Last week Australia announced the results of its country-wide opinion poll on whether or not to legalise same-sex marriage. This has felt like a long time coming – with the UK and the US having already adopted the legislation in 2013 and 2015 respectively – but despite the victory, I can’t help but question why this is even a matter that is put to the public vote.
Ireland’s 2015 same-sex marriage referendum left it as the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote, but the ‘yes’ vote was only 62%. Australia’s opinion poll had similar results, with 61.6% voting yes. In each instance around 38% of the turnout decisively voted that gay people should not be allowed to get married. Whilst revealing enduring and frankly disgusting homophobia, these figures reveal a bigger problem with these public votes on same-sex marriage.
We obviously can’t be certain that every one of those ‘no’ votes is from a straight person, but it makes a logical sense that almost all of them are. With neither vote being mandatory, the votes cast are likely to be those on either extreme of the opinion spectrum, with those not voting likely being the ones who are ambivalent on the matter. So we’re seeing the opinions of the motivated. Those who are particularly in support of equality of course turn out to vote, but so do those who are particularly against it, and the majority of the latter category are heterosexual.
Why are we leaving the fate of marriage equality to the opinions of straight people? We would never let white people vote on whether people of colour can marry, nor would we let able-bodied people vote on whether disabled people can marry. This would, quite rightly, be considered inappropriate, unjust, and just plain wrong.
Clearly same-sex marriage has no effect on straight people. As the saying goes, ‘if you are against gay marriage, don’t get gay married.’ The lives of a same-sex couple who want to get married, because of the financial or legal benefits, or just because they decide they want to, should not be decided by the collective electoral power of the country’s homophobes.
I can’t pretend to understand what would compel a person to vote no on an issue that has nothing to do with them, to actively seek to stop a significant proportion of their population having the right to get married, simply because the idea might make them uncomfortable. But I do think that we should stop giving these people a say in this decision.
So far these public votes have fallen in favour of equality, even if by a worryingly small margin. But what about when they don’t? What kind of message would it send if a vote swung the other way – 60% of people voting no? Would we be facing increased hate crimes, a tolerance for intolerance? It’s a terrible prospect, but if countries continue to keep putting the question of gay marriage to straight people, it’s one we could very well be facing. Whilst we celebrate the victory in Australia and hope it leads to equality legislation, it’s definitely worth questioning the means by which this victory had to be achieved.