Associate Professor Anne Mitchell
First published on The Conversation on 10 May, 2012.
This morning my phone woke me earlier than usual with a text from one of my sons, who regularly taps into American politics in the middle of the night. “Obama has come out for gay marriage – how about that!”
How about that? Why should he care at 6 o’clock in the morning, or think I would care? Why should anyone care?
Well, I think there is very little doubt that people will care about this. My son cares because he believes in justice and human rights, and because both his parents are in long-term committed gay relationships which are not equal to the one they were in when they were married to each other.
I care about equality too, and whether or not I would choose to marry my long-term partner is not nearly as important as the degree to which I value my right to do so.
The other people who will care about Obama’s stand are the opponents of same-sex marriage whose views are nicely summarised in the Fox News headline, “Obama Flip Flops, declares war on marriage”. These are the people for whom letting gay people marry spells the end of civilisation as we know it, and degrades the sacred union between a man and a woman in a way that escalating divorce rates and highly publicised extra-marital affairs have apparently failed to do.
These are the people who enjoy the accommodation that our own Prime Minister has made by holding a line so out of touch with the rest of her politics and, indeed her party, that it is manifestly absurd. They are not going to like the very public stand taken by the most powerful leader in the western world and are going to want to see him pay for it in the polls. And maybe he will – another reason for me to applaud his courage.
Ultimately, why I care most about this is simply because it will make big news. A lot of closeted same-sex attracted young people all over the world are going to hear about it and know someone really big is in their corner. In research we released last month, nearly 4000 gay, lesbian and bisexual people commented on relationship recognition in a way that clearly indicated it was most valued by young people.
We have also been conducting research for over a decade with same sex attracted young people and seen many of them move from timid and browbeaten victims of homophobia to bold advocates who are going to fight to have it all.
Nevertheless they are still widely exposed to unchallenged homophobic violence and abuse, at school, in public and sometimes even at home. A message from Obama, believe me, is going to bite into some of this appalling societal neglect.
Older gay and lesbian people have made their various accommodations around formalising relationships, but this is not the case for younger people. When they get around to telling their parents they are same-sex attracted, they want to look forward to the same prospects of family recognition and celebration as do their heterosexual siblings.
They want to spend obscene amounts of money on wedding outfits and flowers, buy houses in the suburbs, have children, win seats on the school council, have easy friendship with neighbours, access good counselling services when marriages derail and command respect for their grief if they come apart.
Much of this may seem entirely possible now, and the recent changes that made same-sex relationships equivalent to de facto ones in Australia have certainly helped make it so.
But it is not all quite possible yet. Powerful forces are still saying gay people cannot be quite the same; that we are not entitled to make this one particular choice to marry. But then again, perhaps we are – Obama says so this morning and does so as part of creating the just world he wishes his own children to live in.
Many Australians today are looking to their own Prime Minister for this kind moral leadership. Come on Julia, break out the confetti. What, besides an election, have you got to lose?
Anne Mitchell is the Deputy-Director of The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University.