'I Don't Believe in Discrimination But. This Is Just Too Far': Political Discourse in the Australian Marriage Equality Debate

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines how heteronormativity operates in the context of debates over marriage equality, despite an apparent underlying ethos of egalitarianism. The data analysed in the present study were a corpus of 44 transcripts from Australian politicians who oppose the legalisation of non-heterosexual marriage. We utilised a synthetic discourse analysis to identify a predominant discursive repertoire that constructed opposition to non-heterosexual marriage as non-discriminatory, often coupled with a subject position that portrayed politicians as heroes rather than oppressors. Although politicians opposed to non-heterosexual marriage were found to openly agree that non-heterosexual people deserve rights, their accounts functioned to depict marriage for non-heterosexual people as being a step 'too far'. In positioning themselves as non-discriminatory heroes, politicians' views against marriage equality were depicted as the only means in which to protect mainstream society from the 'perils' of non-heterosexual marriage. Our analysis highlights the subtleties of contemporary prejudice as a practice which no longer focuses on the deficits of the oppressed group, but rather solely on the more highly prioritised needs of the heterosexual majority. In the marriage equality debate this enabled politicians to appear as egalitarian and non-prejudiced whilst simultaneously arguing against laws that would grant non-heterosexual individuals greater rights in Australian society.

Keywords: marriage equality debate, Australia, discrimination, discourse analysis, heteronormativity.

Introduction

In 2004, the Howard Liberal Government of Australia amended the Marriage Act of 1961 (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2009). The amendment was specifically aimed at defining marriage so that it excluded any relationships other than those between one man and one woman.1 In doing so, people in nonheterosexual relationships became legally restricted from participating in the institution of marriage. To date, this controversial amendment still stands. However, more recently both political and public debate has arisen over the need to change the Marriage Act so that it no longer excludes non-heterosexual relationships (The Age, 2010). The debate has been fuelled from increasing international pressure, as nations such as Canada, Norway and some states of the U.S.A. lift bans on non -heterosexual marriage, as well as a shifting public attitude towards non-heterosexual marriage. For example, a 2012 public opinion poll conducted as part of a Senate inquiry on marriage equality found that 64% of 276,437 respondents were in support of marriage equality (Australian Marriage Equality, 2012). Nonheterosexual communities have taken varied views towards the issue, with some queer theorists purporting that as marriage is historically an oppressive and cruel institution, nonheterosexual people should take no part in its celebration (see Marsh 2011 for a more comprehensive discussion of this). Overwhelmingly, however, non-heterosexual people have seen the prohibition of marriage as just another instance of discrimination (May, 2011).

Yet despite this slow shift in public attitudes and the desire of many in non-heterosexual communities to marry, resistance to marriage equality continues, including amongst Australian politicians. Many researchers (e.g.. Brow, 2009; Harding & Peel, 2006; Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 2004) have suggested that this ongoing resistance to marriage equality extends far beyond the act of marriage itself, and is instead, at its core, part of a broader heteronormative ideology prevailing in Western society today. The term 'heteronormativity' is derived from Rubin's (1984) theorisation of the sex-gender system, and explains the fact that in Western society the monogamous heterosexual relationship is given the greatest value. According to Rubin, Western society has an implicit, hierarchical system of sexuality, conceptualised in a pyramid-like fashion, whereby social status progressively decreases from the tip to the base, as illustrated in Figure 1. …

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