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    Marriage Equality Triumphs Around the World

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis–

    As we approach the end of the year, we are happy to report that 2017 brought major marriage equality victories in such diverse countries as Taiwan, Germany, Malta, Australia and Austria, with successes in the latter two nations coming just three weeks ago.  In these places, separated by thousands of miles and oceans, constitutional courts and national legislatures recognized a principle that transcends cultural differences and national boundaries: human respect and dignity mandate equality and freedom for LGBTIQ people. 

    Earlier this year, we reported extensively on the breakthroughs in Taiwan, Germany, and Malta. This week we focus on Australia and Austria. In our July column celebrating the German victory, we described how Chancellor Angela Merkel—under pressure from opposition parties—finally permitted a “free conscience” vote in Parliament after years of obstruction. We advised that “Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who claims to support marriage equality but is blocking a free conscience vote in the Australian Parliament despite clear public support for equality, would do well to follow Merkel’s example.” On December 7, Turnbull did exactly that, and the Australian Parliament passed full marriage equality legislation nearly unanimously with just four votes in opposition.

    Turnbull for years had blocked such a vote because of internal political pressure from the most socially conservative members of his party. Still buckling under pressure, Turnbull this summer authorized putting marriage equality up to a popular vote through a non-binding national referendum to be held by mail in the fall. When the plebiscite showed over 60 percent of the public in favor, Turnbull quickly allowed the free conscience vote in Parliament. After the vote, Turnbull exclaimed, “What a day! What a day for love, for equality, for respect! Australia has done it! Today we’ve voted for love, for equality. It’s time for more marriages, more love, more respect. This belongs to us all. This is Australia.” He learned first-hand how much better it feels to be on the right side of history than on the wrong side.

    The Australian referendum, however, eerily echoed some of the most disturbing elements of the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign in California—for one, having millions of people you don’t know vote on whether or not you should have your basic civil rights.  Out lesbian Senator Penny Wong told The New York Times: “It is a hard thing to have others judge whether you deserve to be equal. And it is an even harder thing to have your family and your children besmirched by those who want to perpetuate discrimination.” We in California know exactly what she’s talking about. Indeed, Australian equality opponents employed anti-LGBTIQ smears reminiscent of those of the “Yes on 8” campaign. “Our very identity [was] the subject of public scrutiny and public debate,” said Wong in her floor speech. 

    The Parliamentary victory gave LGBTIQ people the opportunity to experience the same sense of dignity and respect that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized as crucial in Obergefell.  The U.S. Supreme Court observed that denying LGBTIQ people the full freedom to marry “disparage[s] their choices and diminish[es] their personhood” and held that the Constitution guarantees us “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” A 22-year-old Australian gay man who witnessed the Parliamentary vote live described to The New York Times how the victory “alleviated a life of shame and embarrassment of who I am” and “validated everyone’s love here and around Australia.” 

    In fact, during his floor speech, gay Parliament member Tim Wilson proposed to his longtime partner Ryan Bolger, who did not hesitate in responding “yes” from the public gallery. On the day of the victory, Wilson said that the vote sent “a strong message to every kid that is questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity that you do not need to be afraid.”
    In our July column celebrating the German victory, we also wrote about how activists in neighboring Austria hoped that momentum from the victory would bring equality there. Just three days before the Australian Parliamentary victory, the Austrian Constitutional Court ruled that Austria’s current relegation of same-sex couples to unequal “registered partnerships” instead of marriage violated the nation’s constitution. Marriage equality will become the law on January 1, 2019, unless the legislature repeals the current exclusion earlier. 

    The Court held that the differential treatment “violates the (Austrian constitution’s) principle of equal treatment, which forbids any discrimination of individuals on grounds of personal characteristics, such as their sexual orientation.” The lawyer for the lesbian couple who brought the lawsuit noted that ruling made Austria the first European country to establish marriage equality through a court recognizing it as a “fundamental human right,” rather than through the political process. The Austrian Court seemed particularly concerned about the discriminatory message that the separate laws for same-sex and different-sex couples sent and the ongoing risk of discrimination that LGBTIQ Austrians face.

    Not everywhere in the world saw marriage equality advances this year. The British territory of Bermuda may suffer a legal setback for marriage equality soon, and as we have discussed in previous columns, LGBTIQ people fear for their lives and physical safety in many places around the world. Our hope is that this year’s marriage equality victories will further the cause of LGBTIQ equality in all of its aspects, and that next December, we will report on more victories for dignity and equality around the world.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.