Why Won’t Australia Let These Two Marry?
By Stephen CrittendenMay 21, 2012
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.
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.
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."