Years of campaigning and mass protest have culminated in another round of victories for the worldwide movement for equal marriage rights. In the past month, a further three countries have voted to allow people of the same sex to marry.
A vote in Uruguay’s parliament on April 11 made it the second country in Latin America to allow marriage equality, joining Argentina, which changed its law in 2010.
New Zealand’s parliament was the site of a moving scene on April 17 when galleries packed with supporters burst into song as the parliament passed the Marriage Amendment Bill.
Less than a week later, on April 23, France became the 14th country to legalise marriage equality through a vote in the National Assembly.
With the momentum for change growing, the Australian government is now under even more pressure to recognise public opinion and change the law. Even former opponents of equal marriage rights are now speaking in favour of it.
NSW premier Barry O'Farrell surprised many when he publicly came out in favor of marriage equality on April 18.
He called on federal opposition leader Tony Abbott to allow a conscience vote for members of his party, saying that parliament should “reflect the community and allow same-sex marriage. I think in coming to that decision the federal parliament should do so by way of a conscience vote across all parties”.
In response to his decision, Christian Democrat Party leader Fred Nile — who shares balance of power in the NSW upper house — withdrew support from the O’Farrell government. However, Nile and O’Farrell declared a truce over the issue the next day.
Less than a fortnight later, independent member for New England Tony Windsor created waves by calling for a referendum on marriage equality to be voted on at the federal election in September.
Windsor said: “Discussion of same-sex marriage hasn’t fallen away despite the recent rejection of the proposal by the federal parliament, and local people continue to lobby me both for and against the change.”
Campaigners for marriage equality are now split on the issue of a referendum. Australian Marriage Equality (AME) national convener Rodney Croome argued against a referendum in the April 29 Sydney Morning Herald.
Croome said: “We fear some opponents of equality would use a referendum to polarise the electorate and demonise gay and lesbian people in a way that will impact badly, particularly on young gay people.
“There's simply not enough time before the election to develop the question and the campaigns around same-sex marriage.”
Christine Milne, leader of the Greens, initially backed the call for a referendum but then retracted her support.
Nile and the Australian Christian Lobby are supporting a referendum.
Grassroots organisation Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) are also supporting the call.
CAAH co-convener Cat Rose said: “CAAH supports a referendum ... it would be added pressure on politicians that have been so insistent on ignoring mass support for our struggle.
“Marriage equality has 65% adult support, 85% youth support, and majority support in rural areas, and in the Christian community. The DIY rainbow craze shows us how much the community hates homophobia. We should not be afraid to test this support.”
The Christian right in Australia is much weaker than its US counterpart, and the argument that it would use the campaign to whip up fear around the issue is weak.
Karl Hand, also a CAAH co-convener, said: “Whenever the Christian right have mobilised, like the bigoted Peter Madden, our protests have outnumbered them. When Catholic and Anglican priests try to mobilise their parishioners to sign petitions against us, people in congregations revolt. Our campaign is more popular than the bigoted Christian right’s messages.”
If the federal Labor government chooses to hold a referendum around local government in the September federal election, it would be easy to include a question on marriage equality.
In Australia’s history, referendums have been used several times to extend democratic rights, including recognition of Aboriginal people in 1967, rejecting conscription during World War I, and rejecting a ban on the Communist Party 1951.
A referendum would not be necessary if the Labor government chose to listen to the opinion of the majority of Australians and put a marriage bill before parliament. That would be the simplest way to achieve a change in the law.
Instead, the government is acting as a block. The only way to overcome that block is to keep up the pressure through continuing a mass campaign. This campaign is responsible for shifting public opinion that has made it possible for the law to change in so many countries.
Nationally, a month of protest for marriage equality will take place this month, in conjunction with an international day of action against homophobia and transphobia. There are demonstrations planned for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra.
[For details of the planned rallies, check the activist calendar.]