Putting a Human Face on the Plebiscite
By Bonnie Barkmeyer
It’s 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon, and a couple are cozied up on a couch in their home. It’s a warm day; spring is just around the corner and the blossom trees line the streets of the country town. Their pet dog, Wilson, who will later be referred to as their “joint baby”, is lying in between the blankets and cushions, receiving a therapeutic pat by his owners. They have just cooked lunch together and are now watching a film before one of them will glumly leave the other for work later that evening. There are a few differences between this couple and the ones you see in the romantic movies and TV shows. Probably, what is most visually recognisable is that they are both girls, but the critical difference is that this couple are not allowed to marry in our country.
Gabby and Lara have been together since they were 17 years old. They met as classmates in a health subject in their hometown of Bendigo. They both had partners at the time, but the pair knew the other person was someone special. They started dating on Valentine’s Day, and although it was not known yet, this date would be a very a special day for them in the future; the anniversary of their wedding. Their wedding was held in Bendigo at a magnificent bush setting, with blue-grey gumtrees at the alter, crisp white chairs lined in rows and a small creek directly behind them. It played the perfect backdrop for wedding ceremony. The girls both wore white gowns, and their large bridal party wore mint green and pale pink dresses. It was a beautiful service, but it wasn’t a real wedding. It was only a civil union ceremony – the most a gay couple in Australia can currently partake in.
Civil unions do not offer the same legal benefits as marriage. When two people are married, they are permitted to receive joint tax benefits, share estates and property, receive joint Medicare, take leave if their spouse becomes sick, visit their spouse in hospital if an emergency occurs and make medical decisions on behalf of their partner, amongst many other things. Two people in a civil union do not have these rights, as their relationship is not currently valid in the eyes of our state.
“Gabby and I can’t do things for each other legally even though we’ve been together for almost five years,” Lara explained to me, with a hint of anguish in her voice. “Like with our joint Centrelink payments, we had to wait for about a year to be registered as a couple because they wouldn’t believe that we were in a legitimate relationship. They said to us ‘how do we know you’re not just friends?’”
Lara decided to change her name after her wedding with Gabby. She was not prepared for how difficult and draining this process would be.
“I had to write a request, almost like an application to change my last name, it was definitely a more complicated process than if we were in a heterosexual relationship. I had to explain to them why I was doing this, that I was taking my partner’s last name,” Lara clarified enthusiastically. Gabby explained that if they were allowed to legally marry, that this process would just automatically happen. It was a tedious process to set up the parts of their lives together without the help and support of our government. They share all of their finances, and have a house and a dog together. Everything they own is a shared asset, making it just as complex as if they were legally married.
With the government’s plan to introduce a plebiscite, we could see marriage equality in Australia being legislated through parliament. Although our government could have, on many occasions, legalised gay marriage already. So what is a plebiscite? A plebiscite is a nationwide vote to gauge public feedback on a political proposal. In other words, it’s an opportunity to get the public’s view on an issue. In the case of the marriage plebiscite, the public would vote to amend the part of the definition of marriage in Australia from “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” to something along the lines of “the union of two individuals”. They will vote either “yes” in favour of changing the current definition, or “no” to keep it the same. But it’s not as simple as a majority votes campaign. After the results are calculated, it is up to the members of parliament to use the public’s vote as a guide for their final decision. At this stage, the plebiscite would be introduced in early 2017, and the votes calculated by mid-2017 at the earliest, according to an article written by the Marriage Equality Australia party. It would cost at least $160 million of taxpayer’s money. It will delay marriage equality even longer, but most importantly delay the process of two people who love each other from being allowed to legally embark on a union for life.
A plebiscite will no doubt affect the members of the LGBTI community enormously. Part of the cost of the plebiscite will go towards the propaganda for both sides of the vote. It’s a yes or no vote, but this is affecting real people with real emotions.
“I’ve never faced any hatred for being in a same-sex relationship, but they’re going to be putting these ads on TV, what does this mean for me and other gay people now?” Lara is scared to think what ramifications will occur if some of her close friends and family become too overwhelmed by the potential bigotry and homophobia being advertised.
It is a fact that LGBTI people have significantly poorer mental health and higher rates of suicide than other Australians. It is also a fact that lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high or very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers. LGBTI people have the highest rates of suicide of any population in Australia. Due to these high rates, LGBTI people are disproportionately affected by the suicide of friends and community figures. These facts come from the Beyond Blue Organisation’s website, the same organisation that helped dedicate a category for the calls they receive on the Lifeline suicide hotline. The hotline has already received so many calls in relation to how the plebiscite is affecting individuals that they decided to make a specific category in order to make it easier to issue help.
Now to another member of the LGBTI community: Ryan is a 28-year-old gay man from New Zealand. He has lived in Australia for 15 years, and loves the country he now calls home. Except for its laws that prohibit him from marrying here.
Ryan knew he was gay from an early age. He described himself as a very flamboyant child, and would always play dress ups in his mother’s and grandmother’s clothes and make-up. For him, school was a harrowing and troublesome time. He attended an all-boys school in Sydney’s Southwest, and as hard as it was being gay at this particular school, it was also highly populated with Muslim students, bringing in a religious factor. He described his high school experience as “pure hell” as he tried to find a way to bear the strong religious beliefs of his peers as well as deal with what he was going through personally. “I struggled mentally trying to deal with myself but also trying to protect myself as well. I started missing school and soon dropped out at the age of 15 when I couldn’t take it anymore.” His voicing of this personal experience exuded bravery.
Ryan does not want to be reminded of the sad times he endured in his adolescence and believes the if the plebiscite goes ahead, it will only incite hate and homophobia to the people who are already struggling with ‘coming out’. “Just imagine trying to deal with coming out and having your whole sexuality be played out on TV during the plebiscite. Unless we get to vote on everyone’s right to marry including heterosexual marriages, this is plain and simple discrimination. I can’t vote on straight people’s rights so why the hell do they have the right to have a say in my life?”
This is a statement that Lara strongly agrees with.
“For them to say that we can’t get married because ‘they don’t agree with it’ doesn’t make sense. There are things that heterosexual couples do within their own marriages that we don’t agree with. So who really has the right to enforce any of that?” Lara asked desperately.
Recently, a simple yet thought-provoking question was presented to a member of the National Party political group who opposes same-sex marriages. Australian actress and openly gay comedian Magda Szubanski asked, “Am I equal to you?” to which the politician replied, “Yes.” Magda then asked passionately, “Then why don’t you want to give me my rights?”
Australia is one of the last developed countries in the world to have not yet legalised gay marriage. A marriage between two people brings a sense of joy, love and mutual support. To deny two people who are happy together from being legally married is an attack on a basic human right.
To sum up an idea of the plebiscite, we have a final quote from Lara: “Marriage is a happy thing and so much about love, I just don’t understand how some politicians are turning this into a hate-fuelled debate.”
- Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney – Acceseed via Beyond Blue website
- Marriage Act, 1961
- Australian Marriage Equality . 2016. Why Australian Marriage Equality opposes a plebiscite on marriage equality. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/AME-Fact-Sheet-Plebiscite.pdf. [Accessed 14 October 2016].
- Lina Guillen (Attorney) for NOLO. 2016. Marriage Rights and Benefits. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/marriage-rights-benefits-30190.html. [Accessed 14 October 2016].