marriage equality in australia

All you need to know about Marriage Equality in Australia

Marriage equality became law in Australia on 9 December 2017 after the then federal government spent more than $80 million asking eligible voters to vote on whether the definition of marriage should be changed.

Of eligible voters, 61.6% said ‘yes’ and 38.4% voted ‘no’ when they were asked in a postal survey undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics whether marriage should be defined as being between ‘two people’ rather than the then existing ‘a man and a woman’.

Since its inception, the Marriage Act 1961 had been silent on the definition of marriage. That is, it didn’t define who could get married.

That changed in 2004, when the conservative government led by John Howard defined marriageability as being based on sex – i.e. between a man and a woman. Instantly, that prohibited anyone who loved someone who was not from the opposite sex from getting married to them.

The postal vote on marriage equality caused immeasurable damage to people’s mental health, particularly the mental health of people from the LGBTIQ+ community. Their right to marry was being debated publicly by their friends, their families, their work colleagues and complete strangers on a daily basis. No other section of Australia society had ever had the right to marry debated in such a public way.

The debates were often hate-based, ill-informed and hurtful. It forced many people from the LGBTIQ+ community to go back into the closet, because it was simply too difficult to face the daily onslaught. Many felt betrayed, threatened, hurt, and scared.

marriage equality in australia - lesbian couple

Even on the day of the announcement of the result of the postal survey, there was a tremendous fear amongst the LGBTIQ+ community that the result of the vote would be ‘no’.

But that soon gave way to euphoria when the ‘yes’ result was announced. It seemed literally unbelievable, at first, after so many had fought for so long for this result. Many committed couples from the LGBTIQ+ community had died waiting for the right to get married.

And here, at last, was this right to do so.

So, what changed?

Several things changed:

  1. At the very least, the forms used for marriage in Australia changed. The words ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ disappeared and were replaced by ‘description of parties’, with the parties being labelled Person 1 and Person 1.
  2. The wording that celebrants needed to say in each ceremony they conducted changed: rather than being required to say, “Marriage according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”, they were now required to say, “Marriage according to law in Australia, is the union of two people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.
  3. Rather than begin required to use the words ‘lawful wedded wife’ or ‘lawful wedded husband’ in their legal vows prior to marriage equality, couples can now use any of the terms ‘lawful wife’ or ‘lawful husband’ or ‘lawful spouse’ or ‘lawful partner in marriage’. Many LGBTIQ + couples that I marry are still dissatisfied with those words, saying that they don’t adequately describe them.
  4. The options for the marriage terms changed. Previously, a woman would tick the ‘bride’ box and the man would tick the ‘groom’ box on the marriage forms. Now, the Attorney-General’s Department, despite being horrified initially at the thought that this may occur, is now more relaxed that anyone can tick to be a ‘bride’ or a ‘groom’ or a ‘partner’ (a new addition since marriage equality) on the marriage forms.
  5. ‘Gender’ is now an optional field on the marriage forms. It makes sense for it to be so. Now that any two people can get married in Australia, it makes no sense to continue to ask people’s gender (previously called ‘sex’ in the marriage forms). The Attorney-General’s Department continues to appear to be confused about these terms, with the marriage forms only offering ‘female’ or ‘male’ or ‘non-binary’ as options for ‘gender. Not everyone fits neatly into those categories, of course.
  6. But, overwhelmingly, of course, the people who could get married now included those who came from across the entire queer community. It’s been nothing short of joyful and delightful to have been asked to marry so many people who had grown up believing they’d simply never be allowed to marry the person that loved.
  7. Many LGBTIQ + couples have used their marriage to signal that they understand the difference between a marriage and a wedding. There is an entire wedding industry that has built up over the last century or so, composed of ‘must haves’ for every wedding that takes place. What bride would ever think of not walking down an aisle or not having a wedding cake or not exchanging wedding rings or not having a sit-down reception, for example? Lots of LGBTIQ + couples have turned their noses up at those types of rituals and the pressure from all quarters that leads to a heavy expectation that they will comply.  LGBTIQ + couples don’t have to. And they aren’t. That’s why they’re settling for smaller weddings, more intimate weddings, cheaper weddings, more authentic and relevant weddings, with fewer rituals and without feeling the need to buy into the heteronormative traditions and rituals that have been classically associated with weddings. The focus is more on the ceremony, the legalities (that we all fought for) rather than the trappings of typical weddings. You can check out some LGBTIQ + alternatives to traditional wedding rituals here: 39 Same-Sex Wedding Rituals & Traditions.

Whilst we now have marriage equality, we don’t have marriage equity.

– Bronte Price

What work is still to be done?

Whilst we now have marriage equality, we don’t have marriage equity. For example, there are several Australian jurisdictions that still make it more difficult for some people to get married than others. For those who have to change their ‘sex’ on their birth certificate, they have to show medical documentary evidence that they have undergone ‘gender reaffirming surgery’. It’s an invasive requirement that affects trans and gender diverse people. It means that some people in Australia have to go through more ‘administrative and medical hurdles’ than others. It remains unfair and unequal.

In December 2021, the Attorney-General’s Department enabled the signing and witnessing of the Notice of Intended Marriage to be undertaken by electronic means – eg Zoom, FaceTime and WhatsApp. It was a step that will likely cease on 31 December 2022 and was introduced to make it easier for couples to sign their witness in front of an authorised witness (their celebrant) in COVID times. It applies only to parties in Australia. There are strong hopes that the measure will continue beyond this year and that it will be expanded to include parties located overseas at the time of signing, but only time will tell.

Meanwhile, people of all sexualities, genders, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds are getting married the way they want to, in front of the people they wish to share their special day with, in increasing numbers. And they are getting bolder in throwing away the traditions and rituals that many couples in the past felt they had to adhere to. More and more, they are developing ways of including things, people, possessions and rituals that better reflect them and how they live their lives.

And that’s a good thing.

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