importance of loving, committed relationships, not just for the partners involved, but for their friends, family members, and for society generally.
It is precisely because marriage is so important that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is so painful and so wrong.
Denying us the right to marry the person we love sends out the message that our love is not as good and our commitment is not as strong as it is for those couples who can marry.
It says we are second-class citizens against whom it is okay to discriminate against.
It means whenever our relationship rights are challenged we have to prove our entitlements, if we can, with a stack of utility bills and shared bank statements.
It means we have to explain to our children why their parents can’t marry like their friends parents can.
It means we cannot have the kind of special day we have shared with so many of our friends and family members, that special day when we stand before our loved ones and officially vow to have and to hold, till death do us part.
Excluding same-sex couples from marriage excludes us from the well-documented benefits to personal health and financial well-being that flow from marriage.
It excludes us from a universal language of love and belonging, including the kinship ties marriage creates between families and between generations.
Lee Badgett, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts has studied the benefits of allowing same-sex couples to marry in two different places that allow such marriages, the Netherlands and Massachusetts.
She found that same-sex partners overwhelmingly:
1. marry for the same reasons as opposite-sex couples, chiefly because of their shared love and commitment
2. felt marriage had increased their commitment and their sense of responsibility, and had generally strengthened their relationships
3. believed their children were better off after their marriage, chiefly through legal protection for those children and enhanced feelings of security, stability and acceptance in the children, and
4. felt participation and acceptance in their extended families and communities had increased because of their marriage
In his submission to the 2009 Australian Senate marriage equality inquiry same-sex partner, Dr Darren Cundy, put it this way:
“Marriage is to us a cross-generational ceremony that provides a framework and context for families to come together to offer their support and blessing. Marriage ‘says’ to a couple, your family acknowledges you, your community acknowledges you and the law of the land acknowledges you. To preclude a couple from marriage on the basis of sexuality sends just the opposite message.”
Opponents of marriage equality say they mean same-sex couples no harm, that they are not hateful, nor discriminatory.
But imagine how you would feel if someone legislated away your right to marry? Imagine that, and tell me to my face that you would not feel judged.
Those who oppose marriage equality have gone to great lengths to justify excluding same-sex couples from marriage.
They say that marriage is part of Australia’s religious heritage and allowing same-sex marriage would dishonour that heritage.
What they ignore is that marriage is governed by civil law. That’s why we allow marriages between people of different faiths and no faith.
When we finally allow same-sex marriages in this country, churches will retain their right not to marry same-sex couples, in the same way they currently have the right not to marry, say, divorcees.
What will change is that those faith communities that solemnise same-sex marriages as a religious rite will be able to do so legally.
Their freedom of religious practice will be respected in a way it is not now.
If Australia’s religious heritage is about respect for religious conscience, and I believe it is, then marriage equality will enhance that tradition not diminish it.
Opponents argue that marriage is about raising children and this is best done by a child’s biological mother and father.
Again, what they ignore is that the Marriage Act does not require partners to procreate. This is why we allow couples to marry who can’t have children, who don’t want children, or who are very bad for children.
It’s true that having married parents can be good for children, but this is not because these parents are generally of different sexes. It is because, at best, married parents share the kind of commitment that provides children with the sense of security they crave.
Up to a quarter of same-sex couples are raising children. The weight of scientific evidence says that these children are just as well adjusted socially, sexually and emotionally as their peers. So why deprive these children of the right to have married parents? How can that be in their “best interests?”
Clearly, it isn’t. If we really want what’s best for all kids we will allow same-sex couples to marry.
Finally, opponents of equality say marriage is such a fragile institution that allowing same-sex marriages will demean and destroy the institution and lead to the legalisation of all manner of strange unions including polygamy, incest and bestiality.
Evidence from those countries which allow same-sex marriages overwhelmingly shows that marriage is not damaged by equality. Indeed, in many places with marriage equality there are now more heterosexual marriages and fewer heterosexual divorces than before, leading the Wall Street Journal to declare,
“There is no evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry weakens the institution. If anything, the numbers indicate the opposite.”
As for marriages with siblings and pets etc, these relationships are generally unequal, exploitative and abusive, which is why they have not been legitimised in any country that allows same-sex marriages.
When I hear people talk of the dangers posed by same-sex marriage to marriage generally, I’m always reminded of the words of the Melbourne-based Baptist Pastor, Rev Nathan Nettleton,
“Heterosexual marriage is under threat, but the threat is from within and not from without. The real threats to marriage come from the commodification of sex and relationships and a consumerist mindset that sees everything as ephemera that can be discarded and replaced as soon as a new model comes along that offers a greater level of satisfaction. Unfortunately, when things that we hold dear are under threat from things we feel powerless to tackle, we have a tendency to deflect the blame onto a scapegoat. I think that is what the churches have often tended to do with the homosexual community. But now what we have here is a group who are recognising the value of marriage—of faithful, lifelong vowed relationships—and asking for the right to participate in the benefits of that. Surely if a group who have been stereotyped as the champions of hedonistic promiscuity begin extolling the virtues of marriage, that can only increase the regard in which marriage is held by the community as a whole.”
As well as unfairly scapegoating same-sex couples, people who make the slippery slope case against equality ignore how marriage has changed, and should continue to change, for the better.
Fifty years ago wives were subordinate to their husbands, interracial unions were banned, inter-faith unions were frowned on, rape in marriage was allowed, and the children of de facto partners had no legal recognition.
Imagine if marriage was still like that. No-one would want to get married. In the same way, the discriminatory exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage will come to taint the institution.
As if to highlight the point that marriage evolves for the better, tomorrow a royal prince will marry his de facto partner, a commoner, who, as her husband’s equal, will vow to comfort him, but not vow to “obey” him.
The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton reminds us that marriage is no longer about differences of class, status, origin, race or gender - that it has nothing to do with the expectations others have of us.
Marriage today is about love and commitment, the kind of love and commitment everyone from prisoners to princes have the right to publicly affirm.
As a same-sex partner I share this love and commitment in equal measure to everyone else, and for this reason I too should also be allowed to marry the person I love.
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