• Planning a wedding is stressful enough without giving the entire country a chance to weigh in on the validity of your marriage. (Flickr, Creative Commons, J Dickert)Source: Flickr, Creative Commons, J Dickert
Planning a wedding is stressful enough without giving the entire nation a chance to object to the validity of your marriage. Elizabeth Sutherland writes about the experience of planning a wedding with the prospect of the marriage equality plebiscite looming overhead.
Elizabeth Sutherland

30 Jun 2016 - 10:34 AM  UPDATED 30 Jun 2016 - 10:34 AM

We’re planning a wedding.

It’s going to be small and intimate, but there will be fancy frocks and excellent food. There will be vows, and rings, and people shouting mazel tov at our wedding. There will be champagne, and flowers, and people crying and laughing, at our wedding.

But there might not be a legal marriage at our wedding.

Planning a same-sex wedding in Australia is a fraught business. Service providers seem keen to be booked by a lesbian couple, but everyone’s a bit uncertain about the nature of the event that’s being planned. One friend I invited was skeptical about the date (next autumn). But… how? How are you actually going to have a wedding? she wanted to know. It’s a fair question.

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Irish politicians had the option of legislating same-sex marriage without a referendum, just as Australian politicians currently can.

It’s anyone’s guess whether my beloved and I will be signing a legal marriage certificate or a worthless piece of prettily designed paper when it comes to our ceremony next year. Labor have promised to legislate for marriage equality before 2016 is out, if there’s a change of government. With the polls very uncertain, it seems just as likely that Turnbull will be returned and that we’ll be subjected to a plebiscite on whether we have the same rights as other Australians within months. And after that? There’s no guarantee that a ‘yes’ plebiscite result will be at all binding.

This is a source of anxiety for many. One marriage celebrant I spoke to said she’s desperately glued to updates because she knows that when Australia finally aligns with similar nations, she’ll have a huge rush of paperwork on her hands. Another celebrant said she’s hoping that her business will take off when same-sex couples have some certainty. There has been a shift in accepted business practices in the past year: Australian celebrants used to perform ‘commitment ceremonies’ for same-sex couples at a reduced cost (to reflect the lack of legal paperwork). Now, it’s the norm to perform ‘weddings’ for same-sex couples at the standard rate, and offer to finalise the legalities for free down the track. This subtle alteration of industry practice reflects how so many Australians for different backgrounds are feeling about this issue: we’re holding our breath, and we’re tired of it.

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Labor frontbencher Penny Wong has made an impassioned plea for the marriage equality plebiscite to be dumped to protect same-sex people from abuse.

One of the reasons we need to move out of this position of impatient anticipation is that there are a myriad of issues facing LGBTI Australians that have nothing to do with marriage, and that are all-too easily eclipsed by this one persistent problem. The even more pressing concerns include: high rates of homelessness, family violence, suicide and self-harm; access to medical treatment for young trans people; employment protections and documentation reform for trans and intersex people; access to LGBTI-friendly healthcare, especially in rural communities; the plight of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees; the extremely high suicide rates among people who are both LGBTI and Indigenous; and the list goes on. The fact is, marriage is not for everyone; it is largely a symbolic right in this complex modern world. But symbols matter, and I do believe that some of our most vulnerable populations have much to gain from legal recognition of marriage equality.

I was raised in a country town in the era of the AIDS epidemic, under the constant cloud-cover of homophobia. It was an upbringing that could be called sheltered, or more cynically, stunted. My surroundings were so hostile to LGBTI people that I couldn’t even recognise that the feelings I had myself were queer feelings. I didn’t know any happy stories about queer love, so I grew up fractured, a limited version of myself.

It’s a new century now, but too many young Australians are still having these experiences. Without equal legal status, it is hard to argue that queer lives and loves are as valued and valid as heterosexual ones. Kids these days are still raised under the shadow of the heterosexual wedding cake, and the consequences can be devastating.

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I should know. In 2002 my father died of cancer. Now that I am a parent myself, I better understand the depth of his despair at leaving his three daughters when we were all so young and far off settling into life. The best future he imagined for me was marriage, children, mortgage: stability in the suburbs. On his deathbed, he told me to get married. Without my input, my boyfriend was listed as dad’s son-in-law in the newspaper obituary. The following year, inevitably, we were officially wed. It lasted a claustrophobic nine years. At that wedding there was a traditional wedding cake -- multi-tiered, fruit, marzipan icing -- made by my family.

My relatives won’t make a cake for my second wedding, that’s certain. But I wish there was more about the day we could know for sure. The threatened plebiscite looms, obscuring the bright future I want for my partner and daughter. The prospect of dodging dehumanising anti-marriage equality ads whilst browsing online for invitation designs is a depressing one.

Homophobia exists in its most insidious -- and powerful -- forms in the times of our most heightened humanity and our most acute need. Births, deaths and marriages make up the basis of our social world. To deny same-sex couples the full participation in these rites is to deny us our full humanity.

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In Noel Armfield’s powerful film from 2015, Holding The Man, there is a sequence I wish I could have played on repeat in Parliament House. Protagonist Tim is facing everyone’s worst nightmare, discussing the funeral arrangements for his dying partner with the priest. Except, unlike the respect and deference given to most widowers, Tim is told he will be referred to as his partner John’s ‘friend’ at the funeral. In an outburst of rage and grief, he yells, ‘I am his husband!’ It’s a futile statement; in Australia, no gay man is his lover’s husband, and that legal definition actually matters.

We don’t need a plebiscite to tell us that LGBTI people are human, and that we must have human rights. Instead, Australia needs political leadership to bring us in line with world’s best practice on this issue. Nothing can make up for lost time, but parliament has an ethical imperative to ensure that no more time is wasted, no more lives are lost.

Australia is ready for marriage equality, and I am ready and waiting for my beautiful bride.

Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality.