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In 13 years, Australia went from marriage apartheid to marriage equality

A historic kiss.
A historic kiss.
Image: EPA-EFE
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In 2004, under prime minister John Howard, Australia amended marriage law to define what marriage was, and to very clearly rule out the recognition of certain kinds of unions. The law was changed to include the following text:

Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

The amendment also added a clause titled “Certain unions are not marriages,” that stated that marriages between two men or two women solemnized abroad would not be recognized in Australia.

The change was apparently in response to the test cases of two same-sex couples who had married in Canada. Since Australian marriage law at the time didn’t define marriage, and also allowed for marriages from overseas to be recognized, barring a few exceptions that did not then include same-sex marriage, the couples decided to go to family court to seek a legal declaration of recognition. A court date was set for August 2004, but before it could take place, the law was changed in June, and received royal assent a week before their court date.

“Our case was effectively knocked out and we withdrew our application. The rest, as they say, is history,” wrote Jacqui Tomlins, who along with her spouse was one of the couples who had been seeking a determination. Tomlin says she thought it would take a decade for the law to be changed again. It took a little bit longer than that.

In the years since, the country saw support for same-sex marriage strengthen, including among lawmakers. But the law remained the same in the face of marked opposition from religious groups and their representatives in parliament. Since 2004, more than 20 bills attempted to change the law on same-sex marriage and failed. Last year parliament blocked an unpopular effort to hold a same-sex marriage plebiscite opposed by many in the LGBT community for fears it would be hurtful and divisive.

Although that idea was abandoned, a postal survey this year of public opinion gave lawmakers the momentum they needed. A majority in every state voiced support for same-sex marriage, results showed Nov. 15. A bill to make same-sex marriage law passed the Senate two weeks later. On Thursday (Dec. 7), the last day of parliament for the year, the bill passed the lower house in a landslide vote.

In 13 years, Australia’s leaders went from thinking it was just fine to exclude gay people from marriage rights, to pledging to bring in marriage equality by Christmas. And so they have.

That’s faster than the turnaround seen in the US, which saw nearly two decades go by between the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which didn’t ban same-sex marriage but did define marriage as only being between a man and a woman, and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that made gay marriage legal across the land.

Couples are expected to be able to register their intent to marry from Saturday, and the first same-sex marriages could be celebrated in Australia as soon as the first week of 2018.