The Turnbull government’s $122 million same-sex marriage postal survey is underway. So how did we get here? And what impact will your answer to the single ballot paper question have?
How the same-sex marriage debate began
You might think same-sex marriage has taken a long time to land in your letterbox. For one, it’s been decades since the first Gay Solidarity march in Sydney in 1978, an action that became Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
But according to Timothy Jones, Senior Lecturer in History at La Trobe, history shows that political responses to changes in social values is slow.
“It should not be a surprise that legislative reform in Australia to allow same-sex couples to marry is taking longer than a decade. The legislative histories of many previous changes to marriage law have been far longer and more drawn out than the recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia is likely to be.”
So, how long has it taken to get same-sex marriage to a postal vote? Dennis Altman, Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe, explains that the marriage equality debate in Australia began with force in 2004, courtesy of an action by former Prime Minister John Howard.
“Aware of the electoral advantage George W Bush saw in opposing moves for marriage equality in the US, Howard amended the Marriage Act in 2004 to specify that marriage was only possible between a man and a woman.”
The decision to exclude gay couples from the Marriage Act prompted Australia’s gay and lesbian community and its supporters to stand up for same-sex marriage. As Dennis observes,
“Over the years the marriage equality movement has proven one of the most successful pressure groups in recent Australian history. It has carried with it the Greens, the Labor Party and – if polls are correct – a growing majority of Australians.”
In 2011, the journey to the same-sex marriage postal vote was helped by another major milestone.
Why counting same-sex status in the census mattered
The gay and lesbian community became counted in the Australian census for the first time in 2011.
La Trobe’s Anne Mitchell, Deputy Director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), describes same-sex couples’ formal recognition as an important step toward improving the community’s visibility:
“We are here in significant numbers, we are in couples, some of us brazenly call ourselves ‘married’, we own houses, we raise children. Being counted in the census gives rise to a plethora of other benefits and flow-on effects that will make a difference.”
One of these flow-on effects is better quality research. La Trobe’s Jennifer Power, Senior Research Fellow at ARCSHS, observes that not asking people about sexual orientation can impact researchers’ ability to produce top quality studies.
“The ‘gold standard’ for research on child and family outcomes are studies that involve randomly selected, population-based samples. This has been difficult to achieve in research on same-sex parenting because many population-based studies don’t ask about parents’ sexual orientation.”
Over the past decade, a range of Australian and international studies of same-sex parent families have been conducted. Among the research tools used in these studies are population-based data sets, like the US census.
Fact-checking research on children in same-sex parented families, Jennifer has found these data sets vital. Ultimately, they’ve validated equivalent findings by lesser quality research.
“Recent analyses of population-based data sets have supported the finding that children or adolescents raised by same-sex couples do not experience poorer outcomes than other children.”
Counting same-sex couples in the census is a definite step toward formally acknowledging gay and lesbian partnerships. But making your vote count in the same-sex marriage postal survey is another.
How to make your vote count
Since the postal survey was announced, almost 100,000 people have enrolled for the first time and more still have updated their enrolment details. Which is to say this issue has driven more Australians than ever to want their vote counted.
Whether you support marriage equality or not, your answer to the single question on the ballot paper – “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” – needs to be returned by 7 November to be counted. If there is a yes result, the government will facilitate a private member’s bill to legalise same sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage in Australia could be legal by summer. Whatever your view of marriage equality, express it respectfully.
Want to stand up for LGBQTI rights? Take a course in gender, sexuality and diversity studies at La Trobe.