Australia’s Fight for Marriage Equality

By Rachel Aitken *

Eventually the journey towards marriage equality always breaks down doors. Earlier this year in a poll of more than 12 million Australians, sixty-one percent voted in favour of marriage equality.  The pressure is now on for the government to change existing legislation banning gay marriage in order to bring country’s laws into conformity with the public’s view.  In the wake of this wonderful and momentous change, let’s reflect on Australia’s journey to equality.


Historically, Australia has been slow in its progression toward LGBT + (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights. The state of Tasmania decriminalised homosexuality in only 1997, and only in 2016 did Queensland equalise the age of consent.  Ironically, until 2004 same-sex couples could (theoretically) marry in Australia. But in March 2004, the United Kingdom legalised civil partnerships, and this caused great fear amongst then-prime minister John Howard and his right-wing government that Australians would follow suit.  Therefore, only weeks after the UK’s move, Howard’s government passed the 2004 Marriage Amendment Act, defining marriage as a “union of a man and a woman” and further stating, that “certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: a man and another man; or a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.”. Photo Credits: Rachel Aitken

Thirteen years on, and with one failed attempt by Australia’s capital territory to legalise marriage between gays, same-sex marriage is now on the brink of becoming law. From the 12th of September to the 7th of November 2017, the Australian government issued a nationwide postal survey asking citizens to vote on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Obviously, we now know that the result was “yes,” but whilst this may seem worth celebrating, it must be stressed that it is not legally binding.

Australian media has taken to referring to the postal survey as a plebiscite, however it was not; and in 2016, citing fear that such a nationwide vote would spark unwarranted homophobic debate, the Australian Senate rejected the idea of a plebiscite on the issue.  One senator, Stirling Griffith, even remarked, “We’re elected to make decisions, not to outsource them.” What the senate did say it would do was hold a free vote in parliament, conveniently claiming that such process would not unleash extensive homophobia and all the while believing such a vote would fail.  Clearly their strategy backfired.  Denying the 2016 plebiscite indirectly resulted in the pro-marriage-equality vote that this year’s survey produced.

The postal survey meant that millions of straight citizens had the ability to determine the fate of queer Australians’ rights. Of course, they also had the option of not voting, and it is debatable whether the lack of caring to even post or voting “no” was more heart-breaking to Aussie gays.  But one thing is clear:  The postal survey caused Australia’s queer community tremendous anxiety.

It is completely overwhelming to know that such a big part of one’s future is up in the air, which is how so many queer Australians felt from the minute the survey was announced. To add insult to injury, the homophobia which this survey unearthed was simply disgusting. And painful. Whilst a vote in parliament on the issue would not necessarily have preempted such abuse, it would have played out over a shorter time span. Instead, the survey dragged on for nearly two months, allowing homophobic acts to consistently rear their ugly heads across Australia.

What were some of these acts?  Derogatory adverts prompting people to vote “no” in the survey appeared across numerous Australian cities. The West End of Brisbane was vandalised with posters claiming, “A vote for marriage is a vote for child abuse.” And a poster in Melbourne bearing “Stop the f***” as its tagline falsely claimed that same-sex couples are more likely to abuse their children.

This horrendous discrimination undeniably impaired the mental wellbeing of many queer Australians. But ironically what gay Aussies have most felt stemming from these recent months are resilience and optimism. The postal survey results, whilst ridiculously fragile and non-binding, provided an opportunity for change that the community embraced wonderfully. The outpouring of support and togetherness prove that love really does conquer all. Over 20,000 people rallied in support of equal marriage in Sydney, the largest LGBTQ+ rights rally the country has ever seen. Furthermore, the turnout for this voluntary postal vote was an overwhelming 79.5%. This beats the turnout for the most recent American presidential election, the U.K. prime ministerial election and the Irish referendum on marriage equality, all whilst being a mere survey. These ground-breaking numbers highlight the passion, power, and ultimately the love that Australia’s queer community and allies have.  Finally their voices have been heard. However the fight is not over.  We now must ensure that this energy and resolve translate to legal and political change.

Congratulations, Australia. You are on the brink of bringing long-anticipated and overdue fundamental human right to your gay and lesbian citizens. And it is about time.

Editor’s note: Australia’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly on December 6th to allow same-sex marriage across the nation, three weeks after the national referendum.


Photo Credits: Rachel Aitken / *Rachel Aitken is an LGBTQIA activist studying in Sydney. 

Photo Credits: Rachel Aitken












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