Marriage equality is about human dignity

Sydney, November 2010. Photo: Mat Ward.

The ban on marriage between persons of the same sex is an assault on the basic human dignity of same-sex attracted people. It subjects them to a damaging social stigma, a new report by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has now recognised.

The document surveys 10 recent psychiatric studies that explore the consequences of the marriage ban on test-samples of thousands of everyday people.

It presents a new scholarly consensus about the horrifying psychological impact of living in a culture where you are denied access to significant cultural institutions such as marriage.

It has found that living in a state that bans marriage is linked to “chronic social stress and psychological problems”. It also said it can reinforce “minority stigma”, “undermine healthy emotional development and attachment style”, and even lead to shorter and less stable relationships.

The APA has called for full marriage equality to address these and other harmful side-effects of the marriage ban.

Eight years into Australia’s marriage equality movement, this study demonstrates what people in the movement have always known: that homophobia destroys lives.

The political implications of this research are clear enough — the marriage ban is not merely a matter of “formal” inequality, it is rather a form of systematic moral persecution, which is cruel and dehumanising.

Human rights are in essence a kind of dignity, a recognition of the preciousness of each human person, which means that people must be treated in such a way as to respect and value their uniqueness, freedom and equality.

One person who has experienced the degrading impact of homophobia is Scott Williams, the young co-founder of Wear it Purple, an advocacy group for “rainbow-youth” with a platform targeting issues such as bullying, depression and suicide.

When Scott came out as same-sex attracted to a person he trusted at the age of 15, he was told “that means you’ll never be able to have a family, or spend your life with someone who loves you … You are setting yourself up for failure.”

Already having experienced suicidal tendencies because of the homophobic environment he was immersed in, Scott spent the next six months of his life dwelling on the possibility that he would never be able to have a family of his own.

Because he did not feel conventionally “masculine” enough, Scott began to think that he would never be capable of being a father, or a “bread-winner” in a “normal” family context.

Scott was also introduced to stereotypes about homosexuals in his first encounter with queer-culture: the TV sitcom Queer as Folk.

Watching this sitcom made Scott think that being gay meant sleeping around and obsessing about clothes and music. “I didn’t fit into the gay stereotype and I wasn’t straight, so I didn’t fit into either world.”

He began to wonder if it would be better for him to just opt out of life altogether, and so began a year of self-torment, which included times when he felt suicidal.

Now aged 20, Scott has found that working with Wear it Purple gives him a better outlook on life. It has allowed him to engage positively with the issues that caused him so much stress in his formative years.

Scott looks to marriage equality as a way to address the mental health issues faced by rainbow youth today. This includes issues such as peer pressure to be someone they’re not, and bullying, which schools often fail to address.

“Just the other day, I was thinking about marriage, and suddenly I realised that I wasn’t equal and other people didn’t see me the way that I see me,” Scott told Green Left Weekly.

“If there was marriage equality, I would know that future generations would not have to go through the same struggles that I have had to go through, and that over time it would start to break down social injustice.”

Through a grassoots organisation like Wear it Purple, Scott says he is able to “get in the face of politicians, and remind them over and over again about the issues rainbow youth face, and that there are things that politicians can do to make things better for our community”.

This new research shows that Scott’s experiences are representative of the lives of many young people who want to know this society is a place where they will be treated with dignity, and have happy and productive lives.

The connection between marriage rights and human dignity has clear implications for the political process.

As a human right, marriage is something that people should be able to expect, and not have to lobby or campaign for.

Yet the Labor government is now seriously contemplating allowing a “conscience vote” on the issue, enabling individual politicians to grant or deny human rights on the whims of their personal moral convictions.

Penny Wong, a Labor Left faction senator, has recently said marriage equality is a principle of equality, which should not be subject to a conscience vote.

She said in the November 19 Sydney Morning Herald: “A conscience vote should not be Labor’s answer to the calls for equality within the party and the wider community. Equality should not be a matter of conscience; it should be reflected in Labor policy.”

Wong’s argument drew on the story of her parents’ 1967 inter-racial marriage, which took place when the vast majority of people disapproved of inter-racial marriage.

The recognition of inter-racial couples in Australia in 1959 did not happen because of “widespread support” for inter-racial marriage, or on the basis of individual sentiments.

It happened because equality and human dignity were upheld on principle.

But such core democratic values have now eroded in our society to the point where the Labor party is willing to hand human rights over to a parliamentary straw poll.

Now more than ever we need to transform our society, and create a world in which communities act together to look after the dignity of every individual person, and every marginalised group.