In a time when there’s a limited supply of good news, this moment was a relief—and a blessing.
A solid majority of Australians voted in favor of same-sex marriage in a historic survey that, while not binding, paves the way for Parliament to legally recognize the unions of gay and lesbian couples.
Of 12.7 million Australians who took part in the government survey, 61.6 percent voted yes and 38.4 percent voted no, officials announced on Wednesday morning. Participation was high, with 79.5 percent of voting-age Australians sending back their postal ballots.
“The Australian people have spoken, and they have voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’ for marriage equality,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who called the survey in a move described by advocates as a delay tactic devised to appease his party’s far-right faction. “They voted ‘yes’ for fairness, they voted ‘yes’ for commitment, they voted ‘yes’ for love.”
The high turnout and unequivocal result amounted to a rebuke for Australia’s most conservative politicians, many of whom saw a majority of their constituents vote to support same-sex marriage despite their arguments against it.
Proponents of gay rights spent the day celebrating. They gathered in cities around the country to watch news broadcasts of the survey results. The largest crowd, at Prince Alfred Park in Sydney, broke into cheers, with hugs, dancing and tears, as soon as the news was announced.
I was stunned that the New York Times placed the story of this historic win on page A4 of their print edition on Wednesday; this moment absolutely merited front-page, above-the-fold placement. Had this vote gone the other way, it would have been a massive propaganda victory for the international right, a de facto hate crime committed against LGBTQ residents not only in Australia but around the world.
Yes, human rights should not have been put up to a vote. Having said that, it was a tremendous joy to see that every state in Australia voted in favor of equality, something that never would have happened in the United States. Even with religious wingnuts in Australia doing everything within their considerable power to secure a “No” victory, the real forces of righteousness still won.
Of course, the scope of their victory will be decided by Australia’s Parliament:
Factions within [Parliament] are now arguing over the drafting of a new marriage law.
Conservatives wanted explicit provisions protecting businesses and organizations that refuse to service or participate in gay weddings on moral or religious grounds. Moderates, with Turnbull’s backing, seem likely to limit the protections to churches and marriage celebrants…
Bakeries in Australia would be allowed to display signs saying they do not serve gay couples as a matter of conscience, under the conservatives’ proposal. Parents could withdraw their children from state-run schools that teach them about gay sex, too.
Critics said the measures are unnecessary, in part because of existing laws protecting religion expression and the fact that areas with large numbers of Christians voted for same-sex marriage, suggesting they don’t feel much threat to their religion practice.
“The churches are misguided because they are putting existing privileges at risk by arguing for an extension of religious privilege, which risks a backlash,” Peter Sherlock, the president of the Melbourne-based University of Divinity, said in an interview.
It’s a backlash the wingnuts deserve. The winds of equality are always preferable to the stale air of homophobia. The wisdom that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court demonstrated fourteen years ago is now being demonstrated in enlightened country after enlightened country. Equality just makes common sense. The case of marriage equality is flawless in its logic: people should have the right to marry who they love. Period.
As was the case in Massachusetts after the state Supreme Judicial Court recognized marriage equality, my heart breaks for members of the LBGTQ community in Australia who didn’t live long enough to see this moment, who didn’t have a chance to marry the men and women they loved. Think about how many LGBTQ Australians effectively died of broken hearts, scorned by a government that wouldn’t recognize their inherent dignity, demonized by churches that spat upon them as deviants, mistreated by those who refused to rise above bigotry. They died because of hate. They never lived to see love.
I feared the result of this postal survey would be negative. I feared that the same prejudice that stymied the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples in the United States for years would also manifest itself in Australia. I was wrong. Sometimes, the right thing happens. Sometimes—not nearly often enough in this world, but sometimes—love and justice really do win.