July 23, 2015 at 10:52 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Supreme Court ruling bolsters Australian marriage campaign

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Same-sex marriage supporters held a workshop earlier this month in the Sydney suburb of Campbelltown. (Photo courtesy of Australian Marriage Equality)

Australian advocates say last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples nationwide has bolstered efforts around the issue in their own country.

Australian Marriage Equality National Director Rodney Croome told the Washington Blade during a Skype interview from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart on July 8 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell case has “really buoyed marriage equality supporters.” The same-sex marriage advocate further stressed the ruling further highlights that Australia has fallen behind other industrialized countries in which gays and lesbians can legally marry.

“It’s clear that Australia is lagging,” said Croome. “Australians like to believe we are a forward-thinking and tolerant nation. And to have same-sex couples now marrying in Alabama and Mississippi is something that millions of Australians are very sensitive to.”

Marriage bill to be introduced next month

Parliamentarians Warren Entsch and Teresa Gambaro of the Liberal Party plan to introduce a same-sex marriage bill in the Australian Parliament on August 11 once it resumes. Labor Party MPs Terri Butler and Laurie Ferguson, Adam Bandt of the Green Party and two independents — Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan — are expected to co-sponsor it.

The Liberal and National Parties govern as a coalition and hold a majority of seats in the Australian Parliament.

The Labor Party, which backs marriage rights for same-sex couples will allow members to vote against its official position without sanctions. The Liberal and National Parties have yet to adopt such a “conscience vote” provision.

Entsch and Gambaro are expected to bring the measure before their fellow Liberal Party MPs on August 18 in order to allow members to freely vote on it. Parliamentarians could consider the marriage bill as early as September and gays and lesbians could begin to legally marry by the end of the year if it passes.

Croome told the Blade there is a “very slim majority” in support of the marriage bill in the Australian Senate. Sixty-five members of the Australian House of Representatives have publicly supported the measure, but it needs an additional 11 votes in order to secure passage.

HRC working with Australian marriage campaign

Australian Marriage Equality in anticipation of the bill’s expected introduction has held a series of forums, workshops and other events in the districts of lawmakers who have yet to publicly declare their position. The group has also launched campaigns that highlight support for marriage rights for same-sex couples among prominent Australians, businesses sports leagues.

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Supporters of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Australia continue to lobby undecided lawmakers on the issue. (Photo courtesy of Australian Marriage Equality)

The Human Rights Campaign has begun working with Australian Marriage Equality on grassroots organizing and legislative strategy.

“We’ve been able to partner with Australian Marriage Equality to focus attention on Australia as the next country with an opportunity to welcome marriage equality nationwide,” HRC Global Director Ty Cobb told the Blade in a statement earlier this month, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Obergefell case and the Ireland same-sex marriage referendum in May that passed by a 62-38 percent margin. “Our partnership gives us the ability to support their campaign efforts and share our experience from statewide efforts in the U.S.”

Gay U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry told reporters after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Obergefell case that he too is optimistic gays and lesbians will soon be able to legally marry in the country.

“Australia, I know, is in the midst of a great debate right now. We wish you well in that debate, ” said Berry, according to the Associated Press. “I have every confidence and trust and faith in the people of Australia that that debate will end for the best for Australia.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott — whose sister, Sydney City Councilwoman Christine Forster, is a lesbian — shortly after the justices issued their ruling in the Obergefell case described it as “a matter for the United States.” He also reiterated his opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples during an interview with the Guardian.

“I have views on this subject which are pretty well known and they haven’t changed,” said Abbott.

Elias Jahshan, editor of the Star Observer, an Australian LGBT newspaper, told the Blade earlier this month during a Skype interview from his Sydney office that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling had a far bigger impact in his country than the Irish referendum.

“America is seen in Australia as the leader of the Western world,” said Jahshan. “Australia has a lot in common with America.”

Kate Doak, a Sydney-based investigative journalist who identifies herself as a transgender woman, largely echoed Jahshan.

“That particular ruling has had a pretty large impact,” she told the Blade during a Skype interview on Tuesday. “Its put the topic right back into the headlines again here in Australia.”

Marriage opponents ‘increasingly shrill and desperate’

Australian federal law since 2004 has defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory in October 2013 approved a law that would have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The Australian High Court struck down the statute shortly after it took effect. The decision nullified the marriages of 27 same-sex couples who had tied the knot in the Australian Capital Territory.

Public opinion polls indicate roughly 70 percent of Australians support marriage rights for same-sex couples, but opponents of the issue have intensified their criticisms since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling.

Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said in a July 1 statement that same-sex marriage “redefines family and requires children to miss out on one of their parents.” Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce a few days later said nuptials for gays and lesbians in Australia would harm the country’s cattle export industry.

“The response from those against is increasingly shrill and desperate,” Croome told the Blade.

Doak told the Blade on Tuesday she feels the campaign in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples has not adequately explained how they would impact transgender and intersex Australians.

Married trans people under Australian law must divorce their spouse in order to legally change their name and gender on their birth certificates and other documents.

Doak noted she raised the issue at a same-sex marriage rally in Sydney in May that Australian Marriage Equality organized.

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Kate Doak, a transgender journalist, speaks at a same-sex marriage rally in Sydney in May. (Photo courtesy of Australian Marriage Equality)

The journalist said she could “hear a pin drop in the crowd” because she said nobody knew about the law. Doak told the Blade that Croome dismissed her concerns over a lack of discussion around trans-specific issues during a business forum that his organization hosted that same month.

“I was quite stunned that I got that sort of reaction,” said Doak.

Croome dismissed Doak’s account, providing the Blade with an email he sent to her on May 6.

“AME (Australian Marriage Equality) has always included the impact of marriage discrimination on transgender Australians in our advocacy and lobbying of politicians,” wrote Croome in the undated email. “We have done our best to ensure the trans experience of marriage discrimination is prominent and trans people work as volunteers for the organization.”

Croome in a February 2014 press release criticized a proposed same-sex marriage bill that MP Tanya Plibersek was to have introduced that was unclear about whether trans and intersex Australians would be able to marry.

“The Jones bill allowed two people of the same sex to marry but was unclear about whether transgender and intersex people could wed,” he said.

Plibersk allowed Bill Shorten, who leads the Labor Party, to introduce a bill in the Australian Parliament in May after Irish voters approved their country’s same-sex marriage referendum.

The House of Representatives declined to consider the measure, but Croome described it to the Blade as “inclusive.”

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

1 Comment
  • Couldn’t you achieve marriage equality for Gay and Lesbian Couples in Australia whether or not it includes the issue for Transgender people? Why must there always be an all or nothing attitude these days on everything?

    Sometimes you need to take advantage of what you can achieve right away rather than muddle the issue further with what may derail it! That doesn’t mean you abandon fighting for the transgender marriage issue. It just may mean that’s another hurdle to work on separately.

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