Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012

17 September 2012

Today we are here to debate a bill which will remove the last remaining discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians from our federal law. This legislation, the Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012, has been a long time coming. I think it is ironic that this last piece of discrimination to be removed should be the most recently introduced. I, like thousands of other Australians, was hurt and dismayed when the federal parliament back in 2004 took steps to entrench discrimination into our nation's Marriage Act. I have always worked for fairness and equal treatment for all Australians. That principle is at the core of my commitment to politics, and it is and always will be a touchstone for me.

I would support the removal of discrimination from the Marriage Act whether or not the act as it currently stands discriminated against me personally. But it would be disingenuous of me not to put on record that in this case the act does discriminate against me. I am one of those hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens who know that the laws of our nation hold our capacity for love and for commitment to be lesser because of the gender of our partner, one of the hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens who know that the laws of our nation say we are less deserving of rights, of respect and of recognition. And we know that those ideas are not true, and that the laws that reinforce them are not right. So this debate has a personal impact for me, in addition to the commitment I have always felt to end legal discrimination against any Australian. I have grown weary over the years of making that case over and over again that, yes, I am a person like everyone else and, yes, I deserve the same treatment under the law as everyone else. But I must say I have been strengthened, over and over, by the growing support in the Australian community to end discrimination once and for all. We can see in the history of this debate that about 38 per cent support for marriage equality in 2004 grew to more than 65 per cent of the Australian community today. What is more, more than 75 per cent of Australians believe that marriage equality in this nation is inevitable. And that is hardly surprising. The gradual reform of laws at a state, territory and federal level throughout recent decades has been accompanied by a growing realisation in our community that being gay, lesbian, trans or intersex is not something to be ashamed of, or something to be hidden.

As someone who has seen the laws that denied my rights fall, one by one, in my lifetime, as someone who came of age in an Australia where being who I am was, if not universally accepted, at least no longer a shameful secret and a source of fear, I want to put on record today how incredibly grateful I am to those men and women who went before us, those men and women who were brave enough to be open about their life and open about their love in a time when doing so put them at real risk of danger, who fought for our rights regardless of what it cost them, both personally and, for many, professionally. Without them, we would not be debating this bill today. Without them, I would not be here in this parliament at all. And without them, it would not now be the norm, rather than the exception, for gays and lesbians to live openly, to be accepted by their families, their workmates and their communities. Because of that openness, because of that acceptance, for many Australians today the question of marriage equality is not an abstract one—it is about equal rights for their daughter, or their brother, or their dad or their workmates, their teammates, their friends. And if there is one thing about the Australian character that we have always been able to rely on, it is about the commitment of Australians to a fair go for the people around them.

Support for marriage equality is, in my view, about that fair go. But, more importantly, it is about support for marriage itself—recognition of the importance of lasting, committed, loving relationships and the public recognition and display of that commitment. Historically, gay, lesbian and transgender people have been denied the opportunity to make that commitment in a public ceremony recognised by the laws of our nation in the community. I think it is one of the bitterest ironies of this debate that, historically, gay people have been stigmatised as promiscuous and immoral while being denied by the law the right to demonstrate the importance and consistency of their relationships in the way that any other Australian can. Think about that. If marriage is important to our society, if mutual commitment to a shared life is important and if it is valuable in and of itself—and I think it is—and for the strength it lends our community then we should be encouraged by the desire of so many non-heterosexual couples to enter into that lifelong bond.

The simple fact is that thousands of lesbian and gay couples are married here and abroad, and I take issue with Senator Brandis when he says this bill is in breach of custom. Take a look at Australia today. Take a look at the customs of Australia today. There are thousands of lesbian and gay couples who are married, in marriages like anybody else's. They have the same characteristics as any other, bar the official recognition of the law of our country.

I understand that some senators may be concerned, as some who made submissions to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee are concerned, that the removal of discrimination in the Marriage Act would force religious celebrants who feel same-sex marriage is against the principle of their religions to nonetheless preside over such marriages. But you only need to look at the facts of the Marriage Act today. The Marriage Act contains provisions that clearly and unequivocally protect ministers of religion from any obligation to conduct marriages that they believe do not accord with their religious beliefs.

So I will be voting for this bill, and I hope that all my Labor colleagues will be voting for this bill. I know the majority are. I believe that this bill fits with a sensible reform agenda and with the passion for fairness and equality that our party has always prized. I hope, too, that opposition senators on the other side of this chamber will be voting for this bill because they support the importance of marriage in our society. I believe that this bill fits with the Liberal Party's stated commitment to the rights and freedoms of equal opportunity for all Australians, and I remind National Party senators that a great many lesbian and gay Australians live in rural and regional Australia. They are your constituents too, and I ask you to recognise their rights.

I believe that this bill, as the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee recommended, should be the subject of a conscience vote for all federal senators and members. This in in fact consistent with the way the Marriage Act has been treated in the past. Australians believe that coalition senators and members should have a conscience vote on this question. This is not an issue that should divide left and right. It is not a conservative-versus-progressive issue. It is not a left-wing issue. It is not a progressive issue.

It is about our recognition of the importance—to individuals and our community—of people making together a mutual commitment to a shared life. It is about the importance of marriage in our society—the importance of marriage not to the few but to the broad breadth and depth of the Australia community. If we want marriage to remain an important institution in Australia — and I certainly do — then we must make this change.

I believe this bill is good policy. It is in line with principles of equality and in line with today's community expectations. I would support this bill, as many in this chamber and in the other place support it and as many in the community support it, if it did not affect me. But, this is a bill that personally affects me, because marriage discrimination affects same-sex couples and also affects people with intersex and transgender partners. I am sure many of you do not know that under the current law we see married couples, with children, forced to divorce against their will when one partner realises they are transgender in order to have their gender legally recognised. It is a disgrace that those in functional families with children are required to divorce so that someone can have their gender recognised. Under the current law, there are also Australians who have the legal right to marry no-one because they are legally and by biological fact intersex — that is, they are both male and female — irrespective of how they identify. The discrimination in the Marriage Act directly affects me, as well as thousands and thousands of other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians. But it also directly affects many, many more Australians than those because legal discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians hurts not just us but our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends. It hurts everyone who loves us, just because of who we love.

So in closing my remarks in this debate, I ask senators in this chamber to remember, when they are deciding how to vote, we exist, we already exist, our relationships exist, our children exist, our families exist, our marriages exist and our love exists. All we ask is that you stop pretending that we don't. Stop pretending that our relationships are not as real as yours, our love not as true, our children not as cherished, our families not as precious—because they are. Removing this last vestige of legal discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians from federal law now has the support of the majority of the Australian community. It is my sincere hope that it also has the support of the majority of senators in this place.