: Speak now: Australian perspectives on same-sex marriage

Speak now: Australian perspectives on same-sex marriage

Senthorun Raj

Speak Now CoverVictor Marsh (ed); Clouds of Magellan, 2011; 255pp; $29.95 (paperback)

We knew that there was enough in our shared journeying to gather us into the future … whatever it might bring.

Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Marriage equality evokes passionate debate amongst scholars, politicians and individuals in the community. Often public debates are constructed in polarising terms: conservative religious narratives that value marriage as a procreative institution is weighted against a human rights dialogue that argues marriage equality is a basic civil right. Speak Now: Australian Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage is a collection of essays, edited by Victor Marsh, that attempts a more provocative discussion beyond the current public debate by interrogating the different political, personal, cultural and affective investments that surround the issue of same-sex marriage (or marriage equality more appropriately). From academic essays to personal musings, the book highlights the disparate ways in which marriage occupies a privileged space in our communities. Given the volume of pieces and the constraints of a word limit, my review explores these issues thematically, so I am unable to do justice or mention every individual author.

Reading Speak Now I am forced into an uneasy emotional space: negotiating apathy, hope, joy and trepidation when pondering the consequences of marriage reform. Structured alphabetically, rather than by theme, the collection moves the reader through differing, often conflicting opinions, within pages of each other. As the editor, Victor Marsh, summarises, ‘there is a wide diversity of points here. One voice cannot speak for everyone affected by this issue’ (p xxxii).

Beginning the trek through such diverse opinions, Speak Now opens with Dennis Altman’s sobering lament on the push by sexual minorities to enter the ‘restrictive’ institution of marriage and the desire to index relationships against sexual fidelity (p 5). Moving this analysis through a postcolonial feminist lens, Barbara Baird, in a later piece, reiterates the ways marriage has functioned randomly, and often cruelly, to regulate bodies and moralities, particularly in respect to Aboriginal women in Australia. Damien Riggs also cautions against equal marriage claims in Australia that can unintentionally overwrite the history of racism and colonial dispossession, by making claims for recognition that only privilege a specific class of white middle-class non-heterosexual people.

While the academic indictment on marriage equality is acute, the activist voices in Speak Now overwhelmingly embrace the idea that eligibility to marry provides valuable social and psychological currency. Exploring the effects of social exclusion, Lynne Hillier and Tiffany Jones capture the psychological anxieties of young people who are unable to find a space of recognition: ‘I can’t fall to sleep, for doing so brings dreams of things I can’t have due to laws being put up. I really want this wedding in the future, and with my one and only’ (p 49). Psychologist Paul Martin examines this further in the context of shame and social stigmatisation, noting that exclusion from a civil institution fosters the internalised belief that a non-heterosexual orientation should be ‘concealed’ from public or even ‘disowned’ altogether (p 128).

Benjamin Law’s and Michelle Dicinoski’s respective reflections reiterate that the push for legal justice will have significant social consequences. In simple terms, the prospect of equality enables spaces where same-sex couples can hold hands or build a lawn, without the threat of violence and shame. For parents, like Evelyn Gray, marriage equality is about speaking out for the protection of gay and lesbian children, to highlight that the issue is not confined to sexual minorities, but also affects families and communities.

From the activist response to a more playful reflection, Alyena Mohummadally and Catherine Roberts resist framing marriage in normative terms. Instead, they reflect on the ‘queer’ possibilities of marriage rites, ‘the beauty of not being included in tradition is the freedom of not being bound to it’ (p 139). For Mohummadally and Roberts, this translated into the ability to dress in suits, choose a chocolate high-tea theme and perform a Bollywood dance at their own wedding. Instead of being a stifling space, marriage opens up new pleasures and possibilities, while also bringing together multicultural families.

Moreover, Nathan Nettleton and Michael Carden’s analysis on marriage sacraments evince the ways that even religious rites are not static. Carden notes that the modern notion of marriage as the site of complete emotional fulfillment is odd, given that this was often the preserve of friendship, which existed outside the matrimonial bond of kinship. Nettleton also reminds us that the biblical proscriptions on homosexuality as a deviation from ‘natural law’ or ‘normative sexual biology’ has largely been the product of parochial readings of scripture that are far from definitive (p 162).

Returning to a legislative context, the path to equality for same-sex couples remains fraught with insecurity and uncertainty. Following the push for decriminalisation in the 1980s, Wayne Morgan points out that same-sex couples have only recently negotiated comprehensive de facto recognition in federal and state laws. In a similar vein to Altman, Morgan expresses concern about the potentially homogenising effects marriage equality will have on non-heterosexual relationships. Echoing Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, then, we need to be open to a ‘queerification’ of marriage that acknowledges ‘the existences, experiences, and expertise of border sexualities, genders and families’ (p 171). Peter Tatchell offers the ‘civil commitment pact’ as one such queer possibility, allowing individuals to negotiate relationship recognition with a ‘significant other’, regardless of the sexual or romantic dimension of their relationship (p 225).

What is clear is that marriage equality alone will not deliver comprehensive rights, recognition and entitlements for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Crusader Hillis reminds us that the activist energy channeled towards marriage should also be directed against eliminating the laws that require people to divorce to undergo sex affirmation surgery. We should be as energetic about many other queer justice projects, and recognise that marriage equality, while a significant step, will not end homophobia in its entirety and all its related social problems.

Ultimately, Speak Now generates more ethical and critical dialogues in the marriage equality debate. With numerous bills to legislate for marriage regardless of sex being introduced into the Australian Parliament, the discussion has reinvigorated a desire to be part of a campaign for equality, while recognising the importance of diverse perspectives. While Speak Now unequivocally condemns homophobic fears of queer desires and same-sex relationships, it also urges us to que(e)ry the underlying conditions of state recognition, ritual and rights. In doing so, the text speaks to a future where relationship diversity is embraced and supported, rather than denied or shamed.

SENTHORUN RAJ is the Senior Policy Advisor of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.

(2012) 37(2) AltLJ 141
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