The Sydney Morning Herald recently published an opinion piece by Patrick Parkinson titled ‘About time we all cared more about marriage‘, in which he argued that allowing same-sex couples to marry will diminish the institution of marriage. Our government should be doing more to promote and support marriage, he asserted, because it is “by far the most stable, safe and nurturing form of relationship in which to raise children.”
While many of Parkinson’s assertions are flawed, including denying same sex-couples the right to marry does not constitute discrimination, I do agree with his claim that marriage can be a very stable and nurturing environment in which to raise children. It is for this reason that same-sex couples should be permitted to marry.
The latest census data reveals that there are 6,120 children in Australia being raised by parents in a same-sex relationship. The actual figure may well be higher as there are likely to be gays and lesbians who did not specify their relationship status on the census, for fear of discrimination.
Unfortunately, we still live in a society where gays and lesbians are subjected to attacks and vilification because of their sexual orientation. The arrest on Thursday night of Daniel Folkes from the Channel 10 TV show The Shire, for allegedly urinating on a man while two other cast members held him down and shouted homophobic insults is evidence of the risks and dangers that gay people still face.
So a minimum of 6,120 Aussie kids are being denied the right to be brought up in a married household, because of the fact that we only allow heterosexual couples to wed. It is these 6,120 children we should be thinking more about, rather than any ungrounded fears about what allowing same-sex couples to marry will do to the institution of marriage.
What do we, as a society, say to these 6,120 kids when they ask why their parents aren’t allowed to marry? And how can we claim that society should not treat these children differently, when the government treats them differently, saying their families are not entitled to the sanctity and respect that comes with the institution of marriage?
Last year, a young child was refused enrolment in a Catholic school because she had two mums, and this is unfortunately not an isolated case. Unfortunately, there are people within our community who think they are justified in discriminating against these children and their families, because that is what the government is doing when it maintains the position that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual institution.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child – which Australia has ratified – says that we must make decisions with the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration. But when we deny a child’s parents the right to marry, we are not acting in the children’s best interests. When we say Penny Wong and Sophie Allouache are not allowed to marry, we are not acting in their daughter Alexandra’s best interests.
Our laws already allow same-sex couples to access fertility services and become parents in a variety of other ways, including adoption and foster care. This is because the research overwhelmingly demonstrates that same-sex couples make as good (or as bad) parents as opposite sex couples, in other words, the sexual orientation of parents has no negative impact on their children.
However, what does have a negative impact on children is treating them like second-class citizens. What does have a negative impact is privileging children in heterosexual families over children in same-sex families. What does have a negative impact on children is discrimination.
The Federal Government has removed the vast majority of legal distinctions between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples, including those relating to social security, income tax and superannuation. It is now time to take that last step and also remove the distinction related to loving relationships between consenting adults who wish to commit to each other for life, and possibly raise children together.
There are numerous countries around the world that have already legalised same-sex marriage, some more than a decade ago, and the evidence clearly demonstrates that the institution of marriage has not reduced in significance in those counties. If anything, respecting the human right of sexual minorities to marry elevates the institution of marriage to a higher level.
Nelson Mandela said it best:
There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.
It is time we as a society started to treat all our children better. And one way we can do this is by allowing same-sex couples to marry so that those 6,120 children recorded on the latest census have the same opportunity to be raised by married parents as their counterparts with heterosexual parents.
Dr Paula Gerber is an Associate Professor and the Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law in the Faculty of Law at Monash University.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation.