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<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

Why Won’t Australia Let These Two Marry?

France has just joined the UK and New Zealand in legislating for marriage equality. How long until same-sex Australians can marry, too? Check out the story of Arthur and John, a couple on a long campaign trail.

John Challis is 83, and his life partner, Arthur Cheeseman, is 80. They say when they met in 1967 they never imagined that one day they would be campaigning for the right of same-sex partners to marry — let alone that they would have the support of the majority of the community behind them.

But their 45-year relationship has coincided, more or less exactly, with the sexual revolution — a revolution that is now in its "mopping-up phase", with same-sex marriage reform the seemingly inevitable last hurdle in Australia as in the United States.

Arthur and John

The Global Mail recorded a video interview with John and Arthur in their sun-drenched art deco apartment in Sydney's Elizabeth Bay. In recent years they were prominent campaigners for equal superannuation rights for Australian gay couples, a reform they say brought enormous practical relief to them personally. Arthur is a former pharmacist. John, who as a young man spent 10 years as a Dominican priest, was head of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's science department prior to his retirement in 1988. In retirement they live on the income from his Commonwealth superannuation, and John had been very concerned that if he died first Arthur would get nothing. That changed in November 2008, when the Rudd Government legislated to allow same-sex couples to leave their superannuation entitlements to their partner when they die.

But when it comes to same-sex marriage, John Challis says that, like US President Barack Obama's, his own position on the issue has evolved over time. "Eighteen months ago I really wasn't interested in gay marriage. My feeling was — as for lots of older gays — marriage has all these religious connotations, let the Church have it."

President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage on May 9, 2012. John Challis points to the way the President carefully outlined the reasoning that led to his decision and says this is in marked contrast to both Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and federal opposition leader Tony Abbott. "Julia Gillard has said, 'I know what I believe and I'm sticking to it,' and Tony Abbott has said, 'I'm a bit old-fashioned and I still agree with the traditional view.' I mean, they've not given us any explanation as to why they're stuck in these particular positions," Challis says.

President Obama surprised the American public by asserting that he has arrived at his position in support of same-sex marriage not in spite of his Christian faith but because of it. In particular he referred to the so-called "Golden Rule" of Jesus in the Gospels: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." He said he has also been influenced by the fact that his daughters go to school with the children of lesbian parents, and that they regard having same-sex parents as normal.

In the past, the President has stated that his own values are based on the general principle "that we are our brother's keeper", a sentiment very close to that expressed by former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in his famous speech to the Spanish Parliament following its pioneering vote in favour of gay marriage in July 2005: "We are not legislating, honourable members, for people far away and not known by us," Zapatero said. "We are enlarging the opportunity for happiness to our neighbours, our co-workers, our friends and our families: at the same time we are making a more decent society, because a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members."

President Obama's comments are likely to give renewed impetus to the debate in Australia, where there are three separate private member's bills for marriage equality currently before the Australian federal parliament — one in the Senate from Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, and, in the House of Representatives, one from Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MP Andrew Wilkie, and one from Labor MP Stephen Jones.

In France, the newly elected president, Francois Hollande, also has promised to introduce same-sex marriage, and New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, has recently indicated his support for the idea.

“There could be a gay gene in the Abbott family. Tony Abbott may have gay nieces or nephews; he may have gay grandchildren. What is he going to think about their relationships?”

At present the bills before the Australian parliament are the subject of separate House of Representatives and Senate committee inquiries that have received 350,000 submissions from the Australian public. Approximately 64 per cent of the submissions are in favour of amending the Marriage Act to enable people to marry each other regardless of their gender. The Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee is due to table its report on June 6. The House of Representatives committee is due to report on June 18.

John Challis and Arthur Cheeseman have written a submission to both inquiries. Where opponents of marriage equality say marriage has only ever been defined as being between a man and a woman and that this meaning cannot be changed, Challis and Cheeseman argue that the meaning has been radically redefined over the past 200 years.

"Defenders of the Christian tradition of marriage cannot reclaim exclusive rights to the word marriage. It is too late for that. It is difficult for many people to accept and it may take time to adjust, but given that marriage is now simply a legal definition, it would be pure discrimination to say that same-sex couples are not allowed to be treated equally before the law," they write.They say the Church has long since lost control over marriage, which now is a separate legal term. And, being a legal term, it can be changed. "In a secular democracy such as Australia, with separation of church and state, marriage is primarily a secular relationship contract, and as such should be equally available to all citizens, heterosexual or homosexual," Challis and Cheeseman's submission notes.

In particular they argue that the opposition to marriage equality by the Australian Catholic bishops is based on an "emotional and unsupported" claim that gay marriage will undermine the stability and dignity of marriage and family life: "Far from undermining the stability and dignity of marriage, the opposite is the case. Long-lasting homosexual relationships, such as that between my partner and I, and those of many of our friends, are an example to heterosexual couples, and the desire of same-sex couples for the dignity and public commitment implied by marriage gives witness to the importance of marriage as an institution in society," they write.

“Defenders of the Christian tradition of marriage cannot reclaim exclusive rights to the word marriage. It is too late for that.”

They also say there has been a tremendous change in scientific knowledge about the causes of homosexual orientation. Armed with that scientific knowledge, they say, it really ought to be the political conservatives who are spearheading the debate about marriage law reform on individual rights grounds. Pointing out that federal opposition leader Tony Abbott has a gay sister, Challis says: "There could be a gay gene in the Abbott family. Tony Abbott may have gay nieces or nephews; he may have gay grandchildren. What is he going to think about their relationships?"

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has indicated that Labor MPs will have a conscience vote on gay marriage, in contrast to Tony Abbott, who is refusing to allow Coalition MPs to have a conscience vote on the issue. According to John Challis this is now the main practical issue facing advocates of marriage law reform in Australia, because unless Coalition MPs are permitted to have a conscience vote, attempts to amend the Marriage Act are unlikely to succeed.

"The Labor Party is to be commended for allowing a conscience vote to its MPs on this issue," he writes. "By contrast, in refusing to allow Coalition MPs a conscience vote, Tony Abbott is in effect imposing his Catholic-informed conscientious objection to same-sex marriage on the rest of his party."

24 comments on this story
by Carlos

What I find most annoying is the belief so many people seem to have that they have a right to determine whether or not someone else can get married based on their sexual preferences.

I have never had occasion, in all my life, to ever ask a friend what their sexual preferences are, for the very good reasons of 1: who cares, and 2: its none of my bloody business.

May 21, 2012 @ 7:53pm
by John

Intelligent, thought-provoking words from two Australians who are clearly committed to one another. The absurdity of the Anglican and Catholic hierarchies' enmity to people like this is clear to the majority of citizens in this country. Equally clear is the moral thinness of Abbott and Gillard's entrenchment of their positions. Australia really is governed by third-rate politicians.

May 21, 2012 @ 9:47pm
by Ann

My partner and I have been in a lesbian relationship for 17 years and look forward to our 45th anniversary together. Arthur and John, we salute your committment, passion and love.

Interestingly, a close hetro girlfriend, who had been separated with two kids for about a year, recently met a fella and after 7 weeks, they announced they were getting married! Makes me wonder, shouldn't there be a law prohibiting this?

May 22, 2012 @ 11:36am
by Debbie

I am a much younger woman married to an older man. Should that be illegal? The age difference? I have good lesbian friends and a good gay friend and seriously they don't have 5 heads and purple hair with green polka dots! Love and commitment is not determined by age like with us or sexual orientation or anything else. If you meet, fall for one another and happy together and support and encourage each other who gives a f*** about anything else and it's no ones right to come in between that with their own bigotry simply because it's traditional! Jesus had two Dads and he turned out fine so what's the prob? Good onya guys, keep campaigning and may you walk down the aisle into each others arms soon x

May 23, 2012 @ 9:44pm
by Lachlan

Thanks Carols! I agree wholeheartedly with number 2 of your post.

PS. I follow the rainbow flag. ;-)

May 24, 2012 @ 3:50pm
by Dee

I personally do not care whether a person is gay, bisexual or straight. It's their choice and will never judge a person based on their sexuality preference.

But I am against the concept of homosexuality and do not support same-sex marriage.

It has nothing to do with me being backward - stop the nonsense. It;s getting bloody 'old'!

I just find it very, very WRONG! That is all! :)

May 24, 2012 @ 5:29pm
by Daniel

We should have acted on Marriage equality over a decade or more ago. Unfortunately Howard was against it. Lets hope that the Greens bill gets passed. Lets hope people get behind the Greens on the other issues too.

May 24, 2012 @ 10:38pm
by Helen

What beautifully articulated wisdom. You would think it devastates any counter argument. Surely it's only a matter of time...

May 25, 2012 @ 8:14am
by Savannah

What a beautiful couple.

June 6, 2012 @ 5:19pm
by tony

@Dee - how can sexual preference be very, very WRONG? It's like saying human nature is very, very WRONG.

It is what it is.

June 19, 2012 @ 4:09pm
by Ben

The author is missing the point. These two men can marry women. They just can’t redefine marriage.

June 19, 2012 @ 4:42pm
by Cameron

This is not so much an issue of individual rights as it is so often presented. A decision here will inevitably have consequences within broader society. We may disagree as to what those consequences may actually be and whether they are desirable but this is an issue that will have knock-on effects within society as a whole. So all of our democratic society has both a right and a responsibility to speak on this issue as it is not merely a matter of personal preferences.

June 20, 2012 @ 11:02am
by Jason

I think it's about time the religious folk keep their opinions to themselves. this is a secular nation and religion should be kept tot the churches, not making policies for the greater Australian community.

June 20, 2012 @ 2:29pm
by Robbie

Another great piece from The Global Mail. What confuses me about the debate is that everyone seems to assume that Christianity and 'The Church' invented marriage; that it is a Christian concept and therefore they deserve some control over how society defines it. Virtually every society throughout history has practiced marriage - including the Sumerians more than 5000 years ago. For those of us mathematically challenged, that is 3000+ years before Christianity existed....

June 20, 2012 @ 5:09pm
by Fred

While, as John Challis says, there may have "been a tremendous change in scientific knowledge about the causes of homosexual orientation" it is not in the direction of there being a gay gene. If it were, then every identical twin where the other twin sibling was homosexual would be homosexual. This is not the case, e.g., google Bailey study on identical twins, Dean Hamer research on gay gene, or check the peer-reviewed research referred to at

A more expansive and up-to-date review of the literature regarding genetic and other aspects of homosexuality and what this means can be found in "My Genes Made Me Do It! Homosexuality and the scientific evidence" by Dr. Neil Whitehead at

Nearly 300 pages, it is continually updated and can be downloaded free-of-charge. Plenty of food for thought and shows the results of mainstream scientific research in this area, i.e.,genetic influences represent predispositions and not predeterminations.

Robbie is correct that "virtually every society throughout history has practised marriage", and this is the point.

Marriage predates the State, i.e., the Australian government, and politics. Culture preceded the secular society and the associated polity that we have today. Traditional marriage has reasons of its own – the state did not create marriage; it inherited it. Thus it would be redefining it out of existence, and changing its very nature, if it were to change "marriage" as proposed to allow those of the same sex to "marry".

Not only that, but so-called discrimination would continue as it would not allow any more than two people to marry, e.g., polygamy or polyamory. If it's discriminatory not to allow those of the same sex to marry, why it isn't it discriminatory to prohibit more than two to marry?

June 25, 2012 @ 12:27pm
by Demac

To those who object on the grounds of 'Redefining marriage': We do it every day and have done so for 10,000 years, get over it.

Divorce was illegal or impossible for most of 'Christian' history (just ask Henry VIII). During slavery in the USA, interracial marriage was illegal and black people couldn't even legally marry each other. Pharaohs were expected to marrying their siblings. Which of these definitions of marriage should we retain?

In closing, it is quite simple. From the article:
"at the same time we are making a more decent society, because a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members." - José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero

February 6, 2013 @ 4:00pm
by Mark Jackson

This is the thin end of the wedge. They might look like kindly elderly gentlemen, but thank God some clear thinkers can see through their cunning plan. Men getting married? You all know where that will lead. I just thank goodness for the clear thinking, entirely without hypocrisy, transparent position of the Catholic Bishops. The Bishops can see these two for what they are; cloven hooved spawns of the devil!

Now I know that some people have been a bit critical of the old Micks lately, mostly because of a few isolated incidents. I mean, what's a dalliance with an altar boy here or there? What people need to focus on is that a group of elderly males who have never married, who live on the genorosity of others and who haven't been sullied by real world relationships are there to guide us. Most of us fall into the trap of recognising competing points of view or recognising valid arguments about the historical context of marriage. Not so these dear ideologues. No, our moral welfare is safe with them.

How could we even contemplate sullying [I hope that's a word] the dignity of marriage in this way. Dignity in marriage is so, so important that the Catholics won't even consider allowing a wife who is beaten daily by an abusive husband to leave the marriage. Good thing to! She'd probably want to go off and get a job or something. Nope, nothing is more important in 2013 than preventing two kindly elderly gentlemen from marrying. Who cares that they have spent a lifetime together and love each other as much as any couple.

Just listen to the Catholics folks, and everything will be all right.

February 8, 2013 @ 9:01am
by shane

Simple. One of them is a man not a wife. Ordinary typical journalism.

February 8, 2013 @ 10:48am
by David Longland

Julia Gillard torpedoed Marriage Equality at last year's A.L.P. conference by not allowing it to become policy. I still remember the booing of delegates. Far from praising her, she should be condemned. I continue to be amazed by press ignorance of this. There were hundreds of them them there, yet none have reported on this sabotage of human rights.

February 9, 2013 @ 3:30pm
by Libertarian

Why do conservatives feel they can dictate how people go about their day? When progressives do it they get labelled PC and accused of running a 'nanny state'. Stay out of peoples lives!

February 9, 2013 @ 6:54pm
by Tom

Marriage is between a Man & Woman, same sex people cannot and must not have marriage as an option.

February 10, 2013 @ 9:36pm
Show previous 21 comments
by Martin John Douglass.

Rememer Gough Whitlams perfect election slogan IT'S TIME,I say that slogan is applicable to Same sex marriage in Australia in our time ! Those who are unable to support this inevitable change in our legal system are on the wrong side of history and the best thing they can do is to get out of the way.Australia will have this change in the marriage act,the community wants it and the community will have it !

February 12, 2013 @ 1:29pm
by TechinBris

Tom, thank you for your view, but can you enlighten us all, with a logically valid statement, as to why your view is valid to support your comment.
As this carefully constructed piece of journalism says, this cannot be a religious point as there is a separation of Church and State in our Constitution and marriage is a legal construct in our Nation and cannot be construed in any legal way to religious conjugations in the matter. Because of this, it can be changed at any time by the will of the people's of our Nation in Law.
To state the issue is not for discussion would be totalitarian in scope within our Democracy, and as it should, frowned upon, as it halts the evolution for our Society's Citizens to grow and prosper together, equally and without prejudice or favor of one over another.

October 24, 2013 @ 11:37am
by Sarah Morel

Nothing frustrates me more than knowing that millions of people are being denied this little piece of happiness and their lovers last name. We have abolished the racism and the power white people had over coloured people, we allow Muslims to wear burqas showing nothing but their eyes, just because you live in Australia doesn't mean you have to speak English. Still, majority of us go about our lives without interfering with how others choose to live theirs. In saying that I find it even harder to understand why it is so difficult for Australia's Government to legalise the right to gay marriage. I am sure that people aren't asking our PM for his hand in marriage, his approval or to attend their wedding. A 57 year old garbage collector can marry a 26 year old model, an Arab can marry an Aussie. A man should be allowed to marry a man, a woman should be allowed to marry another woman.
There are so many benefits to legalising gay marriage such as Australia's tourism would rise due to the amount of people wishing to wed Down Under, and be allowed to wed here would only make people more keen to honeymoon here. Our population would grow as we would be seen as a very fair and equal country. Our government would also have a better reputation and appear to be doing more for the people and less for their bank accounts.
It is time to let the individual decide who they trade vows and rings with.

November 18, 2013 @ 6:06pm
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