I recently became engaged and what’s surprised me the most, in and amongst the chaos of emotions I’ve experienced since the ‘engagement moment’, is how profoundly sad I feel about it. This is best encapsulated in the moment when I told my family. My father was so happy for my partner and I that tears glazed his eyes. But my own vision wobbled because I felt sad for my brother, sitting across the table from me, grinning selflessly as he toasted my happiness and future – a happiness and future that the state denies him. The realisation of precisely what an engagement means and what it feels like brought with it a true awareness for me of what is being denied to others.
For me, marriage equality has always been more of a political than personal issue. This, despite the fact I have several close friends in non-heterosexual relationships. But perhaps this was the root of the problem: I’d approached the inequality intellectually and whenever I needed to personalise it, I always did so by way of my discriminated-against friends. I was that self-righteous heterosexual: I care because I have gay friends. I thought I was empathising but, as I can now recognise, I was doing a rubbish job of it. I was approaching the issue abstractly and impersonally because I hadn’t yet imagined how marriage could be personal for me, and thus relatedly, hadn’t imagined precisely how personal the lack is for others. My empathy was hollow – politically nuanced and well intentioned, but hollow. It became a personal issue when my partner and I were bushwalking and he fashioned me a button-grass ring and we both nearly cried because of how shockingly new and intense everything was in that moment.
Marriage is an institution many heterosexuals take for granted, as an idealised and attainable white-wedding dream, as an easy excuse for a loved-up party, or merely as a convenient way to formally mark an intention to commit. According to the ABS, 113,595 couples asked each other the marriage question in 2015; averaged out, this works out to be 311 couples every day of the year. Perhaps more. Probably, there were some that never made it to their chosen alter because their relationship fell apart or because they decided that actually, marriage wasn’t for them. And really, that’s the crux of it. When contemplating a life together, heterosexuals enjoy the privilege of choosing to marry or not.
This was the privilege my partner and I were exercising the day that we got engaged. We decided we would get married just as other people in heterosexual relationships choose not to, and the state doesn’t really care either way. It only cares that gay people do not. ‘They’ are free to not marry, and be happy with that choice. As Senator Abetz so kindly reminded the nation last year, Dolce and Gabbana are gay and they don’t want to get married. As so many conservatives rationalise, ‘they’ can choose to spend the rest of their lives with their loved ones, ‘they’ don’t have to get married to do that. But this option, even when characterised by nothing but love and commitment, is always negatively restricted – necessarily decided, if only in small part, in reference to what the state disallows.
The day my partner and I got engaged, traipsing through the south-west of Tasmania, all I could think was that, not only would the words we said have been different if he were a woman or I a man, the emotional atmosphere would have also been different. Our moment wouldn’t have been characterised by unchecked optimism and nervous euphoria, or at least, not wholly; it would have been marred, in part, by an awareness of an inequality, and an inequality that has a violent history and present. Take, for example, the context of Tasmania, where homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1997.
In 1994 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Tasmanian laws, sparking a national debate as to whether or not the federal government had the power to override discriminatory state statutes. Jump forward to the twenty-first century and the opposite is occurring: the government has been pressuring states and territories to conform to its image of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. When, in 2013, the ACT passed an act legalising same-sex marriage, the Commonwealth, headed by freshly minted PM Tony Abbott, appealed against the legislation in the High Court. The Court decided that the ACT’s Marriage Equality Act was inconsistent with the federal Marriage Act, stating in its summary of judgements: ‘The Court held that the Federal Parliament has power under the Australian Constitution to legislate with respect to same-sex marriage, and that under the Constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same-sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the Federal Parliament.’ The thirty-one couples who wedded in the brief period same-sex marriage was legal in the ACT subsequently had their marriage nullified.
This judgement was facilitated, in no small part, by John Howard’s Marriage Amendment Bill of 2004, which included, for the first time, a definition of marriage as the ‘voluntarily entered-into union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others’. Howard’s agenda in amending the Marriage Act was blatant; in a press conference held at the time, he told reporters: ‘We’ve decided to insert this into the Marriage Act to make it very plain that that is our view of marriage and to also make it very plain that the definition of a marriage is something that should rest in the hands, ultimately, of the parliament of the nation.’
My partner and I were privileged because in the moment when we murmured our love to one another and contemplated whether or not we should celebrate that love with marriage, the spectres of John Howard, Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Cory Bernardi –whose newly formed Conservative Party is, in large part, devoted to opposing marriage equality – and the rest of their posse were nowhere in sight. There was no-one lurking in the wings, hissing: no, you can’t have what we have because your love is worth less than ours. We were free to make a choice. We were privileged to be able to enjoy the aftermath of that moment: to tell our families, to witness their joy. What we were exercising was both sides of heterosexual privilege: the privilege to be able to love the person you love and to have that love recognised, to have that ‘engagement moment’, which brings with it a mix of anxiety, joy, contentment and, most of all, optimism. It’s a right that is possessively guarded and granted only to a select group.
Since becoming engaged, I’ve realised that marriage equality isn’t just about non-heterosexual marriages; it’s about all marriages, which is, of course, a concern that drives the conservative campaign. They worry about what gay marriage will do to the institution of marriage. For me, the persisting inequality is tarnishing it right now. It’s only a matter of time until marriage equality is realised. Public support is swelling every day and rumour has it the Turnbull Government is now contemplating a free vote on the issue in parliament – this was one of the reasons Bernardi decided to defect. Many politicians are married; I only hope that, if allowed a free vote, they think back to the moment they made that decision, they remember how they felt, and they realise that they have the power to allow thousands of their constituents to experience that same euphoric nervousness, that same optimism unchecked. Should the government press ahead with their plans for a plebiscite, I hope that the millions of Australian heterosexuals are able to do the same. Whether married or not, I hope that Australian heterosexuals are able to understand the depth of their privilege, and help to dismantle its exclusivity for the sake of those systematically discriminated against, and for the sake of all marriages.