December 10, 2017 at 8:50 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Australia marriage activist attends Victory Institute conference

Alex Greenwich, co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality, attends the Victory Institute International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C. on Dec. 9, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Wyatt Westlund)

Alex Greenwich, co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality who is also a member of the New South Wales Parliament, was in the gallery of Australia’s House of Representatives on Dec. 7 when a bill that extends marriage rights to same-sex couples passed in a nearly unanimous vote. Greenwich was sitting next to his mother and Ian Thorpe, a retired Australian Olympic swimmer who came out as gay in 2014, when the measure received final legislative approval.

“She (his mother) burst into tears, as did I,” Greenwich told the Washington Blade on Saturday during an interview at the Victory Institute’s International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C.

Greenwich said he flew from Canberra, the Australian capital, to Sydney shortly after the vote and had a “quiet dinner” with his husband who he married in Argentina in 2012.

“We had a really nice dinner,” Greenwich told the Blade. “Then I flew here the next day.”

Marriage ‘shouldn’t have taken this long’

The vote in the House of Representatives capped off a campaign to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Australia that began more than a decade ago.

Activists founded Australian Marriage Equality in 2004. Lawmakers that year also amended the country’s Marriage Act to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Greenwich noted to the Blade that more than 20 same-sex marriage bills have been introduced in Australian Parliament since 2007. Polls indicated a majority of Australians support the issue, but Greenwich said politics and new governments combined to delay progress on it.

“This issue . . . got caught up in that overtime and escalated,” he told the Blade.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose sister, Sydney City Councilmember Christine Forster, is a lesbian, in 2015 blocked a conscience vote on same-sex marriage in Parliament. Members of current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Party-led coalition in August also thwarted a conscience vote on the issue.

Turnbull in September 2016 introduced a bill that sought to prompt a non-binding plebiscite on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Australia. The Australian Senate two months later rejected the measure.

A non-binding postal plebiscite on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples began in September after Australia’s High Court rejected a challenge to it from advocates.

“It was an example of the government dropping the ball on marriage equality again,” Greenwich told the Blade.

He added the plebiscite “was an experience nobody wanted, but we just saw such immense leadership from everyday Australians” and an “amazing campaign that galvanized people like never before to support their LGBTI friends and family members.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics last month announced 62 percent of voters who took part in the plebiscite said “yes,” compared to 38 percent of voters who said “no.”

The Senate on Nov. 29 approved a same-sex marriage bill that Sen. Dean Smith from Western Australia introduced by a 43-12 vote margin. The vote in the House of Representatives took place eight days later.

The bill on Friday received royal assent from Governor General Peter Cosgrove, which paves the way for it to become law. Same-sex couples on Saturday began applying to get married.

Australian law says couples must wait 30 days to get married once they apply to do so. The first same-sex marriages in the country will take place on Jan. 9.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” Greenwich told the Blade. “Public support for marriage equality since 2007 has been in a strong majority and we have been campaigning for over a decade to get elected officials to accurately reflect the settled will of the Australian people.”

Plebiscite campaign was ‘tough experience’

Greenwich acknowledged the plebiscite was a “tough experience.”

The Australian Christian Lobby, the Coalition for Marriage and other groups that urged Australians to vote “no” used anti-LGBT rhetoric and imagery throughout the campaign.

Greenwich described the “no” campaign as “basically an American imported alt-right campaign against you with millions of dollars behind them.” He told the Blade it was difficult for younger LGBTI Australians who experienced “mass media attacks on them for the first time” and older LGBTI Australians “who had never seen that kind of mass media attacks on them since” the 1970s and 1980s.

“It was bringing back all those terrible memories for them,” said Greenwich.

Australia marriage campaign an example to other countries

Australia is the 26th country in which same-sex couples can legally marry. Gays and lesbians are also able to tie the knot in Mexico City and several states in Mexico, Gibraltar, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, the Faroe Islands, Bermuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire.

The Austrian Constitutional Court last week ruled same-sex couples will be able to tie the knot by the beginning of 2019. The Taiwanese Constitutional Court in May said same-sex couples will be able to legally marry if lawmakers fail to “amend or enact relevant laws” within two years.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in August introduced a bill that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Activists in Cuba who work independently of Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBT-specific issues as the director of the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, are campaigning in support of the issue.

The Bermuda House of Representatives on Friday approved a bill that would rescind marriage rights for same-sex couples in the British territory.

Greenwich said Australia is an example to same-sex marriage advocates in other countries.

“I hope us achieving marriage equality in a fairly divisive political environment shows you can have hope,” he told the Blade. “If you do work with people across the political spectrum you can get things done.”

Greenwich also urged activists to “keep at it.”

“This took us a long time,” he told the Blade. “It took (Freedom to Marry founder) Evan Wolfson and others in the U.S. a very long time to get marriage equality here. Keep at it. Stay positive. Focus on the people that this is about and focus on how marriage equality is a celebration of national values.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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