All of this talk in the media recently about the current restrictions on same-sex marriage in Australia has led to me thinking about it a lot. Being in a heterosexual relationship has meant that I have predominantly tried to keep my opinion to myself and listen to the people whose lives are most impacted by this discrimination. Hearing what it means to couples in same-sex relationships, it really does sadden me that in modern day Australia people are still denied equal legal rights.
The negative media content has also led to me thinking about the various ways that I am different to the majority of the population through no fault of my own, and how I would feel if I were being denied equal legal rights as a result of these differences.
The main three things that I could think about were the fact that:
- I have green eyes (estimated at 2% of the world’s population),
- I am left handed (estimated at 10% of the world’s population), and
- I am 197cm tall (estimated in the top 0.23% of the population, with 1-in-440 people being taller).
These traits are prevalent in our society to a similar degree as individuals who are in same-sex relationships, with left-handedness being slightly more prevalent. In a 2012-2013 Australian telephone survey of 20.055 respondents between the ages of 16-69, 9% of men and 19% of women had some history of same-sex experience or attraction, with 3.5% identifying as either bisexual or homosexual (Richters et al., 2014).
What I find interesting about each of my traits is that there was or still is negative consequences for having each of these features:
- Green eyes have often been considered evil due to appearing more cat-like. Females with green eyes were more likely to be called witches for this trait and put to death in the 15th and 16th Century. Even to this day, the prejudice continues with the association of green eyes and evil in multiple different forms of storytelling, with blue eyes often associated with innocence and the hero of the story.
- Left handedness has often been associated with evil, darkness, pathological behaviour and savagery. Mothers of left-handers were also labelled as inept for not raising their children right. The Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman gods were said to use their left hands for curses or inflicting injuries. Left-handers were also accused of being witches and doing the devils work in the past and given corporal punishment or put to death for this. When my grandmother went to elementary school in the US in the early 20th century, she was forced to tie her left-hand behind her back so that she could learn to be “right-handed”. Abusive suppression of left-handedness continues to occur in some countries that prioritise conformity even to this day, where the prevalence of left-handedness is said to be only 2-3%, much lower than the worldwide prevalence of 10%.
- Findings suggest that tall people die younger (Samaras and Elrick, 2002) with height being positively associated with a greater risk of mortality from cancer, even when the data was adjusted for all possible confounding variables (He et al., 2014).
The sad truth is that a core feature of humanity is the in-group/out-group bias. We were, evolutionarily speaking, tribal creatures, who lived in small tribes or villages of no more than 150 people. In order to best survive, we learnt to trust people that were as similar to us as possible (same tribe of people who lived in the same place, had the same genes, looked the same, thought the same, behaved the same, and ate the same) and distrust and fear anyone who was dissimilar (different tribe, different background, different look, different ideas and beliefs, and different habits). What this means is that anything that is different from the majority or the “norm” is at risk of being seen as wrong, weird, and potentially even evil or dangerous.
Although it is annoying to not be able to buy casual shoes in my size, or fit comfortably in plane or car seats, or use can openers, or use fountain pens without smudging my writing, it is still not something that has had a big negative impact on me. It would have if I was born a female with these traits in the 15th Century, but thankfully we have evolved and become more accepting of differences since then. Or at least I hope we have.
I may die younger because I am a tall left-handed green-eyed man, but I have never been legally punished or discriminated against for exhibiting any of these predominantly genetic traits. I have also not had politicians specifically targeting these variables and telling the country to vote on what legal rights I should and should not have just because I have these traits…
Australia’s History of Discrimination
In 1902, Australia became the first independent country in the world to give women the right to vote in federal elections and the right to be elected to Federal Parliament.
New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote, but Australia weren’t too far behind, and I am proud to say that as a nation we were progressive enough to pass into legislation something that in hindsight seems all too obvious – a step in the right direction towards legal recognition and equality.
We were not and have not been progressive in many other ways that I am not proud of. This includes Indigenous civil and land rights and the Stolen Generation, the White Australia Policy and our current treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and even the silencing of science and the removal of the Great Barrier Reef chapter from the UN climate change report for fear of loss of tourism.
On a federal level, we have the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Age Discrimination Act 2004. Taken together, all of these acts aim to prevent any discrimination of race, colour, descent, ethnic origin, immigrant status, sex, marital status, relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, breastfeeding, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status, religion, political opinion, national extraction, social origin, age (includes discrimination on the basis of age-specific characteristics or characteristics that are generally imputed to a person of a particular age), nationality, trade union activity, medical record, criminal record, impairment, mental, intellectual or psychiatric disability, physical disability, sensory, neurological or learning disability, physical disfigurement, disorder, illness or disease that affects thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement, or results in disturbed behaviour, and presence in body of organisms causing or capable of causing disease or illness (e.g., HIV virus).
I am not naive enough to believe that having the legal acknowledgement that any form of discrimination is wrong will eliminate all such discrimination. However, at least with this legal recognition comes equal legal rights and a chance for positive recourse and recompense when discrimination does take place.
This is not an option when it comes to same-sex marriage in Australia. Yet.
All the Australian politicians need to do is pass a law in Parliament on what is a clear and obvious discrimination on the basis on sexual orientation that is preventing same-sex couples from being able to choose their desired marital status.
We already know that discrimination is wrong and that equal legal recognition and rights are things worth striving for. Yet instead we are spending Australian taxpayers money to ask people how prejudiced they are towards people with a sexual orientation that is, statistically speaking, likely to be different to their own.
Same-sex marriage is already a legal right for 23 countries around the world. This means that 760 million people, or more than 10% of the world’s population now live in countries where they can legally marry (and divorce) if they choose to do so.
The Netherlands were first in 2001, followed by Belgium in 2003, Spain and Canada in 2005, South Africa in 2006, Norway and Sweden in 2009, Portugal, Iceland and Argentina in 2010, Denmark in 2012, France, Brazil, Uruguay and New Zealand in 2013, The UK (except Northern Ireland) in 2014, The USA, Ireland and Luxembourg in 2015, Columbia and Greenland in 2016, and Finland, Slovenia and Germany in 2017.
Australia is not one of these countries. Yet.
We can’t be the first independent country to promote legal equality for same-sex marriages like we were with giving women the right to vote and be elected in Federal Parliament back in 1902. But we also don’t want to show the rest of the world just how far we’ve slipped in comparison to the rest of the world over the past 115 years.
In another 115 years, looking back on this moment in time, the right step will once again seem all too obvious. C’mon Australia, let’s stop trying to be on the wrong side of history.
Legalise same-sex marriage.
Dr Damon Ashworth