It’s been a busy week in Australia for LGBT activists and politicians on both sides of the marriage equality question. As it stands, Australia is the only large English-speaking country that has not established legal provisions for marriage equality. The political conversation this week could mean a change in that situation.
At a Coalition party meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott rejected the suggestion of a free vote, in which Australian legislators would have the opportunity to vote their personal convictions, regardless of party line. Abbott also announced his intention to bring the marriage equality question to the Australian population, although not in conjunction with the next federal election, which will take place in January 2017 (unless the Parliament is dissolved earlier).
There is now tremendous debate over the nature of this vote: Should it be a plebiscite or a referendum? Simply put, a plebiscite would be a non-binding vote by the population to indicate their opinion, while a referendum would be a binding vote calling for a change to the Constitution. The pros and cons are many: A plebiscite requires only a national majority to succeed, whereas a referendum also requires a majority of states. Further, a plebiscite could be made binding if Parliament were to legislate thusly prior to the vote. It is unclear whether or not there is even sufficient legal call for a constitutional referendum. When asked, Abbott has refused to specify his intentions.
Regardless of the way the vote is called, there is concern that the lead-up would engender a hostile debate that would be harmful to LGBTQ youth in particular. Australia is no stranger to the marriage equality debate; according to recent polls, about 70 percent of the population is in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. However, there has also been strong opposition, particularly in the form of advertisements from the Australian Marriage Forum and other anti-marriage-equality organizations.
A study from La Trobe University indicates that verbal abuse increases thoughts of suicide and self-harm in young LGBTQ Australians by 40 percent. Justin Koonin of the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby fears that the debate “will flush out of the woodwork all the bigoted opinions that we know cause harm to same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people. … The link between negative messaging and adverse mental health outcomes is incontrovertible.” His concerns are my concerns: While it is important to find a way to legalize marriage equality for a myriad of reasons, I hope that the method does not cause more harm to vulnerable subsets of the LGBTQ population.
As always, it is important to note that marriage equality is not the end-all, be-all of the fight for LGBTQ rights. It remains, however, a powerful step in providing couples with certain rights (which vary depending on the country in question), and we can only hope that the Australian population will have the opportunity to speak their piece and obtain marriage equality across the country, sooner rather than later.