BY MIA FREEDMAN
It’s Mardi Gras weekend and so I want to share this; it’s a transcript of the speech I delivered at the Equality Dinner in January 2012, organised by Australian Marriage Equality. Share it on your Facebook and send it to everyone you know. It’s the message that everyone needs to read today.
When Richard and Mildred Loving got married, they had to choose their location carefully. You see, Richard was white and Mildred was black and in 1962 America, this made their marriage illegal in 16 states including Virginia where they lived. Returning home after their honeymoon, police broke into their bedroom in the middle of the night and arrested them.
Much to the disappointment of authorities, Richard and Mildred weren’t having sex at the time so they couldn’t be charged with the crime of ‘interracial intercourse’. They were still hauled off to jail and charged for being married. The judge ruled their vows null and void, noting that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red and He placed them on separate continents. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix”. Nice.
Richard and Mildred were forced to move to Washington DC where their marriage was recognised but after a few years they were desperate to visit their family and friends. Facing arrest if they returned home, two civil rights lawyers took their case to the US Supreme Court where the judges overturned the Interracial Marriage Act in 1967. In their unanimous ruling, they noted that: “The freedom to marry has long been recognised as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men” (and women one would assume). Happy and orderly. Amen to that. The idea of two people being banned from marriage because their skin didn’t match is a preposterous one to consider in 2012.
So how can we blithely accept the same kind of discrimination based on sexuality? How long until we look back at 2012 and say REALLY? What were people THINKING? My guess is it won’t be too long. Because the arguments against same-sex marriage are just too silly.
There has been a lot of division over the past century so I wanted to start the night off with a quick mention of what we have in common. Kerryn Phelps and I both have a daughter. Both beautiful girls with doting parents. I know one or two of you out there who like to get stuck into a good political debate. Been there, done that.
Some of us share the joy of marriage. Others are happily single and drinking all the champagne.
And there are those in the room who haven’t been given the choice. Which, I must admit, seems a little odd. From where I stand I don’t see any reason why that might be the case. And yet, here we are.
I’m going to be frank. I don’t get it.
And not in an ‘I don’t feel like having the discussion’ kind of way. I just. Don’t. Get. It.
We’ve been having this discussion on the website I publish, Mamamia, for years now and in all that time I have not once encountered an argument against same sex marriage which makes any reasonable sense. Not once.
The most vocal opponents base their arguments on God and the bible. Which is ironic given that marriage certainly didn’t start out as a religious institution. For most of European history, it was simply a business arrangement. Love and God had nothing to do with it, which is why the church was anti-marriage; because it undermined its power base. Today, you may choose to get married in a house of worship but that’s not what makes your vows legally binding. Marriage is a civil institution so how can we allow some taxpayers to do it and not others?
In Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about marriage where I first read the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (yes, their real names), I also learned that over centuries, the only thing consistent about marriage has been its ability to evolve. Adapting to changing social standards is the only reason it’s still around. So the idea of same-sex couples ‘eroding’ the institution of marriage is pure poppycock. It’s simply evolving in the same way it has for centuries.
I’ve never understood the ‘eroding’ or ‘devaluing’ argument against gay marriage. If two people want to pledge their love and lifelong commitment in front of their friends, family and even children, what does that have to do with my marriage? How can that possibly be to its detriment? Does Tiger Wood’s definition of marriage affect mine? Hell to the no.
Gilbert also makes the point that as an institution, modern marriage is in pretty bad shape. Fewer people want to get married and those who do, often bin their vows a few years later. So while heterosexuals are walking away from marriage in droves, there’s a steady stream of gay people trying to head the other way. Except their path is blocked by governments and religious leaders because…well, nobody seems to be able to come up with a very good reason beyond ‘just because’.
Julia Gillard is neither married nor religious and I don’t for a moment believe her public opposition to marriage for same sex couples is her privately held view. It just doesn’t seem to fit. Hopefully the Coalition will move beyond a policy of “Not on our watch, buddy”.
Here’s a fun fact: when the US Supreme Court legalised interracial marriage in 1967, a whopping 70% of Americans strongly disagreed. It happened anyway. So when politicians hide behind public opinion polls, it’s disingenuous. And cowardly. Sometimes you have to do what’s right – not what’s popular – and public opinion inevitably catches up.
But here’s the real strange thing. Public opinion in this country is resoundingly in favour of granting marriage to same sex couples. All the major opinion polls from reputable agencies over the past few years have pointed to nation-wide support ranging from 55 to 70 per cent.
So what we have now is a case of our leaders snatching a civil rights defeat from the jaws of victory.
The message is loud and clear but we’re living in a remarkable and peculiar time when our leaders want to defy public opinions to keep human rights from growing and spreading, as they have done throughout the ages.
Against considerable turmoil, the following has happened:
In 1902 a group of people in Australia previously excluded from voting because they had uteruses were granted the right to have a say in their nation’s elections.
In 1962 a group of people in Australia, previously excluded from voting because they happened to live here before settlement, were granted the right to have a say in their nation’s elections.
In 1955 an African American woman called Rosa Parks staged a simple protest and refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus for a white man.
In 1997, Tasmania became the last state to decriminalise homosexuality.
Well, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating, isn’t it?
One of the hardest arguments to try and counter is that same sex people should just accept a civil union and move on. That they might look ungrateful for pushing for the real deal.
Let me be very clear when I say this: you cannot be half pregnant on human rights.
The argument that gay people should have an institution called something else is just another version of the ‘separate but equal’ arguments schilled by those who never really cared during segregation in North America, or apartheid in South Africa.
It’s not good enough. There’s still no logical, sensible reason why marriage can’t be granted to all.
It’s not about children, either. Though the point seems moot as we have people in this room already raising well adjusted, beautiful, happy children in loving homes who aren’t married. The law has moved beyond this prejudice.
Maybe it’s about tradition? That’s a current favourite in the chatter you hear out and about.
But tradition, as I’ve already illustrated, is an oppressive beast.
If we followed tradition I’d still be gathering berries and the men in the room, yes, even you Alex, would be hunting mammoths and other large game.
I wouldn’t have the vote, blacks wouldn’t either. Sexual harassment would be kind of OK and legwarmers would still be ‘in’.
Tradition can go and get stuffed.
Tradition isn’t an argument for anything. It’s an argument against change. The kind of change that transforms lives and allows homosexuals to form relationships in Tasmania without the fear of forming criminal records too.
Not all same sex couples want to marry. Some don’t believe in it or think it’s unnecessary. Just like straight couples! Surprise! One gay man who has been with his partner more than a decade explains that he doesn’t want to marry but supports same sex couples who do: “I don’t really care why they want to tie the knot, I just want them to have the right to.”
I feel the same way and if you do too, start making some noise, start taking action. Let’s especially encourage heterosexual people and married people and single people to stand up and say, “I’m secure enough in myself or my relationship not to be threatened by the definition of marriage becoming a little more inclusive of other loving couples.”
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
In December 2011, Mamamia’s News Editor Rick Morton joined Sydney’s marriage equality march along with more than 10,000 others. Here are some of the pictures he took during the day:
It's important to get the signs juuuuust right. My friends and I got to it this morning.
How are you celebrating Mardi Gras?