Australia’s Curious Path to Legalizing Gay Marriage

November 16, 2017 2:02 am
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SYDNEY, Australia — The public opinion survey that yielded majority approval for same-sex marriage in Australia on Wednesday was an emotional breakthrough born of a long, curious and still-continuing struggle.

The survey drew a huge response, and the margin of victory sent a clear message about where Australians stand. But the costs of the mail-in survey — both financial and psychological — have been staggering.

So even as the “yes” side celebrates, many Australians are frustrated. Their country, they believe, could have gotten to this point faster if lawmakers and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had simply done their jobs and passed a bill reflecting what previous polls showed most Australians wanted.

“I don’t feel like it says that we’re ahead of any sort of pack on this issue, but ultimately the popular will has overridden the cynical use of a system — and that’s heartening,” said Peter Lewis, one of Australia’s most respected pollsters for progressive causes. “It shows the people are way ahead of the current government.”

Lawmakers introduced a bill on Wednesday with bipartisan support that could legalize same-sex marriage by the end of the year. But critics point out that it could have been introduced a year or two ago, and debate over the details has only just begun.

Australia’s Parliament is exceedingly weak at the moment, having spent months booting out members for being dual citizens, leading to special elections that could force a change of government.

Many gay couples argue that passage of a bill is already overdue.

“They just need to listen to the Australian people and make it happen superfast,” said Jarrad Duggan-Tierney, a gay civil servant in Melbourne with a popular Instagram account chronicling life with his partner and son. “It’s a powerful statement: Here’s the cake, but you can’t eat it yet.”

Still, he and many others were quick to say that Australia should view the results with pride. Australians overwhelmingly supported same-sex marriage, with 61.6 percent voting “yes.”

“It’s proven that Australians want a ‘fair go’ for everyone,” said Chris Lewis, 60, an artist who watched the results in Prince Alfred Park in Sydney with his partner and hundreds of others. “It’s vindication.”

Participation in the survey was higher than initially expected. It beat participation in the referendum in Britain on leaving the European Union (72.2 percent) and far surpassed the percentage of Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential election (58 percent). The youngest eligible voters, 18 and 19 years old, were especially eager, with 78.2 percent returning their mail-in ballots, more than for any other age group below 45.

“The fact that 80 percent of the population — including a large cohort who had probably never sent a letter in their lives — were prepared to do it shows that we are engaged,” Mr. Lewis said.

Australia has turned social issues directly over to the people before. On May 27, 1967, 91 percent of Australian voters agreed by referendum to delete two discriminatory references to Aborigines in Australia’s Constitution.

Like the same-sex marriage vote, the 1967 vote was highly symbolic.

It is often celebrated (incorrectly) as the referendum that gave Australia’s Indigenous population the vote, but that had been approved in 1962. What it really did was lay the groundwork for the process — still unfinished — of achieving racial equality. It cemented, in law, a broader idea of Australian identity.

But for many Aboriginal Australians, the referendum process — being forced to ask the more powerful white majority for inclusion — was also humiliating and painful.

“I can only imagine the courage it took for my Aboriginal grandparents to campaign in 1967 to be counted as human beings in Australia,” said Deborah Cheetham, an Aboriginal Australian soprano, actor, composer and playwright who is also gay and was a vocal “yes” supporter. “How demoralizing.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia.CreditDean Lewins/European Pressphoto Agency

What made the same-sex marriage vote even more controversial was that it had nothing to do with the Australian Constitution, and could have been avoided.

In August, Mr. Turnbull turned to it as a Plan C after failing to persuade fellow lawmakers to go along with either a bill in Parliament or an actual plebiscite with a binding resolution — as Ireland did in 2015 when it approved same-sex marriage. That choice, to have an expensive vote that was not even binding — it cost 122 million Australia dollars, or about $97 million — has rankled voters on all sides of the issue.

If public engagement in the vote showed the health of Australia’s democracy, the survey itself points to its opposite: a dysfunctional, out-of-touch legislature that often lags behind the world and its own constituents on many of the most important issues of the day.

In Prince Alfred Park, among the celebrants, this was the view arising quickly and at increased volume after the first expression of pride.

“A minority group should never have to go through this,” said Annika Lowry, 42, a heterosexual “yes” voter pushing her 4-year-old daughter in a stroller. “It’s un-Australian. It’s cruel.”

She was referring to a “no” campaign that fought a no-limits losing battle.

The “yes” campaign could focus on mobilization; opinion polls had already shown that most Australians supported the cause. The “no” side faced a different challenge: getting people who might be complacent or undecided to agree with their position and care enough to send back the survey.

This led to campaign videos with mothers arguing that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead boys to dress like girls; leaflets sent to millions of Australians that warned of child abuse and compared homosexuality to a mental disorder; and a never-ending discussion on Australian television and radio about the dangers of gay families like the Duggan-Tierneys.

Some “no” voters said that while they did not necessarily endorse all of what was said, they were glad to have a chance to confront the other side.

“It’s a big negotiation and debate over truth,” said Rob Assaf, 21, a university student in Sydney who voted “no.” “I love that. I thrive off it.”

Gay couples (among others) were horrified during the campaign, and still are.

“This survey has given legitimacy to people who have really terrible things to say about the queer community,” said Rohan Spong, a gay documentary filmmaker, whose musical documentary about AIDS, “All The Way Through Evening,” is returning to Australian screens this month. “My fear is that those people who feel like their voice is legitimate are going to continue saying and doing things that are harmful and hurtful.”

Paulo Corte-Real, an activist who has become a global expert on same-sex marriage after working to legalize it in Portugal in 2009, said “a referendum on same-sex marriage inevitably brings homophobia to the public discourse, creating a greater strain on people whose rights are already being publicly challenged.”

Some voters said they were especially disappointed in Mr. Turnbull. The head of Australia’s center-right Liberal party, he supports same-sex marriage, but his handling of the issue has contributed to a widening frustration with his leadership, or lack of it.

“I admit I made a mistake in supporting him,” said Eddie Major, 34, from Adelaide, posting in a Facebook group for Australian New York Times subscribers. “I won’t forgive him for what he’s inflicted upon Australians with this postal survey.”

Martin Scriha, 48, a bartender in rural Mackay, in northern Queensland who voted “yes,” said it was just another example of where Australia stands on social issues: “a bit more behind than everywhere else.”

But for now, many Australians are still trying to figure out how to make sure that the vote moves beyond symbolism to actual impact.

“The general consensus is that it was a total waste of money and the government should be in touch with its people and understand its people,” said Michael Duggan-Tierney, Jarrad’s partner a few hours after the results came in. “We’ll have a lot more respect for the Australian government once they get this sorted. Pronto.”

Reporting was contributed by Adam Baidawi from Melbourne, Australia; Isabella Kwai, Tacey Rychter and Jacqueline Williams from Sydney; and Diana Oliva Cave from Mackay, Australia.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Australia’s Long, Costly Path to Marriage Equality Continues. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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