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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9099

Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (21:46): In this the week before the Australian Labor Party's national conference I rise to express my full support for marriage equality. The momentum is building to change this anachronistic policy, which cements the last pillar of legalised discrimination and, I believe, fuels homophobia. I stand together with a clear majority of Australians in calling for the Australian Labor Party national conference and the members of this place to take the necessary steps to amend the Marriage Act to allow any two adults, regardless of sex, sexuality or gender identity, the honour and privilege of standing in front of their family and friends and making a commitment to each other; to allow the children of people in same-sex relationships the stability of knowing that their family is just as special in this country as are all other families; and to allow the community to celebrate the love and commitment of two Australians that no doubt are good citizens, pay their taxes and abide by the laws of the land.

Tonight I will share a few stories told to me by Tasmanians about why marriage equality is so important to them. I optimistically hope that their struggles may assist those sitting on the fence in this debate to realise that marriage equality will strengthen the institution of marriage and our communities. I begin with the story of a child that does not tell his friends about his mum's relationship. Although this nine-year-old boy should be worried about what games he will play with his mates and how to pass his tests at school, he is burdened with a fear that he will be bullied if his mates find out about his mum, who is in a loving relationship and does everything for him. Not being able to marry is very sad for her, but what is sadder is that her son cannot tell his peers about her relationship because, even at his young age, he realises that he will be bullied. He does so many amazing and exciting things with his mum and her partner, like camping, bird watching, hiking and boating—like any other family—but it concerns him that he has to censor his life.

It is so sad that a little boy already knows, and has to live with, discrimination. Marriage equality can help to put an end to this for this boy and many others in his situation. This is a boy whose childhood should be about instilling in him the skills and dreams that will see him become a good Australian. This is a boy who should be worried about what games to play with his friends, what he needs to do for his next school assignment and whether he got a few kicks in his last footy game. This boy should not be burdened with the fear of bullying if he shares stories of his weekend with his mum and her partner. Opponents of marriage equality use the pretence of protecting children as one of their major arguments. I challenge them to look a child like this brave boy in the eyes and say that the current laws are protecting him. I challenge them to move beyond their belief of what they see as a traditional family unit.

We must accept that our society is comprised of many family structures and we must enshrine in our laws a safe environment for all. That includes people whose anatomic gender is different to the gender they identify with. I move to share the story of a transsexual Tasmanian. If this woman was not honest with herself, she would be allowed to marry. She told me that she has twice been in love—once as a man and once, since transitioning, as a woman. Both relationships were exactly the same. Both had highs and lows. Both were founded on love. The first of these relationships was able to be celebrated publicly. They married, and thus the relationship gained society's blessing. After the death of his wife, who was the only person he had previously told of his struggles with his gender, he decided to transition. Since transitioning, she found love again, and again with a woman, but no matter how this relationship is valued by her family, friends, colleagues and community it is somehow less valued.

She explained that she is still the same person she was when married many years ago but that she is more honest now, with herself and with her community. If the first relationship deserved recognition as a marriage, it is only just that the second one does too. The only difference is her gender. In her current life, she has chosen to be more honest with society about who she is. Remarkably, if she had not undergone transitioning therapy and legally changed her sex, she would be legally allowed to marry. This great country rewards people for their honesty. We must remove this barrier that prevents decent people from being fully honest with themselves and their community.

As Australians we pride ourselves on our abilities on the sporting field. I recently learnt of the discrimination a Tasmanian couple faced at their local golf club, which is always looking for new members, when they decided to join as partners. One was a successful golfer, having represented Tasmania on a number of occasions. Her new partner was also keen to join as she knew quite a number of the members and thought it would be fun. The behaviour from some of the club members, who had previously known her partner when she was a married straight woman, was extremely hurtful to them both. Although they acted no differently to any other couple at the club, her partner was never welcomed as a new member. The club has a membership discount for married couples and of course these women could not qualify for it. They told me that it was not the money that hurt; it was the attitude that they were lesser members of the club even though one had been a champion many times and the other was known and liked by many members outside of this setting. As you might expect, the burden of continual exclusion and snide remarks resulted in the women resigning from the club. This provides another example of how continuing to deny marriage equality instils discrimination within our society.

But attitudes change with time. At the Tasmanian Labor state conference there was a contribution in support of marriage equality from a man who formerly looked upon homosexuality as wrong. He spoke of his struggle when his son came out, a struggle to comprehend his son's sexuality that soon turned to how he could best support his son. As his son is now in a loving relationship, he spoke of his wish for his son to be able to marry the partner that he loves in front of his family and friends. We must remember that it was only in 1997 that sodomy was decriminalised in Tasmania. But only seven years later Tasmania became the first state in Australia to recognise same-sex couples. The state continues to lead the country with support for same-sex couples. Now, in Senator Carol Brown's recent survey of over 1,000 Tasmanians, over 55 per cent of respondents were in favour of marriage equality.

In Australian law there has always been a clear distinction between civil and religious marriages. People are able to be wed in a civil ceremony. A religious body is able to choose not to wed a couple and should remain free to have this choice. People of different religions are able to be wed and not all forms of marriage are permissible under law even if they are allowed under a religious text. In recent years two-thirds of marriages have been conducted in a civil ceremony with no involvement or mention of religion. However, people are currently not free to have a wedding without discrimina­tion. A marriage celebrant must, regardless of the wishes of the bride and groom, include in the monitum the Marriage Act's current definition of marriage. Without these words a marriage cannot be solemnised. A marriage celebrant recently highlighted to me the growing dissatisfaction of brides and grooms that these words must be used on their special day. That a phrase a majority of our society feel is discriminatory and should be repealed must be recited for a marriage to be solemnised is so unfortunate. Is it not enough that same-sex attracted people are prohibited from marriage in this country?

I acknowledge that this debate is difficult, that the community is divided and that, for many, overcoming long-held prejudices is tough. But that is why we need strong leadership from the Labor Party at our national conference next week. We need the government to stand united on this issue, recognising that one of the Labor Party's great strengths is its unity in fighting to promote equality, fairness and dignity for all. This is the time to remove the last piece of legislation that fuels that discrimination in this country.

I thank Jenny, Jen, Peter, Martine and Maxine for sharing their stories with me. I hope that this place will do our little bit to make their lives that bit better. Let us finish the great work done in 2008 when this parliament removed discrimination against same-sex de facto couples in over 85 pieces of Commonwealth legislation. Let us change the Marriage Act to support equality for all and to give Jen, Jenny, Peter, Martine and Maxine that equality that they long for and so richly deserve.