When Cynthia Nelson first heard about same-sex marriage in San Francisco in the 1980s, she wasn’t sure it was achievable in Australia.
“I didn’t believe it would become legal in my lifetime. In fact, I thought it was an unworthy goal for the LGBT movement – not only unattainable but too conservative, too mainstream,” the Sydney-based author and academic says.
“My thinking changed because my lesbian friends in the US who were mothers to young kids explained how much it meant to their kids – and their kids’ friends – when their families became equal in the eyes of the law.”
Now, three years on from the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia, she is married to poet and author Tricia Dearborn, who she met in 2004 on lesbian dating website Pink Sofa.
Dearborn says when the couple first campaigned for marriage equality together in 2011, they still weren’t sure they wanted to get married.
“But if I decided I did, I wanted to have that option,” she says. “I was totally behind the marriage equality campaign in the lead-up to the postal survey. I still wear my ‘I voted yes’ T-shirt.”
Although more than 60% of of their compatriots voted yes to marriage equality in the 2017 national postal survey, many within the LGBT community still say the accompanying national debate about the validity of their relationships has left scars.
“It was a completely unnecessary, irresponsible, enormous waste of time and money that gave bigots a platform and fostered a debate that traumatised a lot of people,” Dearborn says.
Still, when the House of Representatives voted on 8 December 2017, and all but three MPs in the chamber voted to legalise same-sex marriage (some, including the current prime minister, abstained from the vote), it was an extraordinary sight, she says.
“Cynthia arrived home while the cheering and applause [in parliament] – which went for some time – was still going. We cracked a bottle of bubbly.”
The couple was engaged in November 2019, planning a big 2020 wedding, but then the pandemic hit. Instead, Dearborn and Nelson held a Covid-safe wedding at the end of October in the rotunda in Sydney’s Camperdown Park.
“Friends described it as very ‘us’: fun and spontaneous and full of love. I flubbed a few lines during the ceremony, but even that was fun, seeing our nearest and dearest laughing their heads off, while also crying with joy,” Nelson says.
“The biggest surprise in the lead-up to the wedding was that my mother – who had disowned me when I came out as a lesbian and refused to speak to me for 32 years – wired money for our wedding cake!”
The pair are just one of more than 14,000 same-sex couples who have married in Australia in the past three years.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics released last month showed that in 2018 and 2019 there were 12,045 same-sex marriages, making up 4.8% of all marriages in Australia in 2019.
There were more same-sex marriages in 2019 between women than men (58.9% to 41.1%), and the average age for men to marry was 39.3 years versus 36.5 for women.
Although Nelson and Dearborn defied the odds and married during the pandemic, according to data from the state and territory births deaths and marriages registries, the number of same-sex marriages, and marriages in general, declined significantly in 2020.
Out of the states and territories that provided data for 2020 (all bar South Australia and the ACT), there had been just over 2,000 same-sex marriages as of early November across Australia.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded a 30% decline in the number of marriages in the first six months of 2020, however nearly 10,000 couples – of all genders – still married between April and June, when most of the country was still in lockdown.
Some couples, however, have decided to wait.
Nathan Kerwood and Lachlan McCall, 24 and 30, live and work in Canberra and have been engaged since the end of December 2018.
They had planned a wedding for early September 2020 at St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne, where most of their families are from. A first dance song was chosen, and a deposit was about to be paid in February.
McCall said it was disappointing having to delay the wedding due to the pandemic, but a pretty minor frustration in the scheme of things.
“We were more worried about what was happening across the country. The lockdown was worth it to keep people safe,” he says.
“I have one grandparent left, and making sure she’s safe and can actually come to our wedding – eventually – matters far more than any minor inconvenience.”
To have my marriage recognised by the church is very important to me.
The couple is now planning to marry in September next year, in the same church. McCall is an atheist, but Kerwood’s Christian faith meant it was important to make a commitment before God and the church.
While the Uniting Church recognises same-sex unions, others such as the Anglican Church – Kerwood’s church – have struggled with it since 2017.
“My parish shares in each other’s joys, and sorrows. It is another family, which is just as messy, loving and confusing as our own, and I want to share the joy of marrying Lachlan with them,” he says. “To have my marriage recognised by the church is very important to me for that reason.”
Three weeks ago the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta in north-east Victoria won the support of the church’s appellate tribunal to allow blessings of same-sex unions. The original decision of the diocese last year was controversial and led to the attempted appeal to overturn it.
A hangover from the marriage equality debate is the federal government’s long-promised religious freedom bill, which goes far beyond just which marriages are recognised by the church. The bill would allow medical practitioners to refuse service on the grounds of their belief, provided it wasn’t against the law, and venues linked to religious organisations to discriminate based on religion.
The draft legislation was released for public debate late last year, but also stalled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The attorney general, Christian Porter, said in a statement: “The government will revisit its legislative program as the situation develops, and bring the religious discrimination bill forward at an appropriate time.”
Kerwood says he is tired of the debate.
“We have been very fortunate to work with an affirming church and every vendor we have talked to has been happy to work with us – but that’s probably due to us being married in a large metropolitan city,” he says.
“There’s a concern there may be issues in the future, like when we start a family and enrol our kids in school. We don’t want prejudice limiting any opportunities for our kids.”
The legalisation of marriage equality also allowed same-sex couples who married overseas to get divorced in Australia, but there seems to have been little pent-up demand – the ABS reported in 2018 and 2019 there were just 182 same-sex divorces, making up less than 1% of all divorces.