Symbolism matters, but not to the law
Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noticed the increasingly heated debate surrounding marriage equality in Australia. Every man and his dog has an opinion and everyone believes they’re right. How can we break the log-jam?
Marriage has been around for thousands of years – it predates our dominant religions and has evolved over time, reflecting changes in society. What hasn’t changed is that marriage has always been a legal contract administered by the state – even if a church has, at times, also been the state. Sure we could quibble over what changes happened at what time and what those changes mean, but that is beside the point that I’m trying to make.
Symbolism is the act (often unwillingly) of attributing meaning or emotion to something. Our response to symbolism is visceral – it is something deeply personal that resonates within each of us. If you play a song to someone, it may symbolise a moment in time where they were the happiest they’ve ever been. If you play the same piece to someone else, it may be symbolic of tragic circumstances. Both are correct. Both are infallible, but it is the same song. The symbolism attached to that song applies to a specific individual.
On the other hand, law is broad and it (theoretically) applies to everyone, equally. It provides a structure that ensures equal treatment of all while respecting that people will have their own symbolic values.
If you asked any 10 people on the street what marriage symbolises to them, you’d likely get 10 different answers. If you asked the friendly folk over at the Australian Christian Lobby, they’d probably give you an answer along the lines that marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman entered into for life, to the exclusion of all others, in the sight of a Christian God that provides the correct environment in which to raise children. And that’s great: is their instinctual, emotional response and is their symbolic value of marriage. It just so happens to be more extensive than the letter of the law, but that’s fine.
It wasn’t until 2004 the Howard Government (with the Australian Labor Party’s support) to explicitly dictated that marriage was between a man and a woman. Until that point The Marriage Act (1961, as amended) legally defined marriage as “a union between two people, to the exclusion of all others entered into for life”. All that marriage-equality advocates want is for this law to be rolled back to the way it was. The previous legal definition of marriage was broad enough to let people bring their own meaning to the institution.
At it’s most fundamental the fight for marriage equality is simply to allow consenting adults who are already in a partnership to legally formalise their union in the eyes of the state. That’s it. That is as much control and jurisdiction the marriage act allows – to legally recognise a union between two people. The couple is then free to attribute whatever symbolic meaning they choose.
One could be forgiven for thinking that those who oppose marriage equality seem to worry that recognising other couples might somehow affect their own marriage. It won’t – the protections and obligations that marriage affords them will remain in place. Therefore, it becomes obvious the issue is that someone else is attributing different symbolic values to marriage than their own.
But this is an unsustainable position – even if same sex couples marrying does affect the way people like Wendy Francis view the symbolic value of their own marriage, then that is a personal matter, not a matter for the state. Law must never mimic the symbolic values of any one group or individual – it exists to provide a consistent legal framework for everyone – from which, individuals are then able to define their own symbolic meaning.
If the fight for marriage equality results in nothing more than legal equality, then why not allow same sex couples to enter a union that affords all the legal protections of marriage, yet call it something else?
In the 1950s in America, there was a policy introduced that followed this same logic – it was called “Separate but Equal”. To quote from Wiki:
Separate but equal was a legal doctrine in United States constitutional law that justified systems of segregation. Under this doctrine, services, facilities and public accommodations were allowed to be separated by race, on the condition that the quality of each group’s public facilities was to remain equal.
History has shown us that this policy is abhorrent. To allow state-sanctioned segregation based on age, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability is inherently unequal. The laws of a democratic and free country must be equal for all citizens. To have a civil contract, like marriage, available to some but not others based purely on sexual orientation, is blatent discrimination.
Whether marriage is technically a legal “right” or not is irrelevant – giving blacks access to the same drinking fountain in a public building was not a legal “right” either, but it was the decent thing to do. By denying same sex couples the right to marry, or by defining a separate law that “mimics marriage” you define a group of people as “worthy of segregation”.
We should be clear: Wendy Francis wanted Queensland’s Civil Partnership’s bill repealed because (in her own words) it “mimicked marriage”. Her position is that there should be no formal recognition of homosexual union, segregated or otherwise.
Of course, Mrs Francis isn’t alone: the LGBT community are consistently marginalised by society. Here are some examples, from this year, published in mainstream media:
We’re dealing with the noxious problem of homosexuals
(Brisbane Times Website, 2012)
I know what to do: Build a great big fence and put and all the lesbians in there. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals and have that fence electrified so that they can’t get out
(Pastor Charles Worley, 2012)
Homosexuality is an insult to God, society and nature
(Australian Christian Lobby Website, 2012)
You’re unable to provide a reasonable defense for your [homosexual] behaviour
(National Organisation for Marriage Website, 2012)
These are dysfunctional families that are not proper
(Referring to same sex couples – Rightwing Watch, 2012)
In spite of the clever PR tactics, this Government is not sanctioning marriage equality. It supports inaction: the policy is to not have a binding policy. This is nothing short of silently supporting the notions above that same sex couples are not normal and deserve to be treated differently to heterosexuals.
Whose opinion should we considered when making laws?
Before we continue, let’s ask ourselves this simple question: would we invite a white supremacist to testify before a senate committee discussing interracial marriage?
We live in a democratic country – everyone has the equal opportunity to be heard and to be counted, and everyone has a right to be wrong, but does every opinion make good policy?
The Australian Christian Lobby are often quoted in the press as if they represent all Australians Christians. The ACL gets a lot of power from this misconception, yet they represent narrow sectional interests: its members tend to believe that being gay is a choice, that it is sinful, evil and should be stopped.
Of course groups like the ACL are entitled to an opinion, but at some point shouldn’t we recognise that their opinion comes from a place of intolerance, hatred and bile?
If such groups cannot even dignify the LGBT community with simple human respect, then how can we sit idly by and let them crowd out the voices of pluralism?
In a country where the rate of suicide amongst LGBT teenagers is fouteen times higher than their straight counterparts, and where members of our community are bombarded with hate and vitriol for nothing more than loving someone of the same gender, the support of socially just laws is essential. The LBGT community isn’t asking for special rights – it’s groups like the ACL who are asking for their symbolism to be recognised as more important than anyone else’s.
How can we break the log-jam? It’s simple: we need to continually remind everyone that over 67% of Australians support marriage equality, and that it is only a very vocal minority who oppose it.