In July 2006, during a holiday in Tuscany, my now husband organised a grand gesture. Planned for months he later told me, he casually suggested we take a drive to explore other parts of the Garfagnana National Park. After hours of gorgeous countryside washing over us, we stopped to explore an old church perched on the edge of a mountainside. He proposed, and after a short pause I said yes.

When the proposal first came I was flustered. Although we had been living together for six years, we had never discussed getting married. I’d also never really pictured myself involved in a wedding ceremony, which had always seemed too bizarrely steeped in sexist traditions of white dresses and fathers giving daughters away to other men. In fact, when I told my father the news he asked whatever had happened to that three-year-old girl who kept insisting that when she grew up she would be a ‘cowpoy’ and a ‘one person’. But I was also uncomfortable because I knew that many of our friends could not be legally married within Australian borders. So while the pause was short, a lot rushed through my mind.

From that first moment something strange sat inside of me: an embarrassment at saying yes. It lasts until this day. I felt guilty that I said yes because of marriage discrimination and the prevention of friends taking the same step. I was also upset I could not feel free, as others whose weddings I’ve attended, to enjoy the event as I was expected to. Many friends, most of them highly political, have described their wedding as similar to ‘the greatest day of their lives’. This I did not feel, although the fact I feel my wedding was diminished seems the least important reason to fight for marriage equality. But it has taken me some time to realise I should feel uncomfortable – that is what political convictions should do.

We did not have a traditional wedding, and married alongside parents and siblings at the state registry office one Saturday morning. The ceremony was short and sweet, and everyone looked gorgeous in every colour but white. A sudden dearth of taxis in the Sydney CBD saw a very well-dressed contingent catch a public bus back to our apartment for some raucous family time. Later that evening we had a big party with friends, in the grounds of the NSW Writers Centre, while friends DJed, drank and danced. The only nod to tradition was cake and two short speeches from our respective brothers. Our MC, a long-term political activist and friend, apologised to our friends present who were still not allowed to marry in this country, and made our feelings on the issue known.

The decision last week by the Commonwealth Parliament to again deny marriage equality has me uncomfortable again. Uncomfortable that I did not wait to get married until all my friends could, and uncomfortable that I wanted to get married in the first place (as the sexist overtones of even the modern institution still rankle). Uncomfortable my previous relationship was one excluded from the institution of marriage, and uncomfortable that I’ve not recently done enough to play my part in the equality campaign. I’m aware that not all on the Left support the campaign, some saying we should not make demands to extend marriage but to end it, for some of the reasons I’ve stated. This position is discussed in detail in Mark Pendleton’s article ‘Marriage is not the gold standard for love’, on New Matilda yesterday. To me though this custom, with all its flaws, includes some and excludes others, and that exclusion needs to end for those who wish to follow that convention.

Though I feel this last vote came with a quiet knowledge that the movement for marriage equality is on route to a finish line – even if the path is long and not entirely clear. This feeling has been stronger over the last few years, and rather than the vote seeming an enormous defeat, each public rally or parliamentary debate seems to inch our way towards ridding Australia of this particular state-sanctioned discrimination. While marriage equality will come a long time before we have a world without homophobia, I will be very excited when every GLBTI person who wishes to marry is able to do so.

Marriage will continue to be imperfect, even if there is true marriage equality. Capitalism, sexism and the nuclear family colour everything around us. But for me, the role of marriage within that is not enough to simply say that the equality campaign is one to be rejected for making conservative or narrow demands. Homophobia will not be ended through this legal reform – or any other – but by the process of creating a different world in the struggle for these political changes (and many more after them). Those struggles will come in a wide variety of hues, such as country footballer Jason Ball’s declaration that he is gay and that he wants more done to fight homophobia within the AFL and, by consequence, within the wider community. Other more radical campaigns will seek to destabilise the institution of marriage more generally, in particular highlighting the role of religion in continuing to prosecute a particular conservative version of it. I think all of those things are helpful.

So I’d like to make a marriage proposal of my own: for all of us feeling uncomfortable, it’s time to start the next round of marriage reform. This campaign is not in contradiction to other campaigns around sexuality, but one that is opening up a dialogue across the community about the broader issues of homophobia and discrimination.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

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  1. This resonates strongly with me, Liz, and I’m sure many others. I married so young I barely thought of it beyond ensuring we got the religious bit out of the vows & no sexist language either, but it was a pretty minimal alteration to the institution and its rituals. Over 20 years I’ve grown ever more *embarrassed*, and have admired a friend of mine in the US who divorced her life partner after nearly a decade married because their discomfort at participating in something they didn’t even agree with that is unavailable to others grew too great to remain complacent. They carry on happily together.

    I’m unsure what exactly you’re calling for as a campaign for those of us who may feel complicit in the problem, but count me in.

  2. This kind of dialogue is sorely needed. I have many friends and colleagues that agree with it wholeheartedly but we need to expand it to those demographics who tend to look the other way. The AFL’s No To Homophobia campaign is a step in the right direction. That alone could reach social circles where this kind of conversation has been lacking.

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