With the recent news that the NSW Parliament’s Legislative Council has voted down a Bill by a single vote that sought to make marriage legal for same sex couples in NSW, and the ACT facing down a fast tracked High Court Challenge to its marriage equality laws, it’s clear that same sex marriage is a red hot political issue.
This growing acceptance of same sex relationships and families in the community is reflected in ABS census statistics which show a 72% increase in the number of same sex couples in Australia in the decade from 2001-2011 – clearly a consequence of both an actual increase in the number of same sex couples but also an increase in the willingness of same sex couples to report their relationships. And these numbers do not include LGBT people who are single or did not live together as of a couple at the time of the census. Polling suggests that the Australian community is also firmly in favour of same sex marriage. A poll conducted in August by Fairfax Media and Nielson Polling found that 65% of respondents supported legalising marriage between same sex couples, up 8 points since December 2011, while only 28% were opposed (down 7 points).
The inability of governments to keep up with changing public opinion on marriage is fortunately not reflected in other areas of the law. Legal protections for LGBTI people have moved ahead in leaps and bounds in recent years with the former federal government coming very close to finishing the job in terms of law reform last year with new discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, and after amending 84 laws in late 2008 which still discriminated against same sex couples in a wide range of areas including taxation, social security, employment, Medicare, veteran’s affairs, superannuation, worker’s compensation and family law. Sexual orientation is now also included in anti-discrimination legislation in each state and territory and same-sex couples can adopt children in New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT.
But despite increasing community acceptance and comprehensive law reform across Australia, same sex marriage remains frustratingly elusive.
It is clear that marriage has become a lightning rod issue for the LGBT community. Whether an individual couple wants to get married or not, marriage is clearly a civil, not a religious institution in modern Australia which all couples should be equally able to enjoy. Indeed, new ABS figures released this week show that nearly three quarters of marriages (72%) in Australia are now conducted by civil celebrants. Gay men and lesbians want to be able to celebrate and publically affirm their relationships for all the same reasons that heterosexual couples do – because they love each other deeply and want to share their love, their commitment and their hopes and dreams for a life together in the same way as their parents, their siblings, their neighbours, their friends and their workmates.
For Australian businesses, there has perhaps been a view that marriage is a private issue that is not top of the list in terms of workplace issues facing LGBT employees. And while lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and especially transgender people continue to face discrimination and bias in many workplaces, there is perhaps some merit in this argument.
However, in the U.S. where the issue has been a source of even greater public discussion, corporate America has well and truly weighed in to the marriage debate with companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Gap, Google, Levi Strauss, McGraw-Hill, Microsoft, Nike, Nokia, Starbucks, Xerox and Yahoo publicly giving their support to the cause. While in general the Australian business community has been less vocal, the lobby group Australian Marriage Equality has compiled a list of Australian employers to also declare who support same sex marriage.
For these companies and others like them in Australia, their public support for marriage equality could been seen as simply chasing the ‘pink dollar’. And there is no doubt that many lesbian and gay couples are important in strategic marketing terms. The recent AMP.NATSEM Report Modern Family shows that both gay male couples (48.6%) and lesbian couples (40.4%) are more likely to both be employed full-time than opposite-sex couples (21.5%) and that the incomes of same-sex couple families are generally higher than those of opposite-sex couple families. This is mostly due to the younger age profile of same sex couples, but for businesses looking to niche markets, it is an important consideration.
But it’s not just about the bottom line. While there are a range of recognised business case benefits for the full inclusion of LGBTI employees, it is important that companies stand up publicly for their values, and their employees, even when there’s a (small) risk of negative publicity from some quarters. And that means taking a stand on issues like same sex marriage.
The primary aim of a genuine diversity and inclusion agenda has to be that employees can bring their whole selves to work. A new study recently published by researchers from the Berkley and Cornell Schools of Business affirms that work environments that (explicitly or implicitly) encourage people to conceal their sexual orientation have impacts on employees’ intellectual acuity, physical strength, and interpersonal skills – skills critical to workplace success. The study found that even when employers adopted a ‘don’t ask: don’t tell’ policy by not directly inquiring about employees’ sexual orientation there was potential for significant harm to employees. The researchers concluded that “[e]stablishing a workplace climate that encourages openness by supporting diversity may be one of the easiest ways to enhance workplace productivity.”
While Australian parliaments continue to refuse to legalise same sex marriage, it sends a message that some relationships are less important than others. And this means that people in gay and lesbian relationships will continue to be discouraged from being themselves at work. Recent U.S. research by UCLA Law School, found that nearly a quarter (23.8%) of lesbian and gay employees and almost half (48.8%) of bisexual people were not out to anyone at work.
Changing our laws will not make people change their minds about the validity and value of same-sex relationships. (Although, as the saying goes, if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry one!). But as was recently said in the debate in the NSW Parliament, “No Australian should be told by their government that their choice is less worthy, their commitment less enduring, their relationship less valid, simply because the person they love is the same gender as they are.”
Businesses, as key civil institutions, can send an important message about why equality, tolerance and inclusion are essential to our community. The movement for same sex marriage is marching ahead with increasing momentum. And beginning to look unstoppable. Now we just need our parliaments to catch up.
This was first published at DCA.org.au. It is republished here with permission.