Australia’s same-sex marriage debate reaches crescendo

For many Australians, recent developments have felt like the country has lurched, suddenly (and belatedly), into 21st century social politics. Public debates around Australia have spent the last month focusing on issues of identity and sexual orientation, with the fulcrum of this being the nation-wide same-sex marriage plebiscite currently under way.

One of the most widely-shared news items in this area was the Education Department of Western Australia’s decision to permit female students to wear shorts and pants. The central factor in the decision was 11 year old Sofia Myhre, who wrote a widely-discussed article to the head of the Education Department complaining about the ban. She argued that the dresses she was forced to wear were uncomfortable, made her self-aware, and prevented her from fully participating in sports activities, which are arguments highlighted by the advocacy group Girls Uniform Agenda. The letter also attracted the attention of individual mothers and local feminist groups, who pointed out that the ban on shorts and pants for girls — which was not, obviously, applied to male students — was an obvious breach of nondiscriminatory policies.

Despite the seeming anachronism, such strict dress codes are not uncommon for girls in Australia. Previously mentioned Girls Uniform Agenda states that roughly 70% of public schools in Brisbane still require their female students to wear dresses, and the number is similar for other Australian states and territories. Victoria, the second most populous state in the country, only changed their dress code policy on September 12th of this year, following Western Australia’s lead.

The dress codes, although formerly being cultural and political institutions, have been fairly easy to undo. They were widely disliked by many people, and even those who were indifferent or in favor of strict dress codes were ready to admit that the policies were outdated. Ironically for Australia’s more progressive political parties, the outdated and sexist ban on girls wearing pants provided them with an easy point of policy reform, one that allowed them to curry popular public support.

The far more contentious social issue occurring in Australia is the potential legalization of same-sex marriage. Since amendments in 2004 to the Marriage Act, same-sex marriage has not been recognized under Australian law. The longstanding point of public contention since, has reached a climax after the Australian High Court ruled that the government could proceed with a “postal vote” on gay marriage. If the survey produces a majority in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage, the current Government has pledged to facilitate the passing of the necessary legislation via a private member’s bill. The route Australia is taking in this regard is highly unusual; unlike other countries, which typically have decided on this issue through referendums or simply the legislative process, the postal vote is nonbinding, noncompulsory, and of questionable legal standing. It will also be astronomically expensive to the Australian taxpayer, with most estimates placing the final cost around $122 million. The decision to carry on with the postal vote has faced serious criticism on both sides of the aisle.

Since the High Court made its decision regarding the same-sex marriage vote, factions were immediately developed and organized into “Yes” and “No” groups. Although LGBT rights movements in other countries have strongly aligned with the Yes campaign, both sides have faced serious criticism on the domestic front for shady tactics and tacky strategies. The No campaign garnered the ire of Yes voters in Sydney by literally writing “Vote No” in the sky. But it is arguably the Yes campaign that has faced the greatest backlash. One activist organization, Australian Marriage Equality, send out a mass text to millions of Australians. Although AME claims the phone numbers were randomly generated, workers in Australia’s telecoms industry have cast doubt on that, arguing instead that they may have used foreign metadata-collection software.

In real life, things are rarely, truly even. In Australia, even though both groups are guilty of at best, controversial strategies, it is predicted that the Yes vote will win a national majority. Even still, the nasty tactics of the two sides has shifted opinions to a not-insignificant degree. The portion of voters supporting the No vote moved up from 30 to 34% while the Yes vote has dropped. The entire month of September, from the gendered debates of the first half of the month to the gay marriage debates that will continue on to November, have revealed deep social fractures in portions of Australia’s population.

Edited by Ed McCombe.

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