5,420 same-sex weddings later: Australians mark one year since voting 'yes'

Thursday marks one year since it was announced Australians had voted in favour of marriage equality.

This time last year, married couple Selwyn Lemos and Ban-Foo Leong stood in Belmore Park in Sydney’s CBD, and marched in what they hoped would be their last ever campaign for marriage equality in Australia.

It was.

Days later, on November 15 2017, it was announced Australia had voted 'yes' to marriage equality.

“It’s a significant achievement, that we were part of that fight for equality. And now we have it and it feels good,” Mr Leong tells SBS News, as he stands in the park, a place where he and his now-husband feel they helped shape history.

“We look back with fond memories,” says Mr Lemos.

Selwyn and Ban Foo meet in 1997 in Singapore.
Source: Supplied.

“One year ago, we were here as part of a rally for the ‘yes’ vote and we gathered here, we marched on to George Street, to Victoria Park and it felt good that there was there was such huge support, not just from gay community, but the wider community, straight friends were with us that day,” he said.

A year on, that support has not wavered, even as the momentum behind the 'yes' vote died down, slipping out of the headlines in the weeks after same-sex marriage was legalised.

Earlier this month, the couple of 21 years tied the knot in the presence of dozens of family and friends, many of whom had travelled across the globe to witness the long-awaited event.

Out of the shadows

The couple didn’t hold back.

After a secret commitment ceremony in Singapore, where they lived before moving to Australia in 2003, they finally had the chance to go big.   

“It's time to scream and shout. This is what we've been waiting for, for 21 years, and we could finally do it and be on equal terms with everyone else,” said Mr Lamos.

Australia votes to legalise same-sex marriage

He says there has long been a stigma against same-sex couples in his homeland of Singapore, where homosexuality is still considered criminal.

“We had to hide our relationship, we couldn't talk about it and that takes a toll. Why should we have to be behaving like we're criminals?” he says.

We had to hide our relationship, we couldn't talk about it and that takes a toll. 

“To have a ceremony, with a celebrant and doing vows, that's considered illicit,” said Mr Leong, who was born in Brunei. 

“It's potentially worse there because it's a Muslim country. The law is no different, it criminalises homosexuality and we live in the shadows all the time.

Part of the reason we moved to Australia is because we see a better possibility of life,” he said.

Selwyn and Ban Foo got married at the Sydney Opera House, 21 years after they first met.
Source: Supplied.

For their Australian wedding, they couldn’t have chosen a more public or iconic venue; the Sydney Opera House.

“It couldn’t have gone any better. We're still euphoric from it. It was a room full of love and support and we had all the people that were for the marriage, it was just a beautiful event,” says Mr Lemos.

The legalisation of same-sex marriage completed their dream of living happily ever after in Australia.

“This is our little 'somewhere over the rainbow', to use a cliché. It was somewhere we thought would become home for us and now with this icing on the cake, that it recognised the relationship, it was everything it hoped for,” said Mr Lemos. 

“We couldn't be any happier, it is a dream come true in so many ways,” added Mr Leong.

Their wedding celebrant, Stephen Lee tells SBS News the joy in the room was palpable.

“When I pronounced that they were husband and husband, there was a huge cheer and that cheer went on for three or four minutes, and I thought it was never going to stop.”

'Humbling and heartwarming': Marriage celebrant describes 2018 wedding season post same sex marriage legalisation

Liberal MP Dean Smith, who introduced the marriage equality bill into Parliament, said such moments reveal the power of what has been achieved.

"To be totally honest and to bring sort of a personal experience to this, when I went to my first gay wedding and those words were pronounced, there was that same feeling of euphoria in the crowd but for me personally, I thought 'wow, this is what I and others have actually done,'"

"For me, that was the first really powerful, tangible thing [that showed] what I, what we, had done and the law was now impacting the real experience of LGBTI Australians who chose to get married."

One year on

After 23 previous attempts by a mix of political parties, on 15 November last year, Senator Smith introduced the bill to amend the Marriage Act to redefine marriage as "a union of two people".

The bill passed the House on 7 December and received Royal Assent the following day. Since then, a total of 5,420 same-sex marriages have taken place across Australia.

“2018 has been the most amazing year in celebrating love, in fact, it’s been my most busy year ever,” says marriage celebrant Stephen Lee.

“In the past year, I’ve done 132 marriages and 54 of them have been for same-sex couples, so that’s 40 per cent of my business, which is clearly a huge amount,” he said.

A total of 5,420 same-sex marriages have taken place across Australia.
Source: Supplied.

Just over 7.8 million Australians voted in the voluntary survey, with 61.6 per cent saying 'yes' and 38.4 per cent 'no'.

“To know that Australia was on our side made a huge difference,” NSW Independent MP Alex Greenwich, a prominent voice in the Yes campaign, tells SBS.

"To see the movement grow over the decade that I was involved, there were a number of setbacks throughout it but with every setback we sought to use that to empower people to not take no for an answer, and turn it into a yes.

A year on he says support for a community has “never been higher.”

But not everyone is celebrating. 

Conservative Party Queensland Senate candidate Lyle Sheldon, who campaigned heavily for the ‘no’ vote, says same-sex marriage legislation ‘weaponised’ anti-discrimination laws, and as a result has compromised freedom of speech in Australia.

“It’s allows political activists to use anti-discrimination law against those who will always believe that marriage is between one man and one woman, and who will always want to live out that belief, either individually or in community groups and be able to express that public without fear of being dragged off to a human rights commission.”

In the midst of the debate on marriage equality, the then-Turnbull government requested a review into the issue of religious freedom known as the Ruddock review, led by former attorney general Philip Ruddock.

The review received submissions from marriage equality groups, calling for changes to discrimination laws that allow religious organisations to discriminate based on sexuality, while many religious organisations called for the right maintain their values.

"The Coalition promised these freedoms, they promised that they would legislate them, they set up the Ruddock review to make sure freedoms would be protected, but 12 months on, nothing has been done," Mr Sheldon said.

As he and others continue to fight for religious freedoms, Mr Greenwich says it shows there are still ongoing challenges for the LGBTQI+ community.

"Clearly we still face a campaign to use religious freedoms to campaign against our community. But it is wonderful when you look at the response rate of Australians against the Ruddock review, saying that there shouldn't be any more discrimination in the area of the law against the LGBTI community." 

SBS documentary Australia Says Yes airs on SBS at 7.30pm on Thursday 15 November and will be available afterwards on SBS On Demand

Published 15 November 2018 at 5:57am, updated 15 November 2018 at 11:12am
By Abbie O'Brien