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Same sex marriage is another step in the process of acceptance, normalisation of relations and growing tolerance, says Lee Duffield (Image supplied)

The contest over the Marriage Law Survey has caused many to get involved whether they want to or not — especially the family and friends of gay Australians, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

UPON OPENING the much-anticipated Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey envelope, my first impulse was that it’s the kind of question mainly to be asked of directly-affected members of the gay community (LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and others), but since they had sent it  to me, I followed a second impulse: to ask around.

Already making a straw poll on other matters, I could ask 30 or so people about the vote, which turned up one notable phenomenon: several were emphatic about voting "Yes" to support gay family members or friends.

There are plenty so closely involved. The ABS has identified 33,700 same sex couples, though campaigners estimate it is many more. Almost all of those will have connections who are not themselves gay and it seems those folks are sharing some intense personal engagement in the decision.

I made my own quick inventory of acquaintances: a former workplace where ten of our 40 staff were gay, most whether gay or "straight" going on to stable relationships and producing several children: a female relative with two children in a same sex relationship, an old friend who lost her partner to illness after a long time together, various students I got to know.

If these people and others like them would like the option of making a marriage, the same as many who are "straight", I felt it should be available and you could help them to get it.

The vote, after all, is just to say whether a marriage should be made possible — straight-forward enough for making a decision.

That is not to ignore more complicated issues kicked up by the Survey exercise, being worked over restlessly in all media: Should those not directly affected be passing judgment on their neighbours who are? Many who experience marriage as a religious sacrament feel the theology prevents them letting others in — but would that change? Those supporting exclusion of gays, as in the "wedding cake" argument, fear there could be increased exposure to anti-discrimination laws — so what? The law should be able to settle those problems clearly enough. Some say this might lead to discrimination against religious or other objectors, as in the "Safe Schools" argument – would not the same anti-discrimination laws, and the common law help out there?

Underneath, those concerns look to be born of concern and worry about the way social relations and power relations have been evolving in general, with the current vote part of a process. Times have changed. The Australian states had decriminalised same sex activity by the mid-1990s (only Tasmania catching up later). I have seen student surveys that indicate media content hostile to gays has diminished over time, suggesting that, in the community at large, there is lessening harassment of those people and no public appetite for stories about it. Same sex marriage then comes along as another step in that process of acceptance, normalisation of relations and growing tolerance.

Those unhappy about the fact of minority sexual identity in the first place, displeased about decriminalisation when it occurred, resentful about the emergence of more "openly gay" individuals, some in high places and prominent in the community, may be worried now it will cost them some competitive advantage in the game of life. So what they say is perversely true: this one little extended marriage entitlement could well mean further alterations in our way of life. The status and legal rights of gay people should be further improved by this and it will be harder to deny them their place in the sun.

That, to me, seems like a call for adjustment: all those "Nos", no matter what happens, will continue wrestling with what is for them, an increasingly uncomfortable world, a lot of the time feeling themselves out of step. LGBT persons, once condemned as outsiders, have taken a lead, but also must go on adjusting to the ambivalent greater society.

It doesn’t take a feat of imagination to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; which of these deserves your backing in the survey?

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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