OK, I’m in. I have sat on the sidelines so far: Hugely interested. Questioning lots. Reading lots. Praying lots – yeah, I’m a Christian and that’s what we do. But not speaking. Not sure but watching closely; in particular, watching to see how a religion, my religion, which confesses that Jesus is Lord and that he called us to walk according to two simple but crazily confronting principles – love of God and love of neighbour – would work out what that meant in the case of marriage equality.
And so here I am in the middle of a chaotic national conversation – one voice trying to sort through what I think we ought to do in the civil society that is Australia in 2017.
I do need to vote after all.
Clearly, this issue has generated a huge response from many people on both sides of the debate. And unfortunately, these responses appear to have been hugely polarised, with seemingly little chance for many people of meeting in the middle for a respectful dialogue. Not to mention that we are all fellow citizens who need to live together once this decision has been made.
Let me start with what I have come to as the crux of my thinking: I want to approach this from a position that recognises that Australia is a nation that does not have a state religion, and, we as a nation have agreed that it is best that way. As Australians, we are in such a high level of agreement on this subject that we wrote it into our constitution as section 116. That seems to me a very clear starting point: Christianity, nor any other religion, should expect its beliefs to be mandated by law. Where Christianity (or any other religion) finds its beliefs in alignment with views held in common by the people of Australia, well and good. But otherwise, Christianity (and other religions) should be respectful and honouring of the principle of the freedom of religion enshrined in our constitution.
It seems to me, then, that the starting place is pretty clear: While many Christians hold views regarding gay marriage from a religious perspective, these should be not be imposed on other Australians who do not hold those religious views. From here, it seems like a straightforward line of thinking to come to a position of dealing with the issue of equality in respect of marriage relationships: We have a significant LGBTIQ community within Australia and they should be entitled the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as any other Australian. And like any other group that may in some circumstances be a minority or otherwise marginalised, we should ensure that the larger community protects and defends their rights.
Now I realise that is not the end of the matter – history tells us that social change is hard, and at times complicated. I get that. Think ending slavery, woman’s rights, Aboriginal rights, divorce, the right to vote, etc. And, it is most assuredly worth talking about these complications.
But, what I do not get is the decision by most groups advocating for the “no” vote to discuss “consequences” as the primary factor in their decision. The Coalition for Marriage / Marriage Alliance / Australian Christians seems to have skipped the primary issue of marriage equality and rushed straight to examine “consequences” – to the degree that their handbook is titled “Consequences: Changing the law on marriage affects everyone”.
What is marked to me in this is that it seems to be working as follows: “Yes, we know that a ‘no’ vote represents an actual case of explicitly unequal treatment and the marginalisation of LGBTIQ couples, but acknowledging this hurts our ‘no’ vote case so let’s move on really quickly to talk about consequences.”
That is how it seems to me.
And I have come to the view that this is disingenuous at best, and misleading/deceptive at worst.
In my view, we should proceed as follows: Vote yes for marriage equality. On principle. And then yes, sure, let’s have some serious conversations about the flow-on effects; as I said, I get the fact that some things are complicated. But let’s do it in that order: Grant people the basic rights due them, and then talk about the complications of social change.
Now let’s talk about these complications, or “consequences”, for a moment. I’m not going to pretend that I can do justice to what needs to be a very large conversation which has many nuanced threads which weave together to form the whole. Or even that I personally have anything close to answers. However, I do have some views (don’t we all).
Firstly, the effect on children in same-sex families. Yes, I am certain there are some helpful and respectful conversations we can have. But can we please start off acknowledging that children already suffer unacceptable and immense trauma, in way too many cases, being raised in dysfunctional heterosexual families. Think about the impacts of domestic violence upon children, violence which kills a tragic number of women in Australia every week. Think about children who suffer trauma as a result of divorce and broken families, often with parents who not only can no longer live together but who also fail to amicably and peaceably work through separation. Think about children who suffer in the midst of heterosexual families who cannot find effective work-life balance with both parents working unhealthily long hours. This list goes on. So let’s talk about the effects upon children of being raised in LGBTIQ families, but can we please also have the same conversation about the multitude of harms already inflicted upon children in all too many cases.
Let’s also keep in mind statistics on the make-up of our community in Australia: The effects on children of divorce and domestic violence alone significantly outweigh any claimed issues associated with LGTBIQ couples having children for the simple reason that the LGTBIQ community forms such a small proportion of our community overall. I am certain this deserves more detailed research, but perhaps we can start with this: The Human Rights Commission recorded 6,300 children in LGBTIQ families in 2013, compared with a 2014 ABS figure recording that 40,152 children were affected by the divorce of their parents (in that year). And that is just divorce, not the multitude of other harms I mentioned (and those I did not). Let’s get the right perspective in our conversations.
And again, I get that these issues have some sharp edges. But, I am so far convinced that many, if not all, of these sharp edges already exist. For example, I do think that every child has a right to know who their biological parents are, but this issue already explicitly exists in the case of adoption, and more recently with respect to in vitro fertilisation.
Second, let’s talk about Safe Schools. I recognise that this seems to be one of the most polarising parts of the debate, so clearly we need to talk about it. But let’s find the maturity to listen to each other and work towards something that honours and respects every member of our diverse society. At this point, let me confess my ignorance-level here: I have not studied in full detail the various permutations of the Safe Schools curriculum. Nonetheless, let me offer a perspective based on my experience of our children in a public primary school some years ago. Early in our childrens’ school life, they encountered friends at school whose familys’ were under strain, strain which ultimately and unfortunately resulted in separation and/or divorce. Our children had questions. Appropriate questions. Real people in their peer group were going through real life experiences that resulted in stress, sometimes trauma and usually practical changes in their lives. So we talked about that with them. Now I cannot recall exactly how the school instructed our children on the subject of divorce, but I know that respect, honour, care and dignity were at the core of what they were taught. Was it possible that the education curriculum differed from the convictions we had as Christians? Sure. But were the essential principles founded in fundamental human rights and the intrinsic value of all people supported? Yes.
And I see that same circumstance occurring now, circumstances which the Safe Schools program seeks to address. We have a small but significant LGBTIQ community in Australia. They have children (6,300 as at 2011 HRC figures above) who go to the same schools as every other Australian. Whilst my children are young adults now, I can easily anticipate similar questions to those I mentioned earlier: Why is it that some of their friends have two mums rather than a mum and a dad? This is an entirely appropriate question, even from the youngest of school ages. And one that deserves an honest, caring answer that promotes a healthy, respectful community. So sure, let’s have specific and serious conversations about how to communicate that well. But let’s not ignore or marginalise any part of our community, either by teaching our children nothing, or worse, by teaching them to fear or vilify classmates who have LGBTIQ parents.
Third, flowers and cakes – yes really. I feel somewhat surprised that in 2017 we need to talk about this. Seriously, I see no place for a business in Australia in 2017 to refuse to serve a customer for reasons of discrimination according to sexual preference any more than for the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs. How can this be a contentious issue?
Now, I recognise that the federal government is also discussing incorporating new laws that protect religious freedom into the package of changes associated with marriage equality. I have one comment to make: While I am supportive of ensuring that protections are sufficient and appropriate, I personally think there are limits. For example, there is discussion regarding allowing marriage celebrants to refuse to marry couples for reasons of religious conviction. OK. But when the hire of church buildings is involved I see that this changes the game into a business transaction where discrimination should not be acceptable. Many of our church buildings represent significant historic cultural icons which we should not restrict access to. Again, just substitute something like skin colour and re-ask the question: Should it be acceptable for any group to refuse to hire a building to a couple because the colour of their skin?
So let’s have these conversations. But let’s also be clear that most of the issues already existed before this current conversation in the context of marriage equality.
I’m done. I’ve said my piece. At least for now.
This is not complete, but it does represent a (hopefully) clear enunciation of my thought processes and conclusion. Maybe it will help others in their own deliberations. Maybe it will stimulate some helpful and respectful conversation.
Much love. Here’s hoping and praying that we achieve this next step toward equality for all Australians.
And just in case you missed it, I’m voting yes.
P.S. I recognise that many Christians believe that Christian doctrine has important, albeit few, things to say about gay relationships. I will maybe post about my personal views at some point, but suffice for now to leave it. Except perhaps to say that Christian practice is centred around an invitation by Jesus, who we confess to be the son of God, to “come, follow me”; such following is at its core an act of free will, which seems to fit well the principle of freedom of religion held by the Australian constitution.