Same-sex marriages became legal in the Australian Capital Territory on December 7th. Now, five days later, they are not. The legislation has been over-ruled. All those who have plighted their troth in the interim (around 30 gay couples) are no longer legally wed. This is a shattering blow for those couples and their families.
The High Court has ruled that the state’s decision to allow same-sex marriages is out of kilter with the national laws. Only federal parliament has the power to pass marriage laws. Canberra is the seat of government and the capital of the ACT, but it still has to come under federal jurisdiction. It differs from the US in this regard. This overturn is seen as a victory for the conservatives in parliament, who were always opposed to any marriage that was not between a man and a woman. Tony Abbott, the country’s Prime Minister, is known to be staunchly anti gay marriage. He was voted into office in September as head of the centre-right wing Liberal-National party.
Weddings held last weekend, in a rush to celebrate and solemnize unions, are now invalid. To be married for so short a time before having that dream of legitimate partnership snatched away again, has been heart-breaking for newly weds. Liz Holcombe and Darlene Cox were still dazzled from their earlier happiness, “I have to say the weekend was so fabulous that it’s taken the shine off, but we’re still walking on air” said Liz. She hopes that one day , as “part of the democratic process” same-sex marriages like her brief one with Darlene will be allowed at a federal level.
Chris Teoh and Ivan Hinton were married on Saturday December 7th. They had been together for eleven years and were delighted to tie the knot. Chris has spoken of his dejection and said the decision to reverse the law has been “devastating” not just for them as a couple, but for the entire nation. It is likely that other states who had been considering passing new marriage laws will now rethink. There are six states in Australia and two territories. All fall under the ultimate power of the national government, although they have their own state premiers and state rules.
Ivan Hinton was emotional as he spoke about his brief marriage, “In less than a week we have been married and we have been unmarried,” he said to reporters outside the court. He had taken vows to spend the rest of his life with Chris, through good times and bad, through sickness and health, and he said sadly, “Today is not particularly good.”
Another couple, Narell Majik and Ash Watson, were only married on Wednesday. They had one day as a married pair before their marriage was made “constitutionally invalid.” Putting a brave face on it, Ms Watson said she did not feel any differently. They, with other gay newly weds outside the court, united to face the news. They were joined on the forecourt by jubilant banner-waving Christian activist groups; unlike them, euphoric at the judgement. The “happy couples” tried to cope with their disappointment, many proudly showing their brand new wedding rings and holding their marriage certificates.
An MP was among the recent crop of short-term grooms. Stephen Dawson, from Western Australia, married last Saturday in Canberra under the ACT law. He and his partner, Dennis Liddelow, were the very first to wed with a ceremony at midnight on the lawns of the parliament building. He was proud they had done it and proud they went public. He sent a tweet, “The fight for recognition goes on.”
Many, like Ulises Garcia and Craig Berry, say they will marry again as soon as they can. As “two people in love who want to spend our lives together,” Mr Berry says he only wants to have their love legally recognised. They will marry as often as they have to in order to achieve that.
Thursday’s High Court decision has not been unexpected. Tony Abbott had warned lesbian and gay couples not to rush and marry before the court had been in session. The decision was passed unanimously by all five of the High Court judges and ruled, “The Marriage Act provides that a marriage can be solemnized in Australia only between a man and a woman and that a marriage solemnized in a foreign country between a same-sex couple must not be recognized as a marriage in Australia.”
The previous conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, adopted a similar stance back in 2004 when he knocked down an earlier attempt by Canberra to accept and allow civil unions.
The Greens party, who hold the balance of power in the national government’s upper house, are determined to fight this. Senator for the Greens, Sarah Hanson-Young vowed, “We’re not giving up on you. Don’t give up on us. We will get this done. This is about love.”
The Greens, along with other Australian progressives are concerned that this issue underlines the deep conservatism of Tony Abbott. Former PM, Julia Gillard, infamously called him, “the definition of misogyny in modern Australia.”
Around the world, there has been a definite shift in attitudes towards same-sex marriages. Fifteen US states have now legalized it, with Hawaii being the latest. Canada, Spain, New Zealand, and, from next summer, the UK, have all changed the law to accommodate same-sex couple marriages.
Their dreams may be shattered but these loving couples are all determined to continue to put pressure on the government to change the law again. “We will get there” said Craig Berry, with optimism “It’s just a matter of time.”
By Kate Henderson