By Paula Gerber
The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is conducting an inquiry into whether Australia should have a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. It has received a total of 36 submissions from individuals and organisations, which are both for and against holding a national vote.
The committee conducted public hearings on September 10. I was invited to give evidence. I spoke to the committee about how holding a plebiscite on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry is unnecessary. Federal parliament has the power to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry.
A popular vote would also be contrary to human rights – in particular the rights of the child.
Children with same-sex parents
Australia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This requires that, in all matters concerning children, the child’s best interests should be a primary consideration.
Much has been written about children’s rights in the context of same-sex couples marrying. But when it comes to whether Australia should have a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, children’s rights have been notably absent from the discussions.
Two distinct groups of children should be front and centre in our deliberations about the advisability of conducting a plebiscite – children being raised by same-sex parents, and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ).
The first group consists of at least 6120 children who, according to the latest census data, are being raised by same-sex parents. The recent furore around the screening of the Gayby Baby film in a NSW secondary school shows how attacking these children is considered fair game by the likes of Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman.
Akerman appeared to delight in telling kids with two mums or two dads that their families are not normal. He wrote that a documentary depicting same-sex families is just a:
… drive to create the fantasy that homosexual families are the norm.
This sort of comment has the potential to cause stress and anxiety in children with same-sex parents. As Gayby Baby director Maya Newell observed:
If a film that represents your family and your voice is banned from a school, or is told that it’s not appropriate to show other students, I think that sends a very clear message to children being raised in our families that your family is not appropriate for the school curriculum or that it’s different and that difference is bad.
The “Yes” and “No” campaigns that would be propagated in the lead-up to a plebiscite on same-sex marriage would give bigots a green light to denigrate and disparage same-sex families. The public nature of these debates would make it very difficult for same-sex parents to shield their children from nasty and harmful comments.
Not only should the best interests of children in same-sex families be prioritised in deciding whether to hold a plebiscite, but those of vulnerable LGBTIQ youth should too.
The Australian Psychological Society’s submission to the Senate inquiry presented compelling evidence of the negative impacts on the health and well-being of LGBTIQ individuals from the referenda on same-sex marriage in California and Ireland. For example, in the US, one research participant noted that:
The vitriol of the debate was vicious and mean-spirited to LGBTs, which did bother me quite a bit. You think when you are 54 and been out for 32 years that your skin would be leathery and able to deflect the bigoted arrows. But even for me a few stung sharply.
If a middle-aged person struggled with the attacks, imagine how much harder it will be for younger persons who may only just be coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity.
A Beyond Blue study found that LGBTIQ people have significantly poorer mental health and higher rates of suicide than other Australians. In particular, lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to have a high or very high level of psychological distress, which makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems.
The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LBT women aged 16 to 24 are likely to have a high or very high level of psychological distress compared with 18% in Australia as a whole, as well as 40% of GBT men aged 16 to 24 compared with 7%. The research also found that these poor mental health outcomes are directly linked to discrimination and the exclusion of LGBTIQ people.
Armed with this evidence, Australia cannot legitimately proceed with a plebiscite that would facilitate and sanction vitriolic campaigns targeting LGBTIQ people and their families.
In order to comply with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and protect children being raised in same-sex families, and LGBTIQ youth, we must not go down a path that will allow publicly sanctioned prejudice and vilification.
The debate about same-sex marriage must be conducted in federal parliament, where politicians, who have been elected by the people, are charged with making decisions about the important issues of the day – be that going to war, the treatment of asylum seekers or whether two people of the same sex can marry.