National Column: ‘Yes’ vote loses the moral high ground

by Emma Teitel

“If you don’t believe in same-sex marriage, then don’t marry someone of the same sex.” This was
comedian Wanda Sykes’ simple, logical appeal to socially conservative Americans in the late 2000s who opposed gay marriage.

It’s an appeal that many nations (the U.S. included) have since taken to heart. France legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. Ireland did the same by popular vote in 2015 and, earlier this year, Taiwan’s highest court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage, paving the way for legalization.

Oh and just the other day, Australia proved that it too can be a thoroughly decent place. In a historic, non-binding two-month-long postal vote, the results of which were released this week, Australians declared they would overwhelmingly support a law enabling gay couples to marry. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 61.6 per cent voted in support of gay marriage. If all goes as planned, same-sex marriage should become the law of the land come Christmastime.

Cue the confetti, the celebrity tweets of ecstatic approval (“YES AUSTRALIA! WELL DONE” – Boy George), the photos of gay dudes in matching tuxes and lesbians with asymmetrical haircuts kissing outside government buildings. It’s all pretty wonderful.

However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that something about the outcome Down Under doesn’t feel quite right.

I don’t want to rain on the Aussies’ parade in light of what is a truly fantastic result. But I believe a discussion is in order about how this result was arrived at. And the “how”- in this instance, the postal vote – is less than fantastic.

Though the Australian postal vote wasn’t a referendum on same-sex marriage ‡ la Ireland’s vote two years ago, the fact remains that its result will determine the trajectory of same-sex marriage legislation in the country.

And while it may be enormously gratifying for gay Australians to learn that the majority of their nation voted in favour of their civil rights, the question remains: Is a popular vote the most ethical way to shift policy on a civil rights issue? The answer is no.

This is because polls that affirm how progressive one nation is can also affirm the opposite truth about another nation. Journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan put it best, in the aftermath of Ireland’s “Yes” referendum in 2015, when he wrote in the Guardian that “win or lose,” referendums on gay rights and minority issues are a “dangerous practice and can set a precedent for other nations where public opinion might not be so enlightened or tolerant.”

Imagine for example, that you are the leader of a traditionally homophobic nation in Eastern Europe, Africa or the Middle East, the kind of leader who likes to boast, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-style, that there are no gay people in your country. The kind of leader who believes that homosexuality is a Western import.

Now imagine that a small but vocal group of LGBTQ activists within your borders begin making waves, inspiring international media attention and support from Western governments with robust protections for their own LGBTQ citizens. Imagine one of the countries criticizing you for your unwillingness to extend civil rights to your LGBTQ citizens, is a country like Australia or Ireland that once held a popular vote on gay rights.

Wouldn’t it behoove you to organize your own referendum, among your own predominantly socially
conservative populace to prove once and for all to the international community that you have a democratic precedent for your bigotry?

By holding such a vote in a traditionally homophobic country (on gay marriage, on gays serving in the military, on the legality of gay sex) you could reasonably argue in the face of a nation like Australia or Ireland: “We did exactly what you did. We held a vote and our people spoke, too. But what they had to say was very different than what yours said. What my people had to say is that they don’t want that kind of thing here. And that’s their prerogative.”

When a nation holds a popular vote or referendum on a minority right, it loses the moral high ground required to argue on the world stage that such a right is fundamental – even if the result of that vote is the correct, progressive one.

All in all, the outcome of this week’s vote is a major win for marriage equality in Australia, and for thousands of gay Australian couples who will soon be able to say “I do” on home soil. But it’s a compromised win for gay rights worldwide.

Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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