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Providing same-sex couples with the same legal and social recognition of their relationships in no way infringes upon the rights of others. Allowing same-sex marriage is about extending the privileges already enjoyed by the majority to an excluded minority who differ simply in terms of the sex of the person with whom they are in a committed relationship. Further, and very importantly, lifting the ban on same-sex marriage is not only about addressing the rights of this minority group; it is about protecting the rights of people in general. If we say exclusion to certain basic privileges is okay for some, then we are opening up the doors to introducing laws as we see fit to exclude others. In a different space and time, it may be your rights or those of your loved ones that are affected. Equality, respect, dignity, and a sense of belonging are ideals and values endorsed by Australian society. When these values are not upheld for some, it has the potential to affect us all.
The lack of opportunity for the gay and lesbian community to legally and socially validate their committed relationships not only affects the couples involved but also their families. Same-sex attracted individuals do not exist on the fringe of society or in isolation. They are someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandparent, or grandchild. Having a family member treated differently by the community at large can negatively impact the family as a whole. Those who argue against same-sex marriage in the name of ‘the family’ seem to overlook the many heterosexual family members that are adversely affected by the social exclusion of one of their own.
The lack of opportunity for same-sex couples to formalise their relationships, as do different-sex couples, sends the message that their relationships are not of equivalent standard and that they are second class citizens. As same-sex sexuality is no more a choice than heterosexuality, restricting marriage to different-sex couples will not stop committed relationships between members of the same sex. What it will do is continue to promote prejudice and intolerance towards a select group of individuals who nonetheless pay the same taxes, fight the same wars, and abide by all other citizenry responsibilities as an Australian.
Several arguments have been put forward in favour of retaining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. One of these is that providing equal marriage rights to same-sex couples will somehow undermine heterosexual marriage. This view seems to overlook recent evidence from several European countries which provide marriage or marriage-like rights to couples of the same-sex. For example, research providing data from the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland (which are the countries where such rights have been in existence the longest) reveal no decline in the rate of different-sex marriage rates or non-marital birth rates, since the introduction of rights to same-sex couples (Badgett, 2004). In fact, more recent data from the department of statistics from within these countries suggests that heterosexual marriage rates are, if anything, on the increase (Eskridge & Spedale, 2006).
Some people are of the opinion that by allowing same-sex marriage the institution will be ‘watered down’. For example, ex-Prime Minister John Howard stated “It is a question of preserving as an institution in our society, marriage as having a special character”. Statements such as this are particularly offensive. It suggests that the inclusion of same-sex couples into the institution of marriage will somehow tarnish or spoil its image. To the contrary, we believe that elevating the status of same-sex relationships to those of different-sex relationships will, if anything, strengthen marriage as a social norm. As such, people who are concerned about the preservation of marriage may do best to focus on ways to increase its appeal amongst the current population, rather than direct their energies towards the exclusion of a select group of individuals from its privileges.
According to historians, the one thing that is consistent about marriage over time is that it has never been consistent. On the issue of traditional marriage, American historian Stephanie Coontz states that “if we can learn anything from the past, it is how few precedents are now relevant in the changed marital landscape in which we operate today” (p. 11, Coontz, 2005). Therefore, if marriage is to survive as an institution it needs to keep abreast with the social conditions of its time. If we look at Western civilisation alone, few would argue that marriage would have survived this long if people were still denied the right to marry for love (i.e., arranged marriages), needed to divorce if they couldn’t bear children, could only marry someone of their own race, and wives continued to be denied all rights to property. Yet, all of these conditions at different stages in history were argued for in the name of tradition.
It has been suggested that the purpose of marriage is to establish an appropriate family environment in which children will be conceived and raised, and that as such there is no place for same-sex relationships in marriage. This view conflicts with the fact that different-sex couples who choose not to have children, or who form relationships in non-childbearing years, are still entitled to marry or re-marry. Further, and very importantly, it discounts the substantial number of children who are currently being raised in a same-sex couple family.
Another argument relates to the impact of same-sex parenting on raising children and how the effects of this are still unknown. This clearly dismisses the number of same-sex couples who have raised or who are currently raising their children successfully relative to their heterosexual counterparts. A summary of findings from empirical research conducted over the last few decades, shows that data “comparing gay and lesbian parents to heterosexual parents and children of gay and lesbian parents to children of heterosexual parents are quite uniform: common stereotypes are not supported by the data” (American Psychological Association, 2005). More specifically, it shows that “studies comparing groups of children raised by homosexual and by heterosexual parents find no developmental differences between the two groups of children in their intelligence, psychological adjustment, social adjustment, popularity with friends, development of social sex role identity or development of sexual orientation” (APA, 2005). It therefore seems quite ironic that those purporting that the rights of children are paramount, are those denying access by the parents to the one institution that would ensure their children’s rights. In addition, opposition to same-sex marriage based on issues of parenting send a negative and very hurtful message to the number of children who are currently being raised in a same-sex couple household. If people who argue against same-sex marriage do this on the premise of the well-being of children, then they need to stop and consider the negative impact of such an argument on these children. It may well pay to ask ourselves how we would feel if the people we relied on for love and protection were depicted by society as somehow being less than capable of delivering such.
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