Art by Max Denton.
Oh New York, forever cementing itself as a cultural icon. Progress and promise were fulfilled today when New York became the largest state in the American Union to legalise gay marriage. Passed through both state houses with relatively little division or diversion, and the crucial support of several Republicans, it was a testimony to the ability of democratic parliaments to bring equality of relationships to the rule of law.
And as importantly, it symbolised the potential for the unbanning of gay marriage to be a moment not of culture wars but a transcendental moment of hope and happiness. My burning desire to visit New York, the city of writing, art and bagels, has never been stronger. Not that I want to get married any time soon, god no. But I wouldn’t mind seeing how traditional marriage, life and society will will be faring now that some gays can now take a mutual vow.
But the great moment for New York demands some introspection back home. Asked why he was voting for the legalisation of gay marriage despite pressure from his party, a Republican State Senator named Roy McDonald responded: “Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.” I’ve never understood why we don’t have that exact same attitude.
At the risk of generalising a set of Australian values, something I usually hate, what could possibly be more Australian than saying “Fuck it, I’m doing the right thing.” What do debates about the nature of marriage and the values of a traditional society matter when a small group of people are being harmed and hurt by discrimination from the law?
And why is our Prime Minister, a woman whose dour stated goal is to improve the lot of Australians through fighting for reform, pushing against gay marriage on the basis of “traditional values.” Some people call hypocrisy because she is unwed and atheist, a life just as incompatible with most conceptions of “traditional values” as loving your same-sex partner.
But no, I call hypocrisy based on something so much more fundamental: how can someone claim the mantle of compassion and not deliver reform that would improve the lot of a small group of people dramatically, with no trade-off but the removal of a few words? And how can that person then have the indecency to suggest that a small group of people are born incompatible with society’s values, and that that warrants punishment.
I know, I know. Punishment is a harsh descriptive. But being gay can sometimes be a harsh sentence.
It seems like throughout the history of the gay rights movement, we have been battling the image and idea that our lives are criminal. Not that long ago this was of course literally true. But the image has been harder to kill, persisting both because of society’s judgemental eye but also the underground way gay relationships and culture was often been conducted.
Rest stops, public bathrooms, beachfronts. Things that were, and sometimes still are, associated with gay sex as much as drug use. It’s this criminal mindset, this shame mixed with secrecy, that both fuelled and was fuelled by a disapproving society. Secret relationships, double-lives and gay-only clubs are it’s modern legacy.
How do you break this? Legitimacy. The slow march towards legitimacy under the law that has been gained over the last four decades has meant every generation of young gay people have been less marginalised and less ashamed than the one before. As the stigma slowly melts away, stronger and longer relationships blossom.
Most importantly, it makes it easier for the young kid in high school, afraid to go to school for fear of being called a name or exposed as an outsider.
Gay marriage will not magically cure all problems of discrimination and hardship for young gay people, but to someone like me in a long-term relationship, it dramatically changes the equation in a way that’s hard to express. At an age when friends are talking about buying houses, and moving out and golly, even getting married, it still seems somehow wrong or inappropriate for me to do the same. I want to be on the same path as them. I still want to make my own choices, but I want to be legally able to pursue any life I want.
According to Suicide Prevention Australia, around 30% of Australia’s gay teenagers will attempt suicide in their lives. They are 14 times more likely than straight teenagers to do so. If Julia Gillard is truly a compassionate leader, these are the people she should be helping. New York may be half a world away, and oh so very different to our small and humble nation. But the benefits of equality of love are as strong in any part of the world, and Australia should not let itself be left behind.